U.S. Sen. John Barrasso has only himself to blame if he gets two wealthy opponents in next year’s Republican primary in Wyoming. He’s only voted for President Trump’s position 96 percent of the time this year.

How can he expect to keep going unchallenged within the GOP if his voting record is so disloyal to the man who now leads the Republican Party?

Throughout his two terms in the Senate Barrasso never had his conservative credentials seriously challenged until earlier this month, when a pair of right-wing, super-rich activists told reporters some powerful Republicans in Washington, D.C., asked them to take on Barrasso in 2018. Erik Prince, founder and former CEO of notorious security contractor Blackwater, confirmed he’s considering moving from Virginia to Wyoming to become a candidate.

The announcement shook Wyoming politics junkies. A large aftershock arrived a day later when Jackson billionaire investor, campaign donor and philanthropist Foster Friess also said he may challenge Barrasso. The situation grew even more confused when Friess described the doctor-turned-politician as a hero and a friend. Why then try to take away his job?

The political landscape has changed so much since Trump’s shocking victory last November, it’s difficult to predict how the next election will shake out. Since 2008, when Barrasso was appointed to complete the balance of late Sen. Craig Thomas’ six-year term, it’s been a given that he would keep running and winning until he decided to retire. Republican senators here just about serve for life.

Trump’s election and first nine months in office have blown that once-safe assumption — along with so many others — right out of the water. Nationally there’s a battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party, and it looks as though Wyoming may soon serve as a microcosm of the entire bitter conflict. It’s funny as all get-out for Democrats, though, even if it doesn’t do much to improve their chances next year.

When Republicans cannibalize their own it’s fascinating to watch, but the larger-than-life cast of characters in this drama should bring the entertainment value to a whole new level. Of course, the GOP powers-that-be may just be setting us all up for a major let-down if neither Prince nor Friess decides to drop a ton of other people’s money (and some of their own) into the Wyoming race.

Ten months from the Republican Senate primary, political speculation is already rampant — at least as rampant as it can be in a state with a population of only 580,000. Most of the talk has focused on whether a political outsider with millions to spend can topple an establishment candidate who rank-and-file Republicans don’t have a beef with most of the time.

As a progressive, I think Barrasso has compiled a horrible voting record that could sink him in a less conservative state. His opposition to the Affordable Care Act alone could spell doom elsewhere as more people realize that attempts to repeal and replace Obamacare have turned a bad situation into a disaster. As more Wyomingites are thrown off of insurance rolls, senators like Barrasso who have done Trump’s bidding will likely be the ones left holding the bag at the ballot box.

A three-way Senate primary race would help help gauge how many Republicans have drifted to the right, and just how far they’ve shifted. Are there many Tea Partiers who would be excited enough by either Friess and Prince to get involved in this race? And if so, which outsider candidate would they support?

The other dominant question is whether Wyoming could possibly elect another Virginia transplant to Congress after Liz Cheney survived carpetbagger charges and became the state’s U.S. representative.

Prince would have to establish residence in Wyoming to file his candidacy. The fact his family has a ranch near Wapiti should make that process fairly easy, but it doesn’t mean state voters are ready to elect another politician whose only interest in living here is to establish a new home far away in Washington, D.C.

Prince has an inheritance to spend as well as blood money from his mercenary business, which would greatly benefit Wyoming broadcast and print media if he drops a ton of cash on advertising. Friess and his wife Lynn are one of the state’s wealthiest couples and they have spent a fortune donating to charitable causes.

But Friess is also active in conservative politics. Last year he was recognized by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch for his generous support of their ultra-right wing agenda, according to Mother Jones. Friess gained a lot of attention for almost single-handedly funding the doomed 2012 presidential campaign of former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. If voters are looking for candidates who make good decisions, then that last losing proposition could sink him.

Barrasso is no slouch himself when it comes to fundraising. According to OpenSecrets.org, from 2011-16 Barrasso’s campaign committee raised $5.8 million and had $2.7 million in cash at the end of 2016.

Barrasso’s sudden vulnerability is tied to two men: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) and alt-right firebrand Steve Bannon. Together they almost make Trump appear as a minor character in this political passion play.

McConnell is an unabashed albatross hanging around Barrasso’s neck. Barrasso’s loyalty to the majority leader has fueled Wyoming’s junior senator’s rise to number four rung on the Senate’s Republican leadership ladder. It’s even earned him the “reward” of standing behind and to the right of McConnell in seemingly every Capitol Hill photo-op. The image is so ubiquitous that TV viewers have been known to wonder aloud, “Who’s that guy always on McConnell’s shoulder?”

The loyalty and stuck-like-glue association may suddenly be a lot less valuable though.

McConnell has become Trump’s whipping boy and the scapegoat for the administration’s continued legislative failures — especially the Affordable Care Act repeal debacle. But even Trump recognizes he can only push so hard. Like it or not, he needs McConnell to corral the votes of more mainstream but alienated GOP senators like John McCain and Bob Corker.

Bannon, meanwhile, has no such reservations. No longer (officially) in the West Wing, he’s become an attack-dog without a leash, free to muck-rake and organize challenges to any and every Republican incumbent who fails to goose-step well enough in Trump’s parade.

“There’s a time and season for everything, and right now it’s a season of war against a GOP establishment,” Bannon said at the Value Voters summit last week. “It’s no longer acceptable to come and pat you on the head and tell you everything is going to be fine just to get those people in office.”  

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The Democrats I’ve talked to harbor no positive feelings for Barrasso, but they consider both Prince and Friess to be disastrous for the state. They would like to see a credible Democrat who has enough money and charisma to compete in the general election. At this point, though, there’s no party member on the horizon who fits that hard-to-fill bill.

Will the Senate primary show that Wyoming is just like most states, where rich candidates can waltz in and control the campaign by dumping a lot of money to unseat the incumbent? Or will GOP voters here back Barrasso because they don’t think he’s done anything worth throwing him out of office for?

Barrasso had a 56 percent approval rating as of July and only 18 percent disapproved of his job performance. Virtually the entire state knows who he is, and he won’t lack money. He also has an immense drive to stay in office. Taken together, those qualities should get him through the primary with a win. But if Friess and Prince both challenge him and there’s a debate, save me a seat now. If the gloves come off and all three become political pit bulls, it should be a night to remember.

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. Hmmm, if Prince becomes our new Senator, will Sister Betsy DeVos waltz in and fix the school system deficit that our state legislators find uncontrollable?

    I can hear the promise now, “Vouchers for everyone, standards for none.”

    There again, with Eric’s mercenary experience and deep pockets, maybe he could furnish free automatic weapons and ammo for our grizzly terrorized schools which concerned Sis so much.

    But I digress, Mr. Drake, as that’s not the point of your article.

    Senator Barrasso’s absence and refusal to meet with constituents, e.g. no-shows in Teton for events filled with “average voters” while attending high dollar fundraisers across town to hobnob with well-heeled donors, could be a rallying point for his competitors. If Prince and Friess can paint themselves as friends of the little people willing to meet with the good folks of Wyoming, we may witness a change in representation.

  2. Any democrat running for office in Wyoming has to be able to out Trump his opponents on the right. But it would be refreshing to see McConnell lose his puppeteer.