Sen. Mike Enzi announces his retirement during a press conference at Gillette City Hall on May 4. 

With Sen. Mike Enzi’s announced retirement 18 months ahead of the 2020 elections, the stage has been set for what could become a primary contest as crowded as the one seen in the 2018 governor’s race.

Afforded a year-and-a-half’s time to plan and fundraise, plenty of dreamers and prospective candidates have ample time to prepare themselves for campaign season, assemble teams and identify potential financiers.

While last year’s governor’s race may appear to provide the perfect template for a modern, open-seat race in Wyoming, two staffers on Sen. John Barrasso’s losing 1996 campaign (the one he lost to Enzi) say that the lessons of that year should not easily be forgotten.

When Al Simpson announced his retirement in Nov. 1995 – following the election of Sen. Craig Thomas the year before — a “stampede” of nine candidates put their names forward for the 1996 Republican nomination, said longtime GOP strategist Dave Picard, creating a large and enthusiastic field.

With Mike Enzi retiring, Wyoming's first open Senate seat in decades could attract big names

“It was a huge field of candidates,” said Picard. “One, because the president was still the president – so you could still run against the president in Wyoming, much like you could in 1994. And it’s a winning message. There were numerous well-spoken statesmen around the state and ultimately, what it created was a nine-person Republican primary.”

Barrasso announced relatively early and, as the state party’s national committeeman to the RNC since the late-‘80s, had begun crafting a team well ahead of the primary. Enzi, a Simpson recruit and the former mayor of Gillette, also threw in his hat, as did Goshen County Republican Curt Meier.

While Meier was in the running, it was Enzi and Barrasso who were the clear favorites, with proven track records and years of service to the state party. That’s when Meier decided to go on the offensive, looking to cut the legs out from underneath Barrasso.

Unfortunately for Meier, the strategy ultimately helped push Enzi – not Meier – over the finish line.

“He did Enzi’s dirty work,” Rob Jennings, a GOP fundraiser who worked on Barrasso’s campaign, said.

Something similar happened during the 2018 campaign, he noted, when businessman Sam Galeotos – one of the early favorites in the race — attempted something similar. Rather than helping himself by going negative, his poll numbers dropped, helping to boost the profile of Harriett Hageman and Foster Friess in what was essentially a cannibalistic conservative electorate.

Jennings said there are two lessons to be learned from both campaigns: that there is a hardline conservative base in the state, and that someone could potentially take advantage of it to some success. The key though, is to make sure that base is united.

“In the governor’s race, the state’s conservatives essentially cancelled themselves out,” said Jennings. “They had Taylor Haynes, Harriet Hageman, Foster Friess and Sam Galeotos, arguably, all aiming for the same voters.”

“That’s going to be the real challenge – how to coalesce all the state’s conservatives behind one candidate,” he added.

Mark Gordon's chief of staff announces retirement

However it may seem like it, though, the Republican primary is not the same as the general election and, if Republicans really want to beat the Democrats, they need a candidate who can appeal to moderates as well as be palatable enough to conservative voters to win the primary.

“I’m a conservative. But I’m also pragmatic,” said Jennings. “What I would really like to see is someone who could bridge the gap like Mike Enzi. I want a guy that can talk to a Anthony Bouchard or a Charlie Scott, all while staying on principle. That’s the role of a real leader inside the state party. These guys now in the Republican Party who are trying to run all these purity tests… that’s not the way to go. You turn people off more than you bring them into the fold.”

Wyoming one of nine states to see a decrease in tax collections since the recession: According to new data from the Pew Charitable Trusts, Wyoming is currently one of just a handful of states taking in less revenue than it had prior to the Great Recession of 2008. Only Alaska has done worse, the data shows.

Last week’s information comes at an interesting time for Wyoming. While most states around the nation are seeing higher revenues than they ever have, Wyoming lawmakers are currently struggling to find solutions to pay the state’s bills, coming off a session filled with failed proposals to raise revenue and facing a budget session in 2020 likely to be marred by additional budget cuts on top of millions of dollars in spending reductions several years ago.

The lag might be explained by Wyoming’s energy-heavy revenue streams: according to Pew, states who lagged below recession-era peaks did so for a variety of reasons, including tax cuts, weak economic growth, volatile energy prices or unusually high tax revenue peaks just before the downturn.

The Week Ahead

Monday: Joint Corporations Committee meets in Casper. Gov. Mark Gordon signs a proclamation declaring ‘Military May’ Armed Forces Day in Cheyenne.

Tuesday: Joint Committee on Transportation meets in Gillette. Wyoming Oil and Gas Commission meets in Casper.

Wednesday: Gordon joins the Wyoming Sage Grouse Implementation Team meeting in Cheyenne to discuss planning for a new Executive Order.

Thursday: University of Wyoming Board of Trustees meets in Laramie. Gordon will be in attendance.

Friday: None.

Weekend: Gordon delivers the commencement address to graduates of Laramie Community College in Cheyenne on Saturday.

Have an event you’d like highlighted here? Email me with the date, time, and place!

Wyoming Politics

Wyoming Department of Homeland Security Director Lynn Budd was in Washington D.C. this past week to testify before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on Wyoming’s relationship with federal partners like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as it relates to flooding and other water related issues.

In her testimony, she highlighted three areas around the state – the Snake River System, the Glendo Reservoir and the Big Horn Reservoir – as areas where there could be improved collaboration between the state and federal government, and emphasized the importance of adequate funding to address threats like invasive species and flood prevention.

You can read her entire testimony here.

Wyoming governor seeks solution on quandary over big game migration corridors: Gov. Mark Gordon is pulling together a citizen’s group to help find a happy medium between energy and conservation interests seeking regulatory certainty around migration corridors in the southwestern quadrant of the state, his office announced Tuesday. (via Trib.com)

Nichols ouster continues pattern of secrecy for UW trustees: Cloaked in a veil of secrecy that the University of Wyoming Board of Trustees shows no signs of lifting, the decision to demote President Laurie Nichols has driven frustration and rumors on campus and around the state. (via The Laramie Boomerang)

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Former Wyoming Rep. Cynthia Lummis considering 2020 Senate bid to replace Enzi: Former Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis is seriously weighing a bid to replace outgoing Sen. Mike Enzi in the 2020 elections, several sources told the Star-Tribune this week. (via Trib.com)

Around Wyoming

Converse County destroys property valuation record, up 150% over last year: Due to increased activity in the oil and gas sector, Converse County has broken its all-time valuation record, reporting a valuation of $2.05 billion — 150 percent above last year’s $1.36 billion. However, the boom times have also had downsides, doubling the burden on emergency services in the area from the bust times of 2016. (via The Douglas Budget)

Classical Academy advances modular school plan: The Jackson Hole Classical Academy is taking steps to build a temporary modular campus in South Park, with plans to open to students in the fall. The Academy has been searching for a permanent home for years and, after Teton County commissioners rejected the school’s request to amend its zoning laws to allow a gym and auditorium, the Academy successfully pushed Wyoming state legislators to approve a law that exempts private schools from county zoning authority. (via The Jackson Hole News & Guide)

UW board announces names of three interim presidential candidates: The University of Wyoming board of trustees announced three candidates — all current or former UW vice presidents — Friday morning to take over on an interim basis for President Laurie Nichols after her contract expires June 30. (via Trib.com)

After Shopko: Can local businesses fill the void? On June 16, Powell’s Shopko will close its doors for good. However, the Wyoming Business Council, Powell Economic Partnership and others are developing a plan to help existing local businesses and new entrepreneurs in the community satisfy the retail vacuum that will follow the Shopko closure. (via The Powell Tribune)

After years as a political afterthought, the Rocky Mountain region is finally starting to gain notice on the national stage.

Several Democrats from states like Colorado and Montana have jumped into the presidential race and states like New Mexico and Nevada – thought to be safely in Democratic hands – are now branded by President Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign as “flippable.”

While coastal concerns will dominate the conversation – with candidates reliably appealing to the rust belt sensibilities of voters in the Great Lakes – states like Utah and Idaho continue to grow at a rapid pace, with their rise likely to shift additional political power westward following the 2020 census.

“The Mountain West — marked by its different philosophical outlook — seems to be a hot ticket,” Liz Mair, a Republican political strategist, wrote in the New York Times this past week. “This presidential election will give the parties a chance to figure out how to appeal to the area’s voters instead of just being the less bad option for them in that particular cycle.”

Meanwhile, at least one of the East Coast presidential candidates have floated policies tailored to appeal to voters in Rocky Mountain states. Several weeks ago, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren released an extensive public lands plan – the first “mainstream” presidential candidate to do so – that, among other things, would place a moratorium on drilling on public lands and emphasize conservation over development.

Sen. John Barrasso held a hearing on tribal issues in the Senate, asking questions about transportation programs and health care options in Indian country. He also co-sponsored several bills, including the Rural Physician Workforce Production Act of 2019 which provides “invaluable new federal support for rural residency training, which will help alleviate physician shortages in rural communities.”

Sen. Mike Enzi co-sponsored a resolution condemning all forms of anti-Semitism.

Rep. Liz Cheney spent most of the week fighting off questions about a potential run to replace outgoing Sen. Mike Enzi in the U.S. Senate. Despite the distraction, the Congresswoman had time to co-sponsor several bills on various public lands issues as well as get into a Twitter spat with Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, calling her “an anti-Semitic Socialist who slanders US troops and carries water for Hamas and Maduro.”

Have any tips or suggestions to make this newsletter better? Let me know! Call me at 307-266-0634, email me at nick.reynolds@trib.com or follow me on Twitter, <&underline>@IAmNickReynolds</&underline>

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Politics Reporter

Nick Reynolds covers state politics and policy. A native of Central New York, he has spent his career covering governments big and small, and several Congressional campaigns. He graduated from the State University of New York at Brockport in 2015.

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