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CHEYENNE — The recent Republican primary election for governor stimulated renewed talk of changing the primary election system.

The suggestion of a runoff of the top primary election winners pops up periodically. It signals an unease with the current winner-takes-all open primary system.

In the 2018 version, Foster Freiss, who came in second to GOP gubernatorial nominee Mark Gordon, said a runoff would be more fair when the winner doesn’t pull a majority of the votes cast, like this year.

Gordon polled 33.4 percentwhile Freiss captured 25.6 percent and Harriet Hagement received 21.5 percent. The other three down-ballot candidates received a combine 19.6 percent of the vote.

Ten other states require a candidate to win a primary with a majority of the votes. Those states are Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas and Vermont, according to the National Council of State Legislatures.

Vermont holds runoffs only if there was a tie vote. South Dakota holds runoffs only for the offices of U.S. Senator, U.S. Representative and governor.

Over the years, Republican Party officials have discussed various strategies to give them the best candidate for governor without going through another crowded, bruising primary race.

The Republican Party has always had plenty of members who wanted to be governor. Some those primary races have been so fractious they produced a winner who was broke and battered going into the general election.

To avoid this trauma and produce an unsullied candidate to represent a unified party, the Republican officials in 1981 tried a different approach.

They adopted the plan of GOP party chairman Ed Witzenburger, a former state treasurer, whose goal was to nominate the candidate most likely to defeat Democratic Gov. Ed Herschler in his bid for an unprecedented third term.

The first step was a poll containing the profiles of a handful of prospects who might run against Herschler.

The profile to get the most votes belonged to former House Speaker Nels Smith of Crook County, a 43-year-old rancher and grandson of a namesake Wyoming governor.

Party officials then began pressuring other prospective candidates to stay out of the race in favor of Smith.

Wyoming State Farm Bureau President David Flitner of Greybull dropped out after having words with Witzenburger. So did another prospect, state Sen. John Turner of Teton County.

But former state Sen. John Patton of Sheridan was skeptical of the poll. He wanted an open primary. During the GOP state convention, he put out some feelers and was encouraged to run. But he also backed off.

The whole scheme blew up one week before the filing deadline, when Smith withdrew his candidacy for health reasons.

Colleagues said he was exhausted from trying to run his first statewide campaign. Smith said later that he awoke one day with chest and arm pains and shortness of breath. A check-up showed he had high blood pressure but no heart condition.

He also had been fretting about the lack of big campaign contributions and a poor showing in the polls. One of his polls said he would carry only four counties in a contest against Herschler.

The development left the Republican leaders in a panic. They began a frantic scramble and called on some previous prospects they had discouraged to run, like Patton, to reconsider for the sake of the party.

They finally had a summit-type meeting where the top party leaders interviewed party members willing to jump in and were financially capable for paying the campaign costs.

The GOP kingmakers chose Warren Morton, an oilman and engineer from Casper, as well as a former state House speaker.

So they got their single candidate after all. But it was deeply marred victory.

Herschler won his third term in the 1982 general election with 64.1 percent of the vote to Morton’ 36.8 percent. Herschler spent $196,092 while Morton invested $314,262.

And talk about cross-over votes. Nearly half of the state’s registered Republicans voted for Herschler in the general election, according to the New York Times.

That year the Republicans learned not to mess around with their primary election.

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Contact Joan Barron at 307-632-2534 or jmbarron@bresnan.net.

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