Wyoming made international headlines last year when an investigation revealed it was a haven for offshore money.
To change the state’s image, lawmakers tried to raise the annual filing fee for limited liability companies from $50 to $75. The nominal increase was meant to try to deter seedy characters such as Russian oligarchs from using Wyoming’s laws to move cash.
But Wyoming Secretary of State Ed Murray, whose office registers businesses, attacked the bill in a vociferous social media campaign.
“We are at a pivotal time in the history of our state with the need to diversify and grow our economy and exit our boom/bust cycles,” Murray wrote in a Jan. 31 op-ed in the Star-Tribune. “We must nurture and protect our ‘business friendly’ climate — not only for our existing businesses but in order to attract and encourage new business formation and entrepreneurship in Wyoming.”
Murray’s ultimately successful no-holds-barred advertising to stop the legislation took lawmakers by surprise and led many to the same conclusion: He was positioning himself to run for higher office.
“That kind of points toward the governor’s race,” said state Rep. Tyler Lindholm, a Sundance Republican.
In a recent interview, Murray did not confirm or deny lawmakers’ suspicions. He said he arrived at the secretary’s job from the private sector and has seen a lot of dysfunction in state government. He’s considering how he can best serve the people of Wyoming.
“I’m open to the possibility, but I’m waiting until later this year to decide whether or not to run for governor,” he said. “And I’m not going to rush it, that decision.”
The 2018 primary is 17 months away. Yet with Gov. Matt Mead saying he’s not interested in challenging the law that limits him to two terms, the race will be wide open.
People considering a run have been talking to other prominent members of their political parties. They’re asking who they can count on for support and what people are saying about them.
“I have visited extensively with more than one,” said Sen. Ogden Driskill, of Devils Tower, who did not reveal names.
In addition to Murray, prospective Republican candidates, according to members of the party who talked to the Star-Tribune, include former U.S. congresswoman Cynthia Lummis, Wyoming State Treasurer Mark Gordon, former Wyoming House speaker Ed Buchanan, 2016 U.S. House candidate Darin Smith and 2014 gubernatorial candidate Taylor Haynes.
Lummis was unavailable to comment for this story, said Annaliese Wiederspahn, a Republican strategist and Lummis’ daughter. Last year, she said she was not ruling out a bid for governor.
In a message, Gordon described projects he’s working on as state treasurer. He said earning Wyoming money in that role “is my first priority.”
He didn’t explicitly say whether or not he’s in the race.
Smith, a Cheyenne attorney who works on humanitarian issues for the Christian Broadcasting Network, said friends have talked to him about entering the race. He hasn’t given it much thought, he said.
“As of now, I’m not planning to run,” he said.
Haynes didn’t return a message.
Buchanan said he currently has no plans to run for governor in 2018.
“My motto in politics has always been to never say never, and it’s pretty early, in my estimation anyway, to make any decisions on that,” he said.
For a time, Republicans said that Wyoming GOP Chairman Matt Micheli would enter the race, but he said he is not running.
Insiders offered a handful of names on the Democratic side, including former state legislator Mary Throne, Sen. Chris Rothfuss of Laramie, 2016 U.S. House candidate Ryan Greene and former Wyoming Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources director and current Wyoming director of the Nature Conservancy Milward Simpson.
Throne, a natural resources attorney in Cheyenne, said she’s exploring the possibility.
“I think we have a lot of strong Democratic potential candidates,” she said. “And I think we want to have a strong candidate. I have heard a lot of people say to me the state seems to function better when we have a Democratic governor.”
Three of Wyoming’s past five governors have been Democrats, including Edgar Herschler, Mike Sullivan and Dave Freudenthal.
Rothfuss said he’s leaning toward seeking another term in the state Senate.
Greene said he hasn’t ruled out a governor’s race.
Simpson said he’s not currently thinking about seeking the position.
Potential problems in the Trump administration may bode well for the state’s minority party.
“Given this administration and the performance of Congress over the last few months, I would say this may be a strong opportunity for Democrats, even in red states like Wyoming, to make gains,” said state Rep. Charles Pelkey, a Laramie Democrat.
Lummis, Gordon and Murray all have personal wealth that could make the race expensive and give pause to others considering throwing in their names.
Typically, a well-run governor’s race in Wyoming costs between $750,000 to $1.5 million. A serious candidate should have at least five employees and volunteers in every county, said Bill Novotny, a Buffalo Republican who managed Mead’s campaign in 2010 when the field was open.
In 2018, political expenditures could be higher, said Driskill, the state senator.
“I expect it to be in excess of $1 million, probably in the $2 million to $3 million range,” he said.
Lummis, a rancher and attorney who has other business holdings, had a net worth of $48 million in 2008, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, making her one of the richest members of Congress at the time.
The organization estimated her net worth to be around $11 million in 2014.
Before serving as a U.S. representative, Lummis was state treasurer and a member of the Wyoming Legislature.
It’s harder to pinpoint state officials’ wealth. State law doesn’t require them to provide dollar figures of their assets.
A financial disclosure form that Murray, a Cheyenne real estate developer, submitted showed he is involved in 16 business entities, including being president of Harmony Homes and Polaris Properties.
Gordon, the state treasurer who also was a Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City director, is on the boards of three ranching companies in Johnson County. He also lists the movie theater in downtown Buffalo as a business enterprise.
Name recognition is key to winning a political race.
In that respect, Lummis has the advantage.
“She’s the elephant in the room when it comes to this Republican primary,” said Lindholm, the Sundance lawmaker. “Without a doubt, Cynthia is one of the most successful politicians we’ve seen in the state. If she jumps into the race, there will be individuals who step back, and rightfully so. She’s a titan.”
And Lummis has cash remaining from her last race for Congress, said Bill Cubin, a Casper CPA who is treasurer of the Lummis for Congress campaign committee.
It would be fairly easy, from a legal and accounting standpoint, to transfer that money into an account for a state race, he said.
“She has a quarter of a million in cash right now,” he said. “That’s a good start, but when you look at this campaign and potential candidates, that will get you to first base.”
In recent election cycles, the candidates who spent the most in statewide races have been the ones who slid to the finish as victors.
Money is important, but Cubin noted that in the 2008 U.S. House primary, Gordon outspent Lummis nearly 3 to 1. Still, Lummis won because of her name recognition and statewide network of support, Cubin said.
“I think it is a $2 million race,” he said. “If Cynthia decides to run, she won’t have to spend $2 million. But she’s going to be attacked, and she’s going to have to spend a lot of money to defend herself. Otherwise, those attacks sit out there, and people start to believe them.”
Lummis, Gordon and Murray each have vulnerabilities.
Lummis was a member of the House Freedom Caucus, which fought the establishment Republicans in Congress.
The affiliation could work for or against her.
If current members of the Freedom Caucus can’t buck the establishment, or if Trump fails to deliver on promises to boost energy production and bring jobs, she will have to back away from those ties, said Novotny, who has managed GOP campaigns in Wyoming and across the U.S.
With Republicans in control of Congress and the White House, candidates cannot continue beat the drum about how the Democrats are failing the country. A winning message will be ideas for how the state can generate revenue and solve its fiscal slump, Novotny said.
“The pounding on the table and being anti-Clinton and anti-Pelosi is not really a message that’s going to resonate,” he said.
In the 2008 campaign for U.S. House, Gordon was hammered for $6,500 in donations he made to the Democratic Central Committee and Democratic candidates, including the 2004 presidential candidacy of John Kerry.
To refute attacks that he’s too liberal in deeply red Wyoming, Gordon must point to his work of managing the state’s funds for investment income — sorely needed when revenues have plunged, Novotny said.
“You have to look at his track record for the state,” he said. “He’s a fiscal conservative.”
Tensions between the Legislature and Murray smoothed out by the end of the session, when the Senate killed the business registration fees bill and lawmakers decided to study the issue over the months before the 2018 session.
Murray’s biggest challenge is name recognition, said Novotny, who managed Murray’s 2014 secretary of state campaign.
“He’ll have to continue to work on his name identification in relaying why the office of the secretary of state is a good training ground to be governor,” Novotny said. “It’s not enough to say you’ve been the acting lieutenant governor when the governor leaves the state.”
Many Wyomingites are well acquainted with the Lummis and Gordon families. If both candidates enter the race, people will have a tough time choosing whom to support.
“It’s difficult when you’re friends with them, and you have to pick one out of two, three or four people,” said Driskill, who has decided he would support Lummis if she entered the race. “It hurts feelings.”
When Liz Cheney, daughter of the former Vice President Dick Cheney, briefly challenged U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi in 2014, Republicans across the state camped out in two factions. Tensions flared among some GOP establishment families, such as the well-documented feud between the Cheneys and the clan of retired U.S. Sen. Al Simpson.
Rep. Lindholm foresees a Lummis-Gordon race being more divisive “because it’s an open primary,” he said.
The last time Gordon and Lummis faced off, they became closer friends after the election.
And although Gordon’s name has been widely mentioned for governor, the treasurer told Novotny about a month ago that he wasn’t going to run, Novotny said.
“Certainly that doesn’t mean he can’t reconsider,” Novotny said. “We will have folks that are in today, out tomorrow and back in as this thing gels.”
Candidates will formally announce their bids in November, December and January.
The last two governors — Mead and Freudenthal — formerly served as U.S. attorneys for Wyoming, a position that’s currently vacant, Novotny said.
But Novotny noted that it’s still early.
“You’ll have some people who will kick the tires a little bit and decide it’s too much of a commitment of time or treasure,” he said. “And then you’re going to have that dark horse that jumps out of nowhere.”
Regardless of who ultimately runs, political operatives told Star-Tribune the ticket will be hot.
“It will be a fantastic race,” Lindholm said. “You’ll have great candidates, you really will.”