Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Gary Trauner was spot on during his only debate with incumbent GOP Sen. John Barrasso when he said the two must be traveling in different states.

Their views of life in Wyoming are fundamentally different. It’s not a question of whether Wyoming’s economic glass is half-full or half-empty. During a forum in Sheridan last Thursday, Barrasso described a state where the proverbial glass is overflowing thanks to Republican tax cuts and deregulation of the minerals industry.

Barrasso said there is a renewed confidence and optimism in Wyoming “as more and more [businesses] are hiring. They’re looking for folks to work, they’re paying higher wages, people are taking home more money. I think that things are really looking up in Wyoming. We have a strong, healthy economy and a growing economy.”

To Trauner, the reality depends upon who is holding the glass.

“When I travel around the state, we’re just coming out of a bust and people cautiously think that things might be getting better,” he said. “But for the average worker, nothing’s changed. Since that tax cut average working wages have actually gone down, not up.”

Trauner said the tax cut was “geared toward large corporations and wealthy heirs. Eighty-five percent of the benefits went to them on a permanent basis, the rest were temporary. We blew a $2 trillion hole in our debt in order to do that.”

Barrasso countered.

“This tax cut, as I talk to people around Wyoming, there’s about $2,000 more in their paychecks that they’re able to hold,” he said. “There’s a child tax credit. They’re going to have double the standard deduction. There is good news all over. In the next 10 years $20,000 extra in their pocket. … And between 4,000 and 5,000 workers in Wyoming have received bonuses.”

So which candidate has it right? It’s too early to know what impact the new tax structure will have on jobs in Wyoming, though the conservative Tax Foundation estimates it will create 413 jobs in 2018. That’s not exactly a tidal wave of new employment.

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But Trauner is clearly correct in his claim that the federal tax cuts touted by President Donald Trump’s supporters – and vociferously by Barrasso – will benefit the super wealthy.

According to an analysis by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, the poorest 20 percent of Wyoming residents will see no share of the tax cuts. The middle 20 percent will benefit by 7 percent.

But the top 1 percent of Wyoming’s wage earners will receive a massive 42 percent tax cut. For the next highest 4 percent of the wealthy, it’s 17 percent.

In others words the middle class will receive a modest temporary boost in exchange for a massive long-term debt.

The candidates also sparred over immigration policy.

During the final weeks before the midterm elections, Republicans have focused much of their attention on a caravan of poor Central Americans who are fleeing desperate conditions in their home countries and are headed toward the U.S.-Mexican border. To hear the Republican talking points (and who can avoid them?) the tired, poor, huddled masses traveling by foot are a hardened invasion force about to overrun the good people of Texas. Barrasso is waving that fear flag, too.

“We need to secure the border, we need to enforce the law and we need to keep families together,” Barrasso said. “America will not be stampeded by people coming to this country, 5,000 trying to break through into this country. It’s our job to enforce the law.”

The incumbent senator called for an end to “this chain migration, ending this diversity lottery.”

But Trauner painted what I view as a more accurate picture of the immigration situation. It may not be as handy at motivating the electorate through terror, but the truth rarely is.

“You can scare people and tell them there’s a caravan of a bunch of dirt-poor migrants who are really trying to get away from a hellish existence in the countries where they live,” the Democrat said. “They are 2,000 miles away from here right now. By the time they get here we as Americans can absolutely make sure the ones who want asylum are appropriately dealt with.”

Seeking asylum, Trauner added, is not illegal.

Based on the positions they expressed throughout the debate, I think both candidates would agree that the underlying issue in the race is whether Wyomingites believe they are better or worse off nearly two years into the Trump administration. It’s clearly a referendum not only on the policies Trump and his Capitol Hill allies have promoted but the character of the man himself, and the behavior our senators have been complicit in.

Ultimately the decision will be up to individual voters. But Trauner and Barrasso each attempted to tie their opponents to controversial national politicians.

Barrasso pointedly portrayed Trauner as a politician in sync with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. I half-expected him to throw Hillary Clinton into the mix, but unlike the president he appears to realize the 2016 election is over, and demonizing Trump’s opponent isn’t necessary anymore — even in Wyoming.

But make no mistake: though the names of Barrasso and Trauner are on the ballot, Trump is at the heart of this Senate election. If Wyoming’s junior senate seat flipped to the Democrats, the party would have a much better chance to gain control of the chamber.

But given this extremely red state gave Trump his largest margin of victory over Clinton at 45 percentage points, it isn’t difficult to see why Barrasso has embraced him. He only disagreed with the president’s positions once during the debate, agreeing with his opponent that Trump’s trade war and tariffs aren’t good for Wyoming.

Barrasso believes — as do most political pundits — that his seat is safe, which is why he didn’t need more debates with Trauner, who wanted between three and five forums scattered throughout the state.

Has Wyoming soured at all on Trump? Are middle-class workers here benefiting from the massive tax cuts to the wealthy that Barrasso backed? Do they care about immigration and feel threatened by people who are headed to America to better their lives?

We’ll see next Tuesday.

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. Very good summary of the campaign. Thank you! I deeply hope that the people of Wyoming are also watching as Trump and the Republican Congress weaken our environmental regulations and turn their backs on climate change. I know Wyoming voters love and treasure our environment and are willing to make some sacrifices to keep the natural world healthy. Not with Trump and not with Barrasso.

  2. What about health care? That is a major difference of opinion between Dr. Barraso who opposes access to health care for the vulnerable and middle class unlike challenger Gary Trauner.

  3. It was an interesting debate – an earnest, data driven, fact providing competitor versus an arrogant, bored incumbent, so sure of retaining his vaulted position that he dispensed with cogent arguments, relying instead on mouthing folksy articles published in Wyoming newspapers or the accomplishments of the governor’s office to make his case. The sitting senator, backed by out-of-state pharmaceutical donors (check his donation list if you don’t believe that statement), had an almost “Chatty Cathy” demeanor, as if someone pulled his side ring and a pre-determined statement, not usually relevant to the questions posed by the moderators, sounded through a plastic visage,
    Of course we all know the outcome of the race, this is Wyoming, after all. But, I will be watching closely to see how many voters will vote for policies to help and uplift fellow Wyomingites, for decency, for a return to dearly held American values and how many want ventriloquist McConnell’s dummy to return to Washington.

  4. I’d like to know whether Sen. Barrasso now believes, as his president does, that journalists are “the enemy of the people.”

    Has he been asked that?

  5. Unfortunately, discussion about health care costs and their effect on health care decisions for families and the write offs our providers and hospitals have to endure are totally ignored by the Republicans. The future of the viability of our Wyoming hospitals is at stake without Medicaid expansion and , although he is a physician, John Barasso completely discounts this fact..

  6. Great summary of that debate. I also caught that attempt by Barrasso to connect himself strongly with Trump, trying to play to the support Trump got in the state – sad! I do wish Trauner could get a couple more debates. There are important and timely issues that need to be brought more to light, such as climate change, health care and public lands where I think the two candidates widely differ (if Barasso would really be honest with what he supports (i.e. party line)). Regretfully, the majority of Wyomingites ignore the issues and the things that impact them the most and just blindly vote the Republican ticket.