Gosar’s political career starts in earnest today
By Kerry Drake
— August 19, 2014
Four years ago, the night of the Democratic primary was the end of Pete Gosar’s first political campaign. Today’s primary will effectively mark the beginning of his second try to become Wyoming’s governor.
When Gosar threw his hat into the ring earlier this year, he knew the odds against him were incredible. Facing a Republican incumbent who has no worries about raising money, in a state where GOP registered voters outnumber the Democrats more than 3 to 1, the only really positive thing about Gosar’s bid up until now is that he didn’t have to waste resources to fight a primary opponent.
After tonight, Gosar will almost certainly face Gov. Matt Mead, who had two primary opponents who have turned out to be far weaker candidates than most people imagined. That doesn’t mean no one will vote for Cindy Hill or Taylor Haynes, because between 35 and 40 percent of voters will generally cast a ballot against an incumbent just because they can, even if they don’t actually know anything about the opponent.
Neither Haynes or Hill ran a credible enough campaign that had any chance of ousting Mead. The pair of Republican mavericks didn’t squander opportunities as much as they seemed to lose support every time they opened their respective mouths and showed voters how little they know about governing, or even recognizing what limitations are placed on the governor’s authority by the constitution.
Gosar can make inroads to decrease Mead’s huge advantages, but he has to attack and attack from now until November. And if he ever thinks he’s done, he needs to attack some more.
Democrats have overcome long odds and other handicaps to win the governership in Wyoming, as the political careers of Gov. Ed Herschler (three terms) and Mike Sullivan and Dave Freudenthal (two terms each), conclusively proved. However, there has to be a sequence of events that splits the Republican Party to provide an opening for a Democratic candidate. Without it, there just isn’t a path to victory.
The GOP won’t be united after this primary, because some animosity will surely carry over to the general election. I can’t see Haynes, who has been very critical of Mead since the 2010 election, jumping on a unity bandwagon. Meanwhile, it’s almost 100 percent guaranteed that Hill won’t, since she’s been spitting mad at the governor since he supported — and she believes organized — the legislature’s decision to take away most of her duties as the elected Superintendent of Public Instruction.
The Wyoming Supreme Court gave Hill back her powers when it declared the Republican-led legislature’s action unconstitutional. That created a definite bloc of sympathy for Hill, especially since Mead initially wouldn’t let her go back to her office after the ruling. But the majority of voters seem to recognize that Hill’s tenure as superintendent has been an unmitigated disaster, and don’t want her anywhere near the governor’s office.
Hill and Haynes, together or separately, have some power to make Mead’s road to re-election tougher than it should be. It all depends upon how much support they actually get in today’s primary. If they don’t split the Tea Party vote and one of them comes out of the race as the clear darling of Wyoming conservatives, either has the potential to continue their quest as a write-in candidate and take votes away from Mead. Haynes ran as a write-in in 2010, grabbing 7 percent of the vote in a very limited campaign. Meanwhile, Hill could get some degree of satisfaction in helping to prevent Mead from being re-elected.
A wide split after a bitter GOP gubernatorial 1986 primary between victor Pete Simpson and Bill Budd enabled moderate Democrat Mike Sullivan to win enough Republican support to become governor. A much smaller rift between Republican candidates Eli Bebout and Ray Hunkins in 2002 carried over to the general election and helped Freudenthal defeat Bebout by less than 4,000 votes.
Gosar is more progressive than Sullivan or Freudenthal, so his campaign would likely find it more difficult to take advantage of GOP disunity — even if they dislike each other, Republicans obviously like to win, and they can close ranks and play nice when they have to do so. Still, the situation could create a wide enough opening for Gosar to take a shot at convincing Republicans he’s a viable alternative to Mead.
There are two schools of thought about Mead, and they both have a ring of truth. One says that he’s generated considerable ill will by fighting with Hill, and he’s never been seen as a true conservative on many issues. The other says as long as the economy is fairly stable, unemployment remains low and more companies move to Wyoming, voters will reward the governor with another term.
It should be easy to show the electorate that no matter how Mead viewed Hill’s performance as superintendent, by backing the Legislature and signing SF 104, effectively taking away the people’s vote, Mead was on thin ice constitutionally from the beginning. He lost on Obamacare and he lost Hill’s case, so his own legal opinion and the advice of the attorney general he appointed could raise voters’ concern about his judgment.
The beauty of using this strategy is that Gosar doesn’t even need to express any sympathy toward Hill, or agree with her in any way, to use Mead’s botched handling of the matter against him.
Mead’s stubborn refusal in the wake of numerous court decisions to consider allowing same-sex marriage could potentially lose him some votes from a Republican Party that is showing an increasing acceptance for the idea that people in live-and-let-live, independent Wyoming should have the right to marry the person they love, regardless of sexual orientation. It’s only been a few years since the issue was one that conservatives could claim their position as unquestionably representing the majority view, but it’s no longer a major cog in the culture wars that automatically gets GOP votes.
The biggest opportunity Gosar has to make a significant difference in this race, win or lose, is to hammer Mead on his long opposition to expanding Medicaid. Despite the fact that expansion of the program makes common and fiscal sense, the governor chose to play politics with the lives of an estimated 17,000 low-income Wyoming citizens and refuse to provide them health care.
Mead has already thrown away more than $60 million in federal money this year that could not only help the working poor but also keep the state’s critical care hospitals open. States whose governors accepted Medicaid expansion, including some of Mead’s Republican colleagues like Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, are thriving while Wyoming hands them its tax money.
It was the stupidest decision Mead could make, and he should be called on it repeatedly until there is so much public pressure he is forced to reverse course. Gosar, who resigned as chairman of the state party to enter this race, could make a huge contribution to the state — one that could be rewarded in future elections — if he leads a successful charge to expand Medicaid.
Mead should also be taken to task for his failure to take climate change seriously and for allowing the legislature to keep Wyoming’s Board of Education from even talking about the Next Generation Science Standards. Our children’s education is suffering because, once again, Mead had to try to placate the extreme right wing of his party.
The governor has opened the door to criticism with his lackluster term that has been marked by indecisiveness, poor judgment and a lack of leadership on many issues. Hill and Haynes couldn’t make a dent in exploiting his weaknesses, but it’s incumbent upon Gosar to give it his best shot. You never know what can happen in Wyoming politics when the odds against long-shots begin to drop as they start to look better than what we have now.
— Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake is a contributor to WyoHistory.org. He also moderates the WyPols blog.
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