It’s demonstrably difficult to unseat an incumbent U.S. senator from Wyoming: No one has done it in 42 years.

It’s unlikely to happen in 2018 either, but there are a few long-shot scenarios that could make for a down-to-the-wire competition in Republican Sen. John Barrasso’s bid for third term.

That assessment likely sounds crazy, given Barrasso’s monster victory in 2012. He won with 76 percent of the vote. But unlike President Trump, who garnered 68 percent of Wyoming votes two years ago, the senator isn’t built of political Teflon. I can’t imagine Barrasso bragging that he could shoot someone on Capital Avenue in Cheyenne and be just as popular with voters.

The senator has five opponents in the GOP’s primary Aug. 21, but only one is likely to take many votes from Barrasso. That’s Dave Dodson of Jackson, who originally announced his candidacy as an independent before filing for the Republican primary.

Dodson describes himself as a long-time Republican in the mold of former U.S. Sen. Al Simpson and President Ronald Reagan. He’s positioned himself as a more moderate alternative to the consummate party loyalist and staunch Trump supporter Barrasso.

The rest of the field is a strange mix of candidates I don’t believe will gain much traction. Former judge John Holtz of Laramie’s biggest claim to fame was pushing for the 2011 law that allows concealed carry of firearms without a permit. Another conservative trying to flank Barrasso to the right is Anthony Van Risseghem of Cheyenne, who said he is a strong advocate of the Second Amendment because it “protects all other rights.”

Risseghem’s problem is that Barrasso’s gun rights credentials aren’t in question, so he can’t really offer much on his main point.

The candidate who is the polar opposite of Barrasso is Charlie Hardy, who was the Democratic opponent of U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi in 2014. I think it would be very interesting to have a progressive former clergyman who understands the interests of the working poor represent Wyoming. Unfortunately, only about 17 percent of the voters in his last Senate race agreed with me.

That leaves Roque “Rocky” De la Fuente, who lives in San Diego, to round out the GOP field. He’s been a fringe presidential candidate twice and is running for the U.S. Senate in seven states this year. Enough said.

My prediction: the general election battle between Barrasso and two-time Democratic congressional candidate Gary Trauner could be closer than people now think, given the right set of circumstances for the challenger.

To understand why I’ve reached that conclusion so early in the race, let’s examine Malcolm Wallop’s historic victory against Democratic U.S. Sen. Gale McGee in 1976. It marks the last time a Wyoming challenger in either the Senate or House managed to unseat an incumbent. And it happens to be the first campaign I covered.

In the early days of the contest McGee was a huge favorite to win his fourth term. Wallop, though he was a wealthy rancher and a state legislator for eight years, had nowhere near the name recognition his opponent enjoyed. It appeared to be such a cakewalk for McGee that he seemed not to take the challenge seriously. By way of messaging, the incumbent simply emphasized how much “clout” he would have when sent back to Washington.

But using that pompously loaded word so often backfired and it was hung like an albatross around McGee’s neck. Wallop, by contrast, developed an effective agenda that intrigued voters, even if some of it turned out to be misleading.

Wallop portrayed himself as an environmentalist, which matched his state legislative record and won over some liberal voters. (He quickly abandoned that philosophy during his first year in office and became a champion of the minerals industry, but he’d already been elected.)

Wallop tapped into anti-union sentiments in the state and railed against McGee’s opposition to the right-to-work law. The Democrat chaired the Senate committee that oversaw the Postal Service, so Wallop stressed what crappy mail delivery voters were getting.

But his best strategy — one that anyone who hopes to unseat Barrasso should copy — was to show a sense of humor. Wallop’s campaign team came up with a television spot that is still celebrated as one of the best in the nation’s political history.

It showed a cowboy preparing his horse for a ride as an announcer intoned, “Everywhere you look these days, the federal government is there, telling you what they think, telling you how they think you ought to think and telling you how you ought to do things. Setting up rules you can’t follow.”

Cut to a shot of the horse lumbering forward carrying a portable toilet. “I think the federal government is going too far,” the announcer said. “Now they say if you don’t take the portable facility along with you on a roundup, you can’t GO. We need someone to tell them about Wyoming. Malcolm Wallop will.”

The 30-second ad and its funny yet blistering criticism of federal regulations is as timely now as it was back in ’76.

McGee mostly scowled during their few debates. In sharp contrast, I saw Wallop positively beaming while cooking hamburgers at a Republican rally in Cheyenne. Wallop was a fresh face, while McGee represented old-style politics.

Some similarities between Wallop and Trauner are striking. Both men lost their first statewide races — Wallop when he ran for governor in 1974 and Trauner when he challenged Rep. Barbara Cubin in 2006. Trauner almost pulled off an upset that year as big as Wallop’s Senate victory.

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Cubin’s popularity had greatly waned by the time she sought her seventh term, primarily because her voting attendance record was near the bottom of the entire House. Trauner only lost by 1,012 votes, 0.5 percent of the total ballots cast. It is the still the closest congressional race in Wyoming history.

Barrasso and Trauner are both indefatigable candidates, so expect to see them both campaigning non-stop. Both will have enough money to buy a lot of media time, and it will be interesting to see which one goes the most negative and the impact that strategy has on the electorate.

Trauner could humorously call attention to what’s become a running political joke in the state: Barrasso’s constant TV appearances with his head perched over the shoulder of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky).

But ultimately Trauner can’t control what could be the biggest factor in the race: the status of Trump’s presidency and his popularity in the state on election day. Barring earth-shattering news from the many ongoing, serious investigations against the president, Barrasso should win another term. But such game changing revelations — charges of Russian collusion or obstruction of justice or evidence of any number of other disqualifiers — are entirely plausible with this administration.  

I’m not a great prognosticator of political races, but I knew Wallop was going to win. The late editor of the Wyoming Eagle, Bernie Horton, was so certain that McGee would blow out his opponent that he bet me $10 on the outcome.

I came to work prepared to gloat the morning after Wallop stunned McGee by 10 percentage points. What I found on my desk made my day: Bernie left a plastic bag filled with 1,000 pennies. It was the most money I ever wagered and won on an election. Since I’m no longer a betting man — especially on politics — that record will remain forever intact.

I’d bet on it.

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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  1. John Barrasso is one of very few senators who, a number of years ago, voted for torture. I believe if he were given “tools of the trade” and told to go get information from a prisoner he would be appalled… couldn’t do it. But he is content to have some one else do it.

    The mind set is disqualifying.

    M.Krall
    Lander, Wyo.

  2. Odds of this scenario playing out would be increased if the more moderate voters in the state decided to vote in the Republican Primary. If the Republican Primary sees a higher level of participation from voters who in the past may not have voted in a primary or voted in the Democratic Primary, I’d imagine you’d see a closer primary race which could stress Barrasso’s chances in the main contest. Or potentially unseat him (doubtful). This could be a good move for progressives, independents and those generally unsatisfied with Barrasso to consider. If Barrasso barely made out of the primary, at the very least it would send a message that he needs to pay more attention to the wants of his state, rather than just following the Party line (i.e. lining up behind Mitch).

  3. The first words out of my college professor’s mouth on Day 1 of my ” Politicis and Government of Wyoming” class at Northwest College in 1970 were , quote ” Anyone who thinks they can teach you anything about the politics and government of Wyoming is a damn fool…”. John Taggart Hinckley was no fool , but it’s one of the few times I ever saw jell-o stick to the wall when thrown.

    We need to keep in mind a couple things about Barrasso. He ran for the US Senate in 1996 when Al Simpson was stepping down , and lost the primary race to Enzi by 32% to 30% in a 7-man race for the nomination. In the followon state races, Barrasso ran unopposed for his two terms in the Wyoming Senate , thanks to his telegenic properties as the TV doctor. Barrasso became US Senator by appointment, not election, when Dem Gov Dave Freudenthal appointed him in 2007 to replace the late Craig Thomas. Freudenthal slate of choices were fraught, but that’s how the game is played.

    And as Kerry so succinctly points out , it is much more difficult to usurp an incumbent from office at the ballot box , especially in Wyoming when that incumbent has that little “- R ” behind their name. It’s almost anticlimatical that Barrasso will have the Republican wind at his back after religious social conservative Foster Friess and soldier of fortune Erik Prince declined to pursue a contest with Barrasso after testing the waters of the Trump swamp. A Wyoming primary mudwrestle with Barrasso, Friess, and Prince would have been worthy of a Michael Moore documentary film regardless of outcome.

    My old college professor’s lecture on this scenario would have been rich…