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Liz Cheney

Jackson doctor and author Mary Neal may run against Wyoming's U.S. House Rep. Liz Cheney, pictured, next year.

Happy Monday and welcome to 307 Politics! Last week was busy on the political front. Democrat Doug Jones won an open Senate seat in Alabama, an incredibly conservative state but arguably one more friendly to Democrats than Wyoming (more on that below). Back in the Cowboy State, former House candidate Gary Trauner -- who almost beat Barbara Cubin in 2006 -- announced he’ll be challenging Sen. John Barrasso next year. The Wyoming Department of Health is staring down a major budget deficit and is slashing funding for suicide prevention. Oh, and the mayor of Casper lost her memory for a few days. Considering the past year of politics at home and across the country, who can blame her?

ANOTHER MARY IN 2018? -- Jackson surgeon and author Mary Neal is considering a run against Wyoming’s lone U.S. House Rep. Liz Cheney, a Republican. Neal confirmed her interest in the race to the Star-Tribune, but said she is far from making a final decision.

“It’s something I’m prayerfully considering,” Neal told me. But, she pointed out, I had reached out to her and not the other way around.

Neal said she supports some policies of both political parties and is unsure whether she would run against Cheney in the GOP primary or run as Democrat to face her in the general election. But according to Federal Election Commission records, Neal and donated $1,800 to Barack Obama and $2,250 to Gary Trauner and no money to Republican candidates.

That doesn’t necessarily mean she’s a die-hard Democrat, but it does mean she would open herself up to attacks in a Republican primary, much like now-State Treasurer Mark Gordon did for past donations to John Kerry and Trauner when he ran for the House in 2008.

Plus, while Neal says that both Democrats and Republicans have tried to recruit her to run for political office in recent years, it makes far more sense that Democrats would want her to take a run at Cheney next year.

Cheney won her House seat with 60 percent of the vote last year, underperforming Donald Trump by about 8 points. Democrat Ryan Greene scooped up about 30 percent and third-party candidates accounted for the rest.

Any underperforming candidate in a state that tends to consistently elect candidates from a single party, like Wyoming, is a natural target for flipping seats.

(Roy Moore, the Republican Alabama Senate candidate who lost to Democrat Doug Jones last week, received about 20 percent fewer votes than Mitt Romney in 2012, when Moore was running for the state supreme court.)

And Neal is a compelling candidate. In addition to her day job as an orthopaedic surgeon, Neal has written two best-selling books about drowning during a kayaking accident in South America and... visiting heaven.

“She went to heaven and back, conversed with Jesus and experienced God’s encompassing love,” according to the biography on her website. “Her life has been one filled with the miracles and intervention of God.”

Her story has been especially popular with evangelical media outlets that tend to skew hard to the right politically, including the Christian Broadcasting Network and Christianity Today magazine.

Neal’s deep faith and experience speaking to these communities may give her credibility with some conservative voters in Wyoming.

But in our conversation last week, Neal did not dwell on religion or partisan politics. She spoke of frustration with the political process, said the federal government wasn’t working for the people and criticized Wyoming’s congressional delegation for putting party over policies.

Neal said she believed Democrats and Republicans both shared responsibility for the failures of government and specifically lashed out at “career politicians.” Cheney, who was first elected to political office last year, isn’t quite a career politician but Neal said she came close enough.

“She’s had a life in politics. She is going to continue to have a life in politics. Her family has had a life in politics,” Neal said. “I don't believe that's appropriate.”

And?

“I also find it frustrating that, although obviously Liz’s family has long-term ties with Wyoming, she’s not really from Wyoming.”

There it is.

Neal did hasten to add that she respected Cheney and her family. She declined to detail specific policies or positions that Cheney or Wyoming’s two U.S. senators have taken that she thinks are wrong for the state. But Neal said that if and when she decides to run, she will make those clear.

Neal said she has lived in Wyoming for about 20 years. She was born in Michigan and graduated from the University of Kentucky before attending medical school at the University of California, Los Angeles.

But during her 11 months in office, Cheney has positioned herself well for reelection, even in a race against charismatic doctor with cross-over political appeal. Cheney has gotten to work on major legislation, including items related to the Bureau of Land Management and energy development in the state and national security issues. She’s also a frequent presence in the state, traveling to community events on weekends and during Congressional recesses.

***

DOUG JONES IN WYOMING -- If it was up to majority white voters, Republicans would control almost all levels of government in the United States. Trump lost the popular vote 46 percent to Hillary Clinton’s 48 percent. But he won it among white voters 57 percent to 37 percent.

Romney won 59 percent of the white vote in 2012. John McCain won 55 percent in 2008.

Exit polls are conducted less frequently in state and local races, but when they are, these patterns remain consistent. Most white people, in most places, vote for Republicans.

The reasons behind this are debated, but generally date back to the 1960s when the Democrats became the party of civil rights, alienating southern Democratic politicians and accelerated in the 1980s when Ronald Reagan swept into office with the so-called southern strategy that relied on convincing white voters that Democrats were interested in giving welfare to undeserving minorities.

In any case, Democratic success in historically Republican states like Virginia and North Carolina generally rely on what is euphemistically referred to as “changing demographics.” That is, white people making up a shrinking share of the population, usually as the share of the Hispanic population increases.

In Alabama, Jones’ win was less about changing demographics than about encouraging an existing non-white population in the state -- African Americans -- to turn out in especially high numbers for the special election.

This whole demographic issue is part of what makes it so difficult for Democrats to win in Wyoming. The Cowboy State is, in a word, very white: 93 percent white, to be precise, according to 2016 U.S. Census data.

Wyoming also has relatively few of the other groups that tend to lean left, such as young professionals or religious minorities such as Jews or Muslims. In many conservative states, college towns are liberal enclaves. Wyoming only has one college town -- and it’s relatively small.

That means there aren’t natural, Democratic-leaning constituencies for the party to turnout in statewide races or even upon which to construct a meaningful floor of, say, 40 percent of the vote. Instead, the consistent Democratic vote statewide tends to sit between 20 and 30 percent, meaning any non-Republican candidate hoping to be successful must count on convincing a massive number of Republican voters to cross party lines.

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That’s an increasingly tough sell in today’s hyper-partisan political environment and a big reason that we shouldn’t expect to see any major upsets in the Cowboy State next year. Though, of course, never say never.

Round up

BARRASSO: PELOSI 'UNHINGED' -- Barrasso, the Senate's fourth-ranking Republican, attacked House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for her comments about the GOP tax bill.

-- "Nancy Pelosi has said it is the end of the world and this is Armageddon," Barrasso told a New York City radio station. "The statements are almost unhinged. People like Nancy Pelosi run for office so they can basically try to grow the government ... For her it may sound like Armageddon, but for me it sounds like freedom."

TAME GOVERNORS -- The Western Governors' Association (Gov. Matt Mead is a member) issued a resolution on wild horses last week with about the most mild recommendation imaginable. 

-- "We support thoughtful, appropriate and science-based management decisions for wild horse and burro management," it reads in part. There's more interesting stuff in the full thing. But it's still mild.

TRICKLE, TRICKLE -- U.S. House Rep. Liz Cheney was in Cody last week talking to veterans when she reiterated the common Republican argument that tax cuts will pay for themselves.

-- "I think the economy really takes off once we’re able to get people’s taxes lower,” she said.

I MEAN, I GUESS -- Enzi wrote an op-ed for the Wyoming Tribune Eagle with a lot of questions for readers about what kind of tax plan they would like (spoiler: Enzi claims the Senate bill achieves all the things he is asking about).

-- "If you were to wish for a tax reform bill, would you want lower taxes across the board and more money in people’s pockets? Would you want reforms that simplify taxes?" Enzi writes. "Reforms that help grow the economy and create more jobs? Help small businesses in our communities thrive? Encourage companies to create jobs in America instead of going overseas? And for companies that do business around the world, get them to invest their money back in the United States?"

ENDOW'S STRUGGLE -- Wyoming Public Radio's Bob Beck put together a piece on Endow, Mead's economic diversification effort.

-- "For it to be a complete success, ENDOW may have to solve a couple of sticky problems," Beck observes in what is certain the least that can be said about Endow's uphill battle.

BIOFUELS AT W.H. -- Enzi attended a meeting about biofuels at the White House two weeks ago to discuss issues with the Renewable Fuel Standard with Trump and cabinet officials.

-- "(T)he decade-old RFS has created fierce, politically fraught policy battles between lawmakers allied with the refining industry and a separate group carrying the mantle of midwestern farming and biofuels interests," writes Axios' Ben Geman.

VET TURNS 100 -- World War II veteran and Pearl Harbor survivor Clarence Varos turned 100 earlier this month. Varos later worked for the Union Pacific Railroad and was honored by Cheney at a Cheyenne ceremony.

-- "His sacrifice, bravery, and grit are an example to us all," Cheney said.

That's all for now, folks. As always, send tips and thoughts to arno.rosenfeld@trib.com, keep up with Star-Tribune political coverage at trib.com/307politics and sign-up for this email newsletter or others at trib.com/email.

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Arno Rosenfeld covers state politics.

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