Political Hay

Why Colin Lost

How could the son of the great Alan Simpson have finished a dismal fourth in his own back yard?

By 8.26.10

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Colin Simpson lost his gubernatorial bid in the August 17 Wyoming GOP Primary, placing a distant fourth with 16% of the vote. The contest was a horse race between former U.S. Attorney for Wyoming Matthew Mead and ex-State Auditor Rita Meyer, each polling roughly 29%, with Mead leading by only 700 votes when Meyer conceded. Former State Agricultural Commissioner Ron Micheli placed third with 26%. In an interesting aside, Rita Meyer had been endorsed by Sarah Palin on the latter's Facebook page. Matt Mead's win ensures that he will likely be the next governor of Wyoming, as his Democratic opponent, former Teton County Commissioner Leslie Petersen, has as much of a chance for success in this Republican year as farmers growing pineapples in Pinedale.

But why did Colin Simpson finish a dismal fourth? In a previous piece I speculated that the race should have been a battle between Simpson and Micheli, two experienced pols with long statewide legislative records (Simpson served 12 years in the Wyoming House; Micheli 15). But this is an anti-incumbent year, even for Republicans.

I use the phrase "anti-incumbent" not applying to Colin Simpson, but to the sixty-year Simpson political legacy in Wyoming (Simpson's grandfather Milward served as Wyoming governor and in the U.S. Senate; his father Alan served in the state legislature and in the U.S. Senate). The candidate should have got elected based on his wonky knowledge of Wyoming fiscal matters and its economically dominant energy sector. Instead his political pedigree got in the way, not to mention his father's public grandstanding. This last may seem paradoxical in that "Big Al" (his nickname in Wyoming), other than participating in Colin's May kickoff, mostly remained unattached to his son's campaign.

Alan K. Simpson retired from the U.S. Senate in 1997 after four decades of service to Wyoming in state and national office. He has since involved himself in altruistic projects, promoting civic and charitable causes, and thus remaining in the public eye. Personally outspoken and colorful, Simpson is a frequent guest on television cable shows. He served on President Bush's "Hamilton Commission-Iraq Study Group" in 2006 that sought remedies for the then moribund prospects of the Iraq War. Now Big Al serves as a co-chair on President Obama's "Bipartisan Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform" due to submit a report late this year that will advise the president on how to fix the nation's current economic malaise and increasing deficit and debt.

But Big Al's latest excursion into freelance public service is not popular in Wyoming. In fact, the president has in the Cowboy State the lowest statewide polling numbers seen nationwide. According to the Casper Star-Tribune, 52% of Wyoming voters think Obama is doing a "poor" job as president. A July Gallup poll gives the president his lowest statewide approval rating in Wyoming at 29%. The much-loved Big Al is perceived by many of his former constituents as cooperating with an expansion of government through increased taxation (such as a possible Value Added Tax) and vague promises of spending cuts, and is thus seen as tarnishing his legacy by his service on Obama's Deficit Commission. This could not have helped Colin Simpson's chances.

Colin Simpson was also unprepared for the gubernatorial race due to the fact that he had no experience in campaigning for public office. He won six consecutive two-year terms in the Wyoming House by running unopposed. Despite that command of statewide issues in all those years, there was nary a debate to show his mettle other than the conducting of townhall-type Q and A events with constituents in the 24th Wyoming House District. And in 2007 he entered with high hopes the complicated free-for-all caucus process involving dozens of candidates that eventually chose John Barrasso to fill the recently deceased Craig Thomas's U.S. Senate seat.

Simpson -- like his father -- is not a movement conservative, even though Wyoming is a deeply red state. His tenure in the GOP-dominated Wyoming Legislature required a standard kneejerk Republican take on the issues. And like his father the younger Simpson is at best a moderate on cultural issues; on abortion he's pro-choice, for instance. During the Reagan years while serving as Bob Dole's Republican Minority Whip, Big Al was known for reaching across the aisle, and was close to many Democrats, including the late Senator Edward Kennedy. But 2010 is not 1985.

Colin Simpson is returning to his Cody law practice. For the first time in over half a century, a Simpson will not hold public office in Wyoming. It's either the end of an epoch or an interregnum.

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.