Politics is a blood sport, and sharks will circle at the slightest sign of weakness. But John Barrasso isn’t weak, and the sharks seem to be swarming anyway.
Within the course of just a few days last week, two potentially serious conservative contenders announced that they were exploring a run to unseat Wyoming’s popular junior U.S. senator. Both have access to personal or family wealth to fund a campaign, though neither has ties to Cowboy State politics and one currently lives in Virginia. Political observers in the state aren’t quite sure what’s going on.
Wealthy Wyoming philanthropist and conservative Christian political activist Foster Friess h…
“This is strange,” said Liz Brimmer, a longtime Republican campaign consultant based in Jackson. “This is clearly strange.”
Strange because Barrasso has no obvious vulnerabilities. Though born in Pennsylvania, he has established deep connections in Wyoming and served as a state lawmaker before being appointed to fill an open Senate seat, following Craig Thomas’ death in 2007. He’s gone on to hold the seat with over 70 percent of the vote in two consecutive elections.
Barrasso, a Casper surgeon, comes home on weekends and during congressional recesses to travel the state and gladhand at chamber of commerce luncheons and charity pancake breakfasts that are so crucial to political success in a state with a small population like Wyoming.
He sits on the right Senate committees to influence federal policy that affects Wyoming, like energy, and has voted in lockstep with his fellow Republican senators.
Republicans have won every statewide congressional election in Wyoming for decades, and Barrasso’s two prospective challengers — Foster Friess and Erik Prince — appear to be considering a bid for the GOP nomination, not a run as independent candidates.
For a sitting senator to be unseated by his own party in a primary they generally need to have done something outrageous — failing to maintain residency in their home state, for example — or hold views that are either too moderate or too extreme for party members.
Those political sins don’t apply to Barrasso, said University of Wyoming political science professor Jim King.
“He comes back, he’s known in the state. He’s popular. He’s got a voting record that fits with the state,” King said. “There’s none of the red flags.”
And so far, neither Friess nor Prince has offered justifications for unseating Barrasso that are likely to resonate with voters.
Friess, a Jackson philanthropist who made hundreds of millions of dollars as an investment banker, told a conservative Washington tabloid recently that if he runs it will be to promote civility and bipartisan discourse in Washington, D.C.
Then he told the Washington Examiner that Barrasso was both a hero of his and one of the most civil politicians in the country.
A major donor to conservative and right-wing Christian causes, Friess has not always been known for his own promotion of civil discourse. He generated controversy in 2012 when he dismissed the notion that birth control needed to be expensive.
“Back in my days, they used Bayer Aspirin for contraceptives — the gals put it between their knees and it wasn’t that costly,” Friess said. He later apologized.
Unlike Prince, Friess lives in Wyoming and has donated to some local organizations in Jackson. But former state GOP chair Matt Micheli said it was hard to compare the deep statewide network of Barrasso to Friess’ presence in Teton County.
“I’ve known Sen. Barrasso before he was Sen. Barrasso. We’ve known him as a community leader, as ‘Wyoming’s doctor.’ We’ve seen him at all the civic functions,” Micheli said. “This entire time I haven’t seen Foster anywhere.”
Despite confirming to two Washington newspapers that he was considering entering the race for Barrasso’s seat, Friess has not responded to requests for comment from the Star-Tribune.
Prince’s interest in the seat was revealed one day before Friess’ last weekend, and he may face an even tougher battle in making a bid for the seat. Best known for founding the notorious private security contractor Blackwater, which had several employees convicted in federal court for killing Iraqi civilians, Prince doesn’t live in Wyoming.
“That there are potential candidates who are not residents of Wyoming — that first must explore ways to establish residency — it really raises a central question,” Brimmer said. “Why are you running to represent us in Wyoming?”
The depth of a candidate’s roots in the community they are running to represent can generate controversy anywhere in the country. But Brimmer said Wyomingites are especially sensitive to candidates who could be seen as carpetbaggers.
“Prince has all sorts of vulnerabilities,” King agreed. “Ten months from the primary? And you don’t live in the state?”
Prince said in an interview with Breitbart News that his family owns a ranch near Wapiti and that he had been a resident in the state for several years in the 1990s while he was serving in the Navy.
The Star-Tribune was unable to reach Prince for comment.
Prince has gone further than Friess in justifying considering a bid against Barrasso, arguing that as the nation’s most conservative state the delegation — including Barrasso — ought to be more vocal on hot-button issues like illegal immigration.
“The delegation from Wyoming should be the most rock-ribbed conservative,” Prince said. “They should be leading the charge on these issues, and not going along to get along.”
King, the political science professor, said that based on those comments, Prince does not seem to be pushing issues that Wyoming voters care most about.
“It sounds like from the statements ... that Prince is trying to get the Wyoming delegation interested in what’s of greater interest to another state,” he said.
Prince also said that Barrasso, the fourth-ranking Republican in the Senate, was part of the GOP establishment that needed disruption.
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That hints at the larger reason why both Friess and Prince may be floating runs against Barrasso. Several media outlets have reported that former Trump administration official and Breitbart executive chairman Steve Bannon has been encouraging both men to challenge Barrasso as part of a larger effort to unseat top Republican senators.
“I don’t know that it’s anything about Barrasso in particular, it’s that there are only so many Republicans to go after,” King said. “If you’re trying to change the Republican party, you’ve got to defeat the incumbent Republicans.”
Bannon, who was pushed out of the White House in August, has promoted a brand of conservative politics that combines economic populism with white supremacist nationalism.
Bannon successfully backed a far-right candidate, Roy Moore, in an Alabama Senate primary last month, defeating incumbent Republican Sen. Luther Strange, who lost despite President Donald Trump’s endorsement. Right-wing media tied Strange to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has been criticized by many on the right for being ineffective and insufficiently supportive of Trump. But Strange had also only been in office for several months and had been appointed to his seat by a governor who later resigned in disgrace. Further, Moore was able to draw on a powerful, conservative Christian voting bloc in Alabama.
While McConnell backed Strange’s campaign and funneled money to his primary effort, as a member of GOP Senate leadership, Barrasso is actually closer to the majority leader than Strange ever saw.
King acknowledged that might be one place to hit Barrasso, though as a rule anger at Washington dysfunction in general rarely has a negative impact on specific incumbents.
“Anybody who can be identified as part of the leadership ... is going to have some sort of chink in the armor,” King said. “At the same time, people associate the failings of Congress as a whole with the congressmen from other places.”
Brimmer said that the same tactics used down South would be unlikely to work in Wyoming.
“If your question is, ‘Could we be Alabamized?,’ I don’t think that’s the case,” Brimmer said. “There’s no doubt Wyoming’s different.”
She said voters in the state are especially wary of becoming pawns in a national fight, in this case between mainstream Republicans and the “alt-right” movement supported by Bannon.
“We are our own particular puzzle, and we’re not comfortably a puzzle piece for anyone else’s grand game,” Brimmer said.
If the comments by Friess and Prince were intended to rattle Barrasso or test the appetite for a Bannon-backed uprising against him, they appear to have generated little support.
Conservative National Review blogger Jim Geraghty defended Barrasso in a post last week, arguing that there was no substantive argument to be made for ousting the Wyoming senator. Geraghty noted Barrasso had sided with Trump’s positions in nearly all of his votes.
“It is pretty much impossible to argue that the reason the Trump administration isn’t able to enact its agenda is a senator like John Barrasso,” he wrote.
Not to mention, Trump apparently likes Barrasso. Barrasso said that the White House reached out to him about joining Trump’s cabinet as Health and Human Services Secretary because Trump appreciated Barrasso’s relentless advocacy for repealing the Affordable Care Act.
Even the podcast host interviewing Prince for Bannon-led Breitbart News seemed confused about why Prince was targeting Barrasso.
“Barrasso’s not one of the worst guys out there, and I’m not 100 percent positive on your connection to Wyoming,” host Alex Marlow asked Prince. “Is this real?”
If instead the thought is that, Barrasso aside, sparsely populated Wyoming is an easy place to elect an insurgent Republican, former state GOP chair Micheli says outsiders should think twice.
Wyoming’s small population and large size make campaigning here a unique affair. With fewer than 300,000 registered voters, candidates and elected officials are actually able to meet many of the people whose votes they’re asking for — and residents have come to expect that.
Combine the need for personal politics with a large and very rural state like Wyoming, and a statewide campaign means candidates must cover a lot of ground over an extended period of time in order to get facetime with enough voters. Barrasso is frequently spotted around the state, both at more formal events expected of Wyoming politicians and simply running errands or grabbing a bite to eat in Casper.
What does that mean for an upstart candidate seeking to unseat a popular incumbent who has been traveling the state, and shaking hands, for years?
“Work hard,” Brimmer said. “And work earnestly. Actually travel across a great big state with a lot of people who care very much and listen.”
Never say never
So far, Barrasso has been relatively quiet on the prospect of facing two challengers who could turn what was expected to be an easy ride to re-election into a competitive race.
His office has declined to make Barrasso available for an interview, and chief of staff Dan Kunsman released a terse statement last week emphasizing that Barrasso was prepared to run for re-election.
The senator himself told the Washington Examiner that he was confident about his standing in Wyoming but wasn’t taking anything for granted.
“I’ll be home again this coming weekend and will continue to visit with people all around the state of Wyoming, and they’ll have a chance to decide,” Barrasso said. “Elections are about the future, not the past, and I’m going to continue to listen to the folks at home.”
While Barrasso has all the advantages of a popular incumbent — including fundraising ability and $563,000 worth of cash on hand in an affiliated political action committee, according to the Center for Responsive Politics — and no obvious vulnerabilities, the political watchers cautioned lawmakers should never feel too secure when it comes to reelection.
“I don’t think any candidate should take it for granted — not even just John,” Brimmer said. “Any candidate that takes things for granted is always a candidate that is vulnerable.”