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Ed Herschler

Ed Herschler kicked off a strange, Democratic dominance of Wyoming's governorship when he was elected in the mid-1970s. He's seen here in 1989 on opening day of the Casper Events Center, flanked by then-U.S. Sen. Al Simpson, a Republican.

Happy Monday! Welcome to 307 Politics. I went long in Sunday’s Star-Tribune on what Foster Friess’s entrance has done to the Wyoming governor’s race. It was a fun story to report and I hope you’ll check it out if you haven’t already. As always, you can follow all our political coverage at trib.com/307politics, like us on Facebook.com/307politics or follow us on Twitter @307politics and you can sign up to receive emails with other articles of mine at arno.substack.com. Now onto a favorite subject of mine: the strength of Republican hegemony in the Cowboy State.

Could Mary Throne reign over Wyoming?

Wyoming is very conservative. And that conservatism reflects itself in Republican control of just about every elected office in the state. Democrats hold the fewest legislative seats of any state in the country, the Congressional delegation has been red since the 1970s and virtually every other statewide office has been held by a Republican since the early 1990s. Every statewide office, that is, except for the governorship.

Which is weird! Wyoming voters haven’t trusted a Democrat to serve as state auditor since 1944, according to Ballotpedia. They have only let a single Democrat sneak into the state treasurer's office since 1890. One!

And yet partisanship seems to matter far less for the far more important job of governor. The governor’s mansion has retained a stubbornly blue hue since 1975, when Ed Herschler ended an almost-uninterrupted streak of Republican governors stretching back to the 1930s.

Herschler served an unprecedented three terms as governor before being succeeded by Mike Sullivan, another popular Democrat. Jim Geringer broke the streak for two terms, but a Democrat quickly returned to Cheyenne when Dave Freudenthal oversaw Wyoming during the Bush years.

The pattern here, in case you haven’t noticed, is that Wyoming has not had back-to-back Republican governors since the 1970s.

That was roughly the argument Matt Herdman, who is managing Democrat Mary Throne’s campaign for governor, tossed out a few months ago when I was chatting with him about his plan for victory.

I’m not really a fan of these type of precedents as a means of predicting the future. For example, West Virginia has sent Democrats to Congress for generations, though if Sen. Joe Manchin were to lose his bid for reelection this year it’ll be easy to imagine that state electing nothing but Republicans for generations to come.

Wyoming is not the state it was when Freudenthal was in office and there were almost twice as many Democrats in the Legislature.

But while it’s easy to say that Wyoming has simply become more conservative and that shift has destroyed whatever margin of crossover voters allowed Democrats to win governors races in the past, I don’t want to entirely throw out the precedent argument. For one, Republicans have been talking about it -- which leads me to believe there might be something to the notion that they are genuinely concerned.

Concerned about what? If the comments from speakers at the Wyoming Republican Party convention last month were any indication, about a bruising primary.

“It would be exciting to have two Republican governors in a row — do you know how many years its been since we’ve done that?” said Sen. Mike Enzi. “We don't want to shoot ourselves in the foot on the campaign and lose out.”

(Sidenote: “exciting” is a funny term for avoiding what I think it would be fair to describe as an incredibly embarrassing electoral loss in Republican Wyoming.)

Enzi’s last point, hinting at the impact of a bruising primary battle that turns negative, is a threat to Republicans for multiple reasons. The most obvious is that if GOP candidates spend the summer slinging mud at one another while Throne is able to continue a steady campaign, she’ll emerge in better shape come the fall than whomever the eventual victor of the Republican primary is.

Voters may end up hearing so many attacks on whomever that Republican candidate is that they’ll be turned off from supporting him or her in the general election. But the more insidious impact of a nasty summer fight may be among Republican voters who support a candidate that ends up losing the primary. Those voters, angry at the victor for sinking their favored candidate, may not support the nominee in November or could even back Throne out of spite.

Wyoming Republican Party chairman W. Frank Eathorne said he’s not worried. He reasonably spun the crowded field as a positive for the party -- more advocates for different brands of conservative, Wyoming politics.

And he’s not worried about a fractured party come September.

“I see a rally coming,” Eathorne said. “There are already efforts underway among the candidates to ensure that happens.”

If the Republican nominee does come out of the primary fight bloodied, he or she will face another notable obstacle in November: Donald Trump. It’s not that Trump is unpopular in Wyoming, or liable to saddle the Republican candidate with an unsavory taint as he might in a blue or purple state. Instead, it’s Trump's very popularity in Wyoming that makes it much harder for Republicans to lean on the tried-and-true strategy of running against the federal government.

It’s true that entrenched policies at the agency level don’t disappear overnight when a Republican moves into the White House, but with Trump there and the GOP in control of Congress and the Supreme Court, it becomes far more difficult to claim that Wyoming is being oppressed by Washington.

Of course, even with those same factors working in favor of Democrats in 2002, it took a charismatic and politically-savvy Freudenthal, a former U.S. attorney, to score a win. Though friendly to energy interests, Throne is no Freudenthal and comes with a lengthy voting record from her years in the Legislature that arguably makes her a weaker general election candidate.

That said, I’ve done extended interviews with Throne three times, each a few months apart, since she announced in August and she appears to have made steady progress in clarifying her message and sharpening her attacks since we first spoke.

Throne sat down with a group of reporters at the Star-Tribune last week and presented a polished argument in her favor, essentially saying that she was the only candidate unbeholden to a rigid Republican base and thus free to honestly confront the state’s volatile economy while maintaining public services. She mocked her opponents for repeating platitudes about “living within our means” and combating the “War on the West.”

“That’s all phony,” she said.

I still think there are some obvious flaws in Throne’s candidacy -- when Democrats really need to run a perfect candidate to win statewide -- but with an almost night-and-day improvement in her presentation over the seven months since she entered the race, Republicans may be wise to keep the primary civil.

(Roundup will return.)

Arno Rosenfeld covers state politics.

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