Democrats won’t pick the Republican nominee this time

By Kerry Drake
— July 29, 2014

It’s amazing what a difference four years can make in Wyoming politics.

In 2010, Matt Mead was a first-time politician in a tough four-way GOP gubernatorial primary. All three of his opponents were credible, well-known and had their own natural constituencies.

Kerry Drake

Rita Meyer was a former chief of staff for Gov. Jim Geringer, and represented the Republican establishment. Rancher Ron Micheli was a very conservative former legislator, and Colin Simpson was an ex-Speaker of the House and the son of U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson.

Mead had his own ties to Wyoming political royalty, as the grandson of former U.S. Sen. and Gov. Cliff Hansen. Like the incumbent chief executive then, Democrat Dave Freudenthal, he was a former U.S. attorney for Wyoming who quit to run for governor.

Mead needed two things to carry him to the top of his party’s ticket: money and help from Democrats. He pumped a lot of his own cash into his campaign coffers, and had the advantage of at least appearing to be the most moderate candidate in the race. He courted Democratic voters.

About 10,000 Democrats who were not sufficiently excited about their own primary between Leslie Petersen and Pete Gosar switched parties to vote in the Republican primary. Their objective was to keep the two most conservative candidates, Meyer and Micheli, from winning, since whoever the GOP nominated was likely to become governor in November.

Mead eked out a narrow win with the Democrats’ assistance and went on to trounce Petersen in the general election.

Flash forward to today. Mead has spent the past four years playing to his party’s conservative base, not even tossing a bone to the moderate and liberal Democrats who helped put him in office. As the incumbent, he has plenty of money in campaign donations without having to tap his own reserves.

What’s different is the quality of his opponents. Cindy Hill, another political novice in 2010, won an overwhelming victory as superintendent of public instruction but is now highly tarnished. A Tea Party favorite, she still has the support of many right-wing members of the GOP, but her fellow Republicans in the Legislature took away most of her office’s powers because she wouldn’t follow their direction.

The state Supreme Court returned her as the head of the Department of Education, but the accusations of misusing federal funds and intimidating her employees — plus her general incompetence doing the job — have severely compromised her support. People who believe she was railroaded by her own party will vote for her in the primary to exact revenge on Mead and lawmakers, but it’s difficult to predict how many votes that will earn Hill. Overall, most people realize she is not remotely qualified to be governor.

Mead’s other primary opponent, Cheyenne rancher and doctor Taylor Haynes, was a late write-in candidate for governor as an independent in 2010, and did surprisingly well in his third-place finish. His main reason for running was to further the conservative ideas of Micheli, who he felt was kept from his rightful position as the GOP nominee by cross-over Democrats.

Now Haynes believes he can win.

Mead couldn’t have hand-picked weaker opponents. Hill and Haynes should split the ultra-right-wing vote, leaving the incumbent with more than enough support from moderates to win the primary. Mead has alienated some members of his party during his term by not being conservative enough — he backed a fuel tax hike. But the state’s economy is in fairly good shape and he’s done his best to battle the federal regulations his party despises.

It’s ironic, but the only thing that could possibly derail Mead’s primary victory is a Democratic cross-over, precisely what propelled his win four years ago. Mead has spent his term placating conservatives who still doubt he’s really one of them, and he hasn’t given Democrats any reason to vote for him this time.

If enough Democrats crossed over to support one of Mead’s opponents, it might be enough to make it a much tighter contest – especially since discontented Republicans tend show up in larger numbers to vote in primaries than the rank-and-file. Fortunately for the governor, that’s not going to happen.

State Democratic officials have urged members to vote in their own primary and let Republicans choose their own nominee. That’s understandable, because they want their own candidate, Gosar, to get as many votes as possible to show some strength heading into the general election. Some Democrats will cross over anyway, possibly to vote in other races, or in frustration at the lack of Democratic candidates, but others will follow their leaders’ direction.

Even if a significant number do change parties for the day and try to propel Hill or Haynes into the race against Gosar, giving him the weakest opponent possible, there’s no consensus among Democrats which of the two best fit the bill. Without an organized campaign to help one of them – which there won’t be – once again Mead wins.

Democrats must be wary of helping make Hill or Haynes the nominee, because it doesn’t mean Gosar would automatically win. Republicans have a huge advantage over Democrats in registered voters, and even if some GOP members aren’t thrilled with the prospect of either Hill or Haynes as governor, party loyalty means a lot to Wyoming voters. Having an “R” behind her name in the last superintendent’s race enabled Hill to win in a landslide, even though her Democratic opponent, Mike Massie, was obviously more qualified for the office.

Mead seems so confident of victory, he said last week in an interview with Wyoming Public Media’s Bob Beck that he is no longer opposed to Medicaid expansion and is taking talks with federal health agencies seriously.

Changing his position now is nothing but a callous political move. He isn’t worried about his primary opposition, but he realizes rejecting Medicaid expansion for three years at the expense of Wyoming’s working poor — and throwing away millions of federal dollars to boot — is the issue he’s most vulnerable on with the general electorate.

What better way to defuse the situation than a sudden flip-flop? Mead’s move put Gosar in the strange position of initially complaining that the governor changed to the view he also supports. The Democrat’s later response — that it shows Mead didn’t have the political courage to endorse expansion when it would have helped more than 17,000 people in 2013 and this year — was much better.

Even if the state works out an agreement with the feds, the earliest this working poor population could benefit from an expanded Medicaid program is 2015. Mead knows the Legislature can still block such a deal, so his change of heart doesn’t actually contain any political risk.

I don’t think any Democrats will vote for Mead, because they know he didn’t switch his position because it was the right thing to do. It was an obvious political calculation he could afford to make because it won’t hurt him in the primary, and he might pick up support in the general election.

Mead will likely win his primary easily, but he should still have to answer for heartlessly leaving people caught in the Medicaid gap with nowhere to go for help.

— Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake is a contributor to WyoHistory.org. He also moderates the WyPols blog.

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Kerry Drake

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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