Whoever wins the August 17 Wyoming GOP gubernatorial primary will be the next governor of Wyoming. David "Governor Dave"(so states the sign on his office door) Freudenthal, a popular Democrat, is term-limited, and after considering opposing that fact in court (which has been done successfully by state legislators in Wyoming), thought better of it and announced his retirement in early March. Freudenthal waited so long that no other Democrat is seriously prepared to run, but three are exploring the idea. Wyoming's chronically-in-the-minority Democratic Party will certainly come up with a sacrificial lamb. It's a bad year for Democrats nationally, but in Wyoming and across the West it's even worse.
In most of Wyoming registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats two to one. This raises the question as to how Governor Dave --who was U.S. Attorney for Wyoming during the Clinton Administration -- got himself elected in 2002 by a 2% margin (50-48).
To begin with, he ran a good campaign by crisscrossing the vast Cowboy State trying to meet as many voters as possible. Freudenthal worked hard in those hostile heavily Republican counties. His opponent, former Speaker of the Wyoming House of Representatives Eli Bebout, seemed to take it for granted that the numbers were on his side, and ran a lousy campaign that was rife with GOP infighting. And Freudenthal, with roots in the small town of Thermopolis, successfully used a culturally conservative political modus operandi that has historically served others in his party well in red states. He is a classic "NRA Democrat."
Wyoming has been metaphorically described as having "One long Main Street." In a state of 98,000 square miles (80% of which is sagebrush) and populated by 544,000 people (2009 est.; 50,000 fewer people than live inside the District of Columbia), statewide campaigning is a game of connect-the-dots, the dots being small cities and towns fifty or hundred miles apart. They come by car or small plane in all kinds of vicious weather. Tornados or horizontal blizzards don't deter them. In the years that I lived in Cody, I shook hands with Freudenthal, Bebout, Mike Sullivan, Jim Gehringer, Barbara Cubin, John Barrasso (a veritable font of useful medical advice), and the late Craig Thomas. And Alan Simpson, of course: Big Al being as noticeable in town as Buffalo Bill impersonators on the Fourth of July. The closest I ever got to Dick Cheney was waving at six black SUVs as they cruised through Cody on the way to some event involving the then Vice President and -- who else? -- Big Al.
Politicians being so personally accessible means that many Wyoming folks vote personality over politics (Big Al figured this out when he ran for president of his third grade class). And that's really how Governor Dave got elected. I voted for him myself in his successful 2006 reelection bid, when he upped his previous tally to 70% of the vote. This year, four Republicans have been practicing the schmooze moves required to win the gubernatorial popularity contest found along that long dusty Main St.
Colin Simpson, 51 and son of Big Al, is a Cody attorney and 12-year veteran of the Wyoming House of Representatives, having climbed the ladder of various committee posts to serve as Speaker of the House for the 2009-2010 legislative session. He's run for the Cody 24th District seat six times. That should tell a prospective voter that here is a serious, experienced, and battle-tested public servant. Or so you would think.
Simpson has run six times unopposed. This man noted for doing his homework and taking his public service seriously -- while good in the townhall setting -- has never faced an opponent in debate. For years in Cody on Election Day I checked his box on the ballot as a vote of confidence. If his campaign chops are weak, his legislative experience has given him policy wonk knowledge of Wyoming's state budget milieu. And having Big Al as a personal political consigliere is a plus (though not if Wyoming voters are in an anti-dynasty mood, as Simpson is not only the son of that ex-U.S. Senator, but grandson of the late Milward Simpson, a Wyoming governor and U.S. Senator). Simpson shares his father's pro-choice abortion stance, maybe not a winner in conservative Wyoming this year, though it never hurt Big Al. "I don't believe abortion is the right thing to do….And there's certainly an element of personal responsibility and rights there," Colin Simpson recently told the Casper Star-Tribune. In another time that quote could have been attributed to Alan Simpson.
Rita Meyer (no age or birthdate available), of Centennial and married to a doctor, is a former Wyoming state auditor and ex-chief of staff for ex-governor Jim Gehringer. She served for 23 years as an airman in the Wyoming National Guard and is a veteran of Desert Storm and Operation Enduring Freedom. Meyer's military record and executive tenures make for an impressive résumé, but she has no legislative experience.
Ron Micheli, 61, of Fort Bridger, served in the Wyoming House for 16 years in a variety of leadership positions, and is a former head of the Wyoming State Agriculture Department, thereby having both legislative and executive credibility. Micheli has private sector credentials, as he for a number of years helped his brother run the large family cattle ranch in Fort Bridger.
Matt Mead, 48, of Cheyenne -- like Colin Simpson -- has an impressive political pedigree. He's the grandson of the late Cliff Hansen, who served Wyoming both as governor and in the U.S. Senate. Mead is one of Wyoming's most prominent lawyers, and was George W. Bush's U.S. Attorney for Wyoming (2001-2007). Like Micheli, he has a family ranching background; and like Meyer, he lacks legislative experience.
None of the three aforementioned Democrats (State Senator Mike Massie of Laramie, Cheyenne attorney Paul Hickey, or Wilson businessman and twice unsuccessful congressional candidate Gary Trauner) has yet taken the plunge for the August Democratic primary, even though Freudenthal bowed out three weeks ago. Though one or more probably will.
Wyoming has largely escaped the ravages of the Great Recession, though its unemployment rate has as of January risen to 7.6%. In the last few years energy development has enriched state revenue coffers, and Governor Dave and the Republican majority bicameral Wyoming legislature can both take credit for fiscal policies that have kept Wyoming one of the few states running in the black. The participants in the upcoming campaign will each make the case that they are uniquely qualified to continue this course of financial restraint in state government.
The four GOP wannabes all have their strengths and weaknesses, and all are credible candidates. So who will be the next governor of Wyoming? It's a toss-up between Simpson and Micheli.
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