After a week of frigid weather the Chinook blows through Cody, and the temperature is rising. But that low hanging cottonwood limb banging down on a corner of my roof serves as a reminder that this is not — in Senator McCain’s words — “a warm Republican breeze.” That’s because Wyoming is sending a Democrat to the governor’s mansion for the first time in eight years. This is indeed paradoxical considering the recent nationwide 2002 Republican juggernaut.
This year, as usual, only a sprinkling of Democrats were elected in municipal, county, and legislative races statewide. Thirty-three Wyoming House and Senate candidates — mostly Republicans — ran unopposed. We returned the two GOP members of our small Congressional delegation (Sen. Mike Enzi; Rep. Barbara Cubin) up for re-election this year to Washington with typically lopsided margins. The two houses of the Wyoming Legislature both have strong Republican majorities. Oh, and did I mention that we elected a Democratic governor?
Because of its low population (492,000 in the 2000 Census), Wyoming citizens have ready access to politicians, especially in election years. Like Iowa and New Hampshire during presidential primary seasons, it sometimes seems we’re tripping over them.
Over the years this more personal campaigning has produced an electorate that — despite GOP registration numbers trumping Democrats 2 to 1 statewide — occasionally votes for personality over party affiliation. A state known historically as a bastion of Republican conservatism (in 2000 Bush-Cheney won 69% of its vote) was governed pre-1995 by two Democrats over twenty years, Ed Herschler and Mike Sullivan. As an aside, those two decades are a good primer for anyone interested in studying the Wyoming resource-based, boom-bust economic model. The late '70s-early '80s saw economic prosperity thanks to a western energy boom, which was followed by a late '80s bust from which the state has not yet recovered.
Presently Wyoming is near the bottom in all economic indicators. As soon as the kids graduate from high school or college, they leave. The state university and community college system exists to export brains and talent. The 25-to-44-year-old age group — working parents — is shrinking as they leave, and conversely so are school enrollments. The only expanding age group are retirees, making towns such as Jackson, Cody, Lander, Afton, Pinedale and Sheridan into Boca Ratons with mountain views.
Republican James Geringer was elected governor in 1994 in the GOPs last big seismic shift, and promised to bring back the good old days of huge state mineral royalty revenues and high paying jobs, but over two terms failed to deliver, and was term limited this year. Geringer’s tragedy is that he will be remembered as the governor who failed to take advantage of the booming late '90s American economy . While neighboring states prospered (especially Colorado, Utah, Nevada and Idaho) Wyoming languished. For example, during the '90s, Bozeman, Montana attracted some sixty high tech companies; Cody, Wyoming none. Jim Geringer must think that “broadband” refers to wide roads on a map.
It was a contest among Republican Eli Bebout, Democrat Dave Freudenthal, and Libertarian Dave Dawson (whose final 2% of the vote in the end hurt Bebout). Both Bebout and Freudenthal scrapped their way through crowded August primaries. Bebout’s was particularly ugly as the state GOP apparatus led by retired elder statesman Alan Simpson launched a negative ad campaign against Bebout primary rival Ray Hunkins, a rancher-attorney, over questionable but minor legal-business infractions years old. The Simpson Faction had tapped Bebout as its golden boy even before the primary, and the colorful Big Al was only living up to his maxim that “Politics is a contact sport.” The Wyoming electorate got to read about the Simpson attacks in the papers everyday last summer. The underlying feeling was that they found this GOP internecine mudslinging distasteful.
After the primary, the Republican machine set its sights on Dave Freudenthal. At question was $12 million in state loans and contracts that Freudenthal had supposedly funneled in 1987 to Energy Brothers Technology, a company in which he owned a 10% interest in a subsidiary company. The Casper Star-Tribune tells us that at the time Freudenthal was “Vice Chairman of the Wyoming Economic Development and Stabilization Board, which oversaw administrative duties of the Wyoming Investment Fund Commission.” According to the paper, the Democrat had “declared a conflict of interest and did not participate in the meeting that dealt with the administrative expenses.” Freudenthal was also investigated by the FBI prior to his Clinton administration appointment as U.S. Attorney for Wyoming from 1994-2001, and was cleared of any improprieties.
The state GOP machine took another black eye in the media over this new round of negatives, and in the days prior to the election Bebout’s polling numbers went south. Vice President Cheney (who must have been cursing his old pal Al Simpson by now) was rushed in for a Bebout resuscitation rally in Cheyenne on the Sunday before Election Day. That the popular Cheney would have to fly into his home state on behalf of its Republican gubernatorial candidate was a sure sign of how deeply in trouble Bebout was. Freudenthal spent those last days jocularly opening his speeches with the statement, “I’ve been Hunkinized!” — referring to another of the Simpson-Bebout team’s August primary targets. (Hunkins “wouldn’t know the truth if it bit him on the fanny,” Al had said.)
Meanwhile, Democrat Freudenthal (who as a perennial judicial appointee had never held elective office) seemed to have orchestrated a masterful grassroots campaign where he spent much time knocking on doors and conducting townhall meetings and doing media interviews in Wyoming’s most Republican counties, particularly in the northern part of the state (I heard him on talk radio in Cody at least twice in the closing weeks).
On election day the crossover vote was about 20%. For instance, in Sheridan County, with a 5-2 GOP registration advantage, Bebout beat Freudenthal by only 60 votes of 11,000 cast. In my home, Park County (also Alan Simpson’s homebase), Bebout won 58% to 39%, a rather poor showing considering overpowering 6-1 GOP registration strength. Freudenthal picked up 56% of Natrona County (Casper) voters, who are registered 2-1 Republican. And Freudenthal easily carried the Interstate 80 corridor counties on Wyoming’s southern tier home to Cheyenne, Laramie, Rawlins and Rock Springs, and where the electorate is usually more sympathetic to Democrats. In the end it was Freudenthal 50%, Bebout 48%, and Dawson 2%.
Eli Bebout would have made a fine governor (I voted for him). His fourteen years’ experience in the state legislature would have served Wyoming’s citizens well in Cheyenne. It can be argued that Dave Dawson was a Nader-like figure who blocked a Bebout victory (Dawson, though remaining on the ballot, was so disgusted with GOP attack ads, that he endorsed Freudenthal in the last days). But it mostly seems that the Freudenthal triumph was a referendum on Jim Geringer’s abysmal economic record. Indeed Freudenthal seemed to win two statewide TV debates by focusing on that record. In seeking to defend it the Simpson Faction ran a desperate negative campaign (it remains to be seen whether Bebout even had much to do with it). Three days before election day, Casper TV station KTWO pulled the GOP ads for fear they’d leave the station vulnerable to a lawsuit. In the end (please excuse the pun), to quote another well-known Simpsonism, Al & Co. had stuck their heads up “the old gazoo.”
Dave Freudenthal must still have his hands packed in ice after shaking thousands of Republican hands.
Bill Croke is a writer in Cody, Wyoming.
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