I’ve been a Wyoming Democrat for my entire adult life. I certainly can’t speak for all members of my party, but some elections are easier on my psyche than others.
It helps when I know our candidates are going to be competitive in some races. Registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by more than 150,000. Even if every unaffiliated voter decided to back a Democratic candidate, it would only cut that advantage by 35,000.
Yet it’s not impossible for Democrats to beat those lopsided odds. Three of Wyoming’s past six governors have been Democrats, and they were all re-elected. Ed Herschler served three terms.
The official candidate filing period doesn’t start until May 12, but it’s mid-April and the party hasn’t announced hopefuls for any of the five statewide elected offices or Wyoming’s lone U.S. House seat. I haven’t even heard any rumors about candidates, which worries me.
I don’t want to see a repeat of 2014, when no Democrats ran for secretary of state, treasurer or auditor. That was embarrassing for the party, and not healthy for the state. Voters deserve a choice between candidates from both major parties.
It’s important to have Democratic candidates in the big ticket races where they can also attract voters to participate in contested legislative races. Some of those elections are decided by less than a few hundred votes.
I asked Joe Barbuto, Wyoming Democratic Party chairman, where they’ve been hiding. He said he’s confident there will be a full slate for the major races.
Barbuto said several Democrats are looking at the superintendent of public instruction contest, which doesn’t have an elected GOP incumbent. Jillian Balow, who ran unopposed in her 2018 re-election bid, resigned in January to take a similar but appointed position in Virginia. She had nearly a year left in her second Wyoming term.
Theoretically, Balow’s replacement has an advantage over other candidates because he’s already in the job. The state Republican Party nominated three far-right candidates over several more qualified moderates seeking the office. Gov. Mark Gordon chose Brian Schroeder, head of a private Christian school in Cody.
Schroeder is running the Department of Education as an extreme-right ideologue. He threw his weight behind several hot-button bills — to ban critical race theory and to ban transgender athletes from girls sports — all of which died.
Schroeder’s taking that defeat in stride. He told Park County Republicans last month he will run for the office. But he won’t just skate to the nomination in the Aug. 16 primary. One GOP challenger has already emerged: Megan Degenfelder, who was bypassed by her party’s leaders. I’m told other Republicans will also throw their hats in the ring.
Degenfelder’s now government and regulatory affairs manager for Morningstar Partners Oil & Gas, but she was the DOE’s chief policy officer under Balow for four years.
Degenfelder is more of an insider, but like Schroeder she supported education policy that I’d call “CRT ban-light.” Sen. Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) sponsored the Civics Transparency Act, which would require teachers to post all classroom resources online. The House Education Committee rejected it by one vote.
The bill was strongly opposed by the Wyoming Education Association. It would put a target on the back of every teacher, because any material that even one person finds objectionable could threaten their livelihood. Teachers don’t need to be caught in the crossfire of any culture wars.
Democrats who run for SPI will make these bills a major part of their campaigns, and so will the WEA.
Barbuto said Gordon’s appointment of Schroeder is an example of the governor trying to appease the right-wing of his party — a constituency that’s remained suspicious of him.
“I’m not sure that Mark Gordon has been a very popular governor in a lot of ways,” he said. “I don’t think he’s shown much resistance to some of the shenanigans in the Legislature [compared to] past governors of both parties.”
Barbuto said he’ll be shocked if at least one candidate from the extreme right doesn’t challenge Gordon. So would I, since conservative Republicans can’t stop whining about how their candidates split the vote in 2018 and enabled Gordon to win.
If someone to Gordon’s right manages a primary upset, it could be positive for the Democratic nominee. The upstart would lack both the power of the office and Gordon’s campaign warchest.
Divisive GOP primaries can pave the way for Democratic victories. In 1986, Pete Simpson defeated Bill Budd by a mere 453 votes. A scarred Republican Party couldn’t unite to defeat Democrat Mike Sullivan in the general election.
History repeated itself in 2002, when a bitter battle between primary winner Eli Bebout and Ray Hunkins tore the state GOP apart. Moderate Democrat Dave Freudenthal appealed to enough of Hunkins’ supporters to be elected governor.
Speaking of upsets, what do you think might happen if Harriet Hageman defeats Rep. Liz Cheney in her bid for a fourth term?
Wyoming Republican leaders are deathly afraid Democrats will crossover to vote in their congressional primary and save Cheney’s job. They have drummed the incumbent out of the state party, foolishly declaring she’s no longer their representative.
Cheney’s “crime” was voting to impeach former President Donald Trump. As vice chair of the House panel investigating the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol insurrection, Cheney continues to hold Trump to account.
Hageman is adored by her party’s right wing. Cheney, a conservative who used to have their allegiance — even from her former friend Hageman! – is now the favorite of the party’s old establishment. They’re the ones Cheney’s detractors denigrate as RINOs — “Republicans in name only.”
The Cheney-Hageman race will make the Bebout-Hunkins rivalry seem like a Sunday picnic. Whoever votes for the losing candidate doesn’t have to cast their ballot for the Democrat to impact the general election, because staying at home effectively does the same thing.
Barbuto said Democratic voters will be highly motivated to defeat either Cheney or Hageman. “We want to make certain [Wyoming’s congressman] is going to look out for working families,” he said. “They don’t want a person who is the exact opposite of that.”
When Republicans fight, Democrats sometimes win. To do so, of course, means one has to step up and run. Not just put a toe in to test the water, but jump all in. And soon, please — I don’t want us to lose these elections because we didn’t even try.