GOP incumbents rattled in primary, but some hang onGuest column by political blogger Meg Lanker-Simons
Twenty-five percent. In this contentious primary season, only twenty-five percent of eligible Wyoming voters made it to the polls, according to a press release from the Wyoming Secretary of State’s Elections Office. State Election Director Peggy Nighswonger said “this level of voter participation is one of the lowest in the last 30 years.” Though turnout is higher in a general election, many races in Wyoming were decided in the primary, with only a few exceptions, such as House District 33 in Fremont County.
Tsk-tsk, good citizens. Those voters who chose not to exercise their rights on Tuesday have little basis for complaining about their representation in Senate Districts 10 and 30, and House District 50 – all decided in the primary. Some of these races were won by thin margins, and the results in House District 50 were not even close to expectations.
First, the primary race in Senate District 10 saw incumbent Sen. Phil Nicholas, (R-Laramie) receiving 55 percent of the vote and advancing to the general election. Barring a Democratic write-in challenger being certified by the canvassing board on Friday, Nicholas will be the winner by default in November.
Some Albany County residents speculate Republican primary challenger Anne Alexander may advance to the general election via write-ins on the Democratic ballot. However, Wyoming’s election law precludes the possibility of Alexander advancing even if she were to receive 25 write-in votes. W.S. 22-5-215 reads, “An unsuccessful candidate for office at a primary election whose name is printed on any party ballot may not accept nomination for the same office at the next general election.”
Democrats expressed an interest in Alexander’s candidacy as early as May, when Wyoming Democratic Party (WDP) communications director Brodie Farquhar asked Alexander’s campaign manager if she might consider switching parties. Alexander’s campaign declined.
In the end, it was not a matter of whether or not Alexander has the appropriate conservative credentials to be a Wyoming Republican. If that were the case, it would be easy to call Nicholas’ conservative street cred into question. He received a campaign contribution of $1,000 from Folks for Freudenthal, the gubernatorial campaign committee for former Governor Dave Freundenthal (Democrat). The committee spent $5,000 in the primary, according to its pre-primary report filed August 15, with $3,000 going to Republican races around the state. Nicholas received 48 percent of his campaign contributions from PACs. By contrast, one hundred percent of the contributions listed in Alexander’s pre-primary filing were from individuals. Alexander’s campaign was mainly driven by individual donations and volunteer efforts, while Nicholas appeared focused on advertising, and incumbency advantage via name recognition.
Looking at the precinct-by-precinct numbers from Albany County, Alexander beat Nicholas in two city and rural precincts, and came within single digits in others. However, Nicholas won the rural areas of Albany County and the area around his neighborhood of Grays Gable by large margins. Alexander focused on voter outreach, which is difficult in rural regions.
In an email Wednesday, she wrote she was “disappointed” in the results, mainly for “people who worked so hard for me, donated their money or their time, believed enough in me to do that, and to vote for me.” Alexander added she also felt “proud” because “773 other people had enough faith in me to cast their ballot marked with my name.” She also stated she would seek office again, writing: “I do think I’ll run again. It was inspiring to see people excited about a race and willing to do everything from just sending or saying a kind word of encouragement, to getting up so early on election day and canvassing for me. It was also inspiring to meet people I would never have met before, to learn about things I’d never thought about before.”
Nicholas could not be reached for comment.
In Senate District 30, Sen. Charlie Scott, (R-Casper) held off his primary challenger, Rep. Bob Brechtel (R-Casper) by a mere 75 votes. A remarkable influx of money resulted in the SD 30 primary being better-funded than many statewide campaigns. According to pre-primary filings, Brechtel raised over $22,000 in contributions, compared to Scott’s $13,900. In a phone interview August 10, Scott said he was knocking on “thousands of doors” and that he was “disgusted” with the negative campaign Brechtel was running, falsely accusing Scott of supporting the Affordable Care Act, “homosexual marriages,” and disregarding “traditional family values” in Cheyenne – standard fare from socially conservative politicians.
However, SD 30 was not a referendum on social conservatism in Wyoming – if anything, the primary showed it remains alive and well. The SD 30 race demonstrated well-liked Republican incumbents can be challenged with enough money and negative smears of “liberalism” to potentially lose their seat – even a senator with 30 years under his belt as a Wyoming Republican. It’s safe to say that Brechtel likely picked up the votes from the far-right, and it was nearly enough to win. Alas, “nearly” is not a win, and Rep. Brechtel is now a lame duck. Both Brechtel and Scott were unable to be reached for comment Wednesday.
Another primary infused with social conservatism was HD 50 in Park County. Rep. Pat Childers, (R-Cody) came in fourth out of four, losing the seat he held for eight terms. Originally, I thought Charles Cloud would be Childers’ toughest opponent. Cloud came in second, 94 votes behind David Northrup. Northrup said Wednesday that he believed his strongest advantage was his willingness to state his points clearly instead of “hemming and hawing” like his opponents. He said, “My opponents would ramble on at forums about establishing committees and such to examine things before passing laws, but I was able to state my positions and plans without ambiguity.” Northrup, who previously served on the Powell School Board and as Park County’s Republican Party Chairman, said he saw Childers’ seat as vulnerable based on his support for gay rights and voters’ lack of enthusiasm for incumbents. He said, “I like Pat, he’s a great guy. But looking at the [general election] voting record in 2010, and the lack of participation and challengers that Pat’s had, I thought I could win.” Northrup said Park County is “terribly conservative, and traditionally Republican,” with a strong Tea Party movement that “brought up abortion and the gay community at every forum.” While Northrup said he was not a Tea Party supporter per se, he is pro-life and does not support gay rights in the same manner as Childers.
HD 50 was an upset of a long-time but susceptible incumbent. Northrup is correct in saying the Tea Party movement is strong. He also described Park County Republican voters as a diverse group. However, I believe they espouse one of the most conservative brands of Republicanism in the country. Northrup also said, “’Conservative’ in Park County means something very different from what it means in Laramie or Albany counties.” That’s a true story. The Big Horn Basin Tea Party carries heavy influence, which has cultivated a quickly deployable base of support – as evidenced by Sen. Hank Coe (R-Cody) nearly losing his seat to Tea Party organizer Bob Berry, who Coe claims was handpicked to challenge him by the Tea Party and Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill. Hill, who’s clashed with Coe in the media, admitted to the Cody Enterprise on July 18 that she encouraged Berry to run, but that she would encourage anyone to run. It’s believed that socially conservative PACs like WyWatch Action mobilized voters against Childers, Coe, and other incumbents who did not pass their purity tests.
In Fremont County, Republican Jim Allen easily defeated Daniel Cardenas in the primary. Cardenas received only 110 votes to Allen’s 542. Cardenas previously ran a passionate campaign in 2010, and started with the same fire in 2012. Ultimately, it seemed a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. He disappeared off the political map around June, with his campaign Facebook and Twitter remaining silent from June 8th on. As of Wednesday, Cardenas had posted nothing, and made no public comments. Allen may be a tough challenger for incumbent Rep. W. Patrick Goggles, (D-Ethete) if turnout on the Wind River Indian Reservation is low. In 2004, Goggles beat Allen in every precinct but one on the reservation. Because of this, HD 33 will be a race to watch in the general election.
November’s Election Day will be lackluster in many of Wyoming’s state legislative districts. With the WDP fielding few general election candidates, much of the state legislature’s composition was decided on Tuesday by 25 percent of Wyoming’s eligible voters. Would larger turnout, more PAC money, or stronger campaigns make a difference? It’s likely, but until the primaries begin in 2014, there’s several now-former candidates left with the what-ifs that inevitably creep in after losing an election.
— Meg Lanker-Simons is a prolific political writer and activist based in Laramie, attracting in-person interviews from across Wyoming’s political spectrum. She has lived in Wyoming for 10 years. Lanker-Simons worked as a journalist in the U.S. Navy, and for the past two years has written about the innards of Wyoming and national politics at her own site, Cognitive Dissonance. She also hosts a radio show by the same name every Friday night from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. in Laramie on 93.5 KOCA FM. Contact Meg at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you enjoyed this column and would like to see more quality Wyoming journalism, please consider supporting WyoFile: a non-partisan, non-profit news organization dedicated to in-depth reporting on Wyoming’s people, places and policy.