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Mark Gordon Election Night

Staff and volunteers from governor candidate Mark Gordon's campaign watch as results are updated Tuesday during Gordon's election night party at Bozeman Trail Steakhouse in Buffalo. Voter turnout for the primary election was the highest in Wyoming history. 

More Wyomingites cast votes last Tuesday than in any Republican or Democratic primary in state history, the Secretary of State’s office confirmed last Wednesday.

Figures show 140,070 individuals across the state cast ballots, making for an overall voter turnout that the office confirmed was “the highest it’s ever been for a primary election.”

The results of the high turnout, however, are complicated, made murky by the lopsided dynamics of the state’s two-party system and philosophical differences between moderates on either side of the aisle, who may choose to cross party lines in order to influence the outcomes of the primaries. In 2010, the last gubernatorial primary race to be run without an incumbent, just under 25,000 Democrats cast ballots, compared to 106,000 Republicans. Compare this to this year’s primary election results, where just under 19,500 Democrats participated.

The difference between the race eight years ago and this year’s? The 2010 race was actually tightly contested among Democrats, with nominee Leslie Peterson earning a 7-point victory over Pete Gosar. In 2014, it was Gosar’s turn and, running unopposed, he earned 15,000 votes out of a total of 18,300 ballots cast by Democrats. The 2014 vote count was actually closer to this year’s total, which is still a lower Democratic turnout than in 2010, when the total voting age population across the entire state was approximately 30,500 fewer people than it is today.

So what happened to those Democrats? Some would argue they registered Republican instead, in order to serve as a more moderating force on the right. Natrona County Democratic Chairman Brett Governati said the practice of Democratic candidates switching over to help more moderate Republicans win happens “quite a lot,” simply because he believes Democrats in Wyoming have little sway within the state’s lopsided two-party paradigm, and choose instead to affect change where their vote has more impact.

“A lot of Democrats might feel discouraged that there aren’t as many choices for them on the ballot,” he said. “I think, by the way Wyoming politics have been centered on Republicans for the last 40 years, Democrats and independents are trying to help veer our government so it strays away from the right-wing mentality.”

“They feel they don’t have as much of a choice,” he said. “So they try and get more moderate candidates in there.”

In off years, Natrona County’s Democratic registration can be up to 2,000 voters lower than in Presidential election years, he said, simply because in more contested races, Democrats feel their votes carry more weight within their own parties.

To support this, consider Republican turnout. In the 2014 Republican primary – the last time there was a heavily-contested primary in the GOP and a one-sided affair in the Democratic primary – 99,000 Republicans cast votes, with moderate candidate Matt Mead earning 53,600 of those on his way to defeating the more extreme Taylor Haynes by more than 20,000 votes. Yet, in the general election, his Democratic opponent – Gosar – received 30,000 votes more than he did from his own party in the primary election, while Mead earned 99,700 total.

This time around, the Democratic Party had a clear favorite. The Republicans, meanwhile, had candidates to the right of the more moderate Mark Gordon, including Harriet Hageman and Foster Friess. Faced with that reality, some philosophical Democrats may have voted in the Republican primary in order to keep a more conservative nominee from winning the Republican nomination. Additionally, some voter crossover that may have helped candidates slightly more to the right, like Sam Galeotos, may have shifted to Gordon due to an anti-Trump sentiment among some moderates.

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One of the reasons a candidate like Sam Galeotos’ momentum may have stopped, suggested Friess consultant and My Wyoming columnist Bill Sniffin, could have been when the Galeotos campaign sent out a mailer with Trump’s face on it. Sniffin, himself a Trump supporter, argued it may have alienated potential backers who may dislike the president, pushing them to candidates like Gordon who may not have closely affiliated themselves with him.

At the same time, Friess — with closer ties to the president than Galeotos and a similar business acumen — may have been helped by his relationship with the president and the Trump family.

“Even though Wyoming is Trump Country, there are a lot of people – not tens of thousands, but thousands – where anything to do with Trump will cause them to cross over,” said Sniffin.

Bill Cubin, a GOP consultant, suggested in a separate interview that Trump endorsements — which can simultaneously help and hurt candidates — could have also played a factor in moving some Republicans to other candidates.

According to a University of Wyoming poll released prior to the election, Friess — who received endorsements from both the president and his son, Donald Jr. — had actually lost the largest share of his early supporters to other candidates of any of the six candidates over the summer, while 11 percent who supported him at summer’s start were “unsure” the day before the election.

Despite this fact, support for Friess surged by more than 20 points during this period, according to polling data.

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Follow politics reporter Nick Reynolds on Twitter @IAmNickReynolds

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