CHEYENNE — The forthcoming Republican gubernatorial primary election in many ways echoes the turbulent one 32 years ago.
Although the 1986 contest did not have a multi-million dollar spoiler candidate like Foster Friess, the GOP campaign was a dandy political scrap.
It was lively because Democrat Ed Herschler had announced his retirement after 12 years in office.
The Republican hunger for the governorship after many years of political drought brought forth a wealth of candidates, even though the state’s energy-based economy was on a downward slide.
The Republicans had plenty of strong and not-so-strong potential candidates.
The Democrats had none waiting in the wings.
During the state GOP convention in Riverton that year, about a dozen gubernatorial hopefuls were allowed to give short speeches.
One of the last prospective candidates to step onto the stage was Dave Nicholas, a Laramie attorney and former state senator.
When Nicholas took the microphone, he began to laugh at the absurdity of his race against such a large number of possible opponents.
“What am I doing here?” he said.
Despite his misgivings, Nicholas stayed in the contest.
The convention also included a straw poll for governor with results that were immediately challenged by party members who suggested it was rigged.
The tone of that convention set the stage for the campaign ahead.
When the GOP gubernatorial primary filing period closed, the list of candidates had been reduced to seven.
Herschler had predicted privately that his successor would be Republican State Treasurer Stan Smith, a popular politician.
Smith had been the eighth candidate and leading contender but he dropped out in April to seek a second term as state treasurer.
As the number of candidates grew, Smith was unable to attract the political and financial support he had expected.
That left in the lead Pete Simpson of Sheridan, a former legislator; son of former governor and brother of U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson of Cody, U.S. Sen. Milward Simpson; Bill Budd of Cheyenne, who resigned as executive vice president of the Wyoming Mining Association to run; and Fred Schroeder of Douglas, a former state GOP chairman.
Other candidates were Nicholas; Russ Donley of Casper, an engineer and former Wyoming House Speaker; Jim Bace of Cheyenne, a computer analyst; and John Johnson, a Saratoga dentist.
The Democratic slate for governor included Mike Sullivan, a Casper attorney with no prior experience in elective political office; Keith Goodenough, a Casper woodcutter and former state senator; Al Hamburg, a Torrington house painter and perennial candidate; and former rancher Pat McGuire of Laramie.
Early on some political observers were predicting the possibility of a Democratic win because of the large field of GOP candidates.Their in-fighting could split the party and open the door to the election of a Democratic governor. They were right.
The September GOP primary governor election was a close one.
Simpson won over Budd by only 453 votes, only slightly more than 30 percent of the total votes cast. This was no mandate.
The primary election rhetoric between the candidates and their supporters left scars, particularly in the camp for the conservative Budd.
Herschler stepped in and hired Budd to a run a major state agency, thus removing him from the dynamics of the general election. Budd said he needed a job.
During the general election campaign, both Sullivan and Simpson performed well in debates and seemed to share basic ideological principles.
Although the Republicans held a nearly two-to-one advantage over the Democrats in voter registration, Sullivan went on to win the general election with 53 percent of the vote to Simpson’s 46 percent.
Sullivan captured 21 percent of the “strong Republican” vote plus a batch of ordinary and weak Republican votes and virtually all of the independents who normally vote Republican, according to a 1991 study by Cal and Janet Clark, political science professors at the University of Wyoming.
For years the Republican party has searched for a solution to the post-primary collapses of 1974 when Herschler was elected and the repeat in 1986.
One plan suggested was for a primary runoff if a winning candidate didn’t get a majority of the votes or a specified percentage to be defined by law.
If that plan had been in effect in 1986, Simpson and Budd would have been in a runoff election. Presumably the winner would have emerged with stronger GOP support.
But the Republican party didn’t adopt the plan. So a repeat of the 1986 GOP primary race is possible if not probable.