Whoever wins GOP race, it will be fun to watch
— April 8, 2014
This year’s Republican primary for Wyoming governor has all of the ingredients to be one of the most bizarre political match-ups in the state’s history.
I’m pretty sure I know how it will end, but it’s going to be a bumpy ride for all three candidates, primarily because the race gives Tea Party voters an issue that will most assuredly get them to the polls. Whether it gives them enough steam to win is doubtful, but when Gov. Matt Mead supported the legislative effort and signed the bill that transferred most of the duties of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to an appointed director, it set up a political showdown likely to leave the GOP in a weakened state as it heads into the general election.
Can Democrats capitalize on the situation, as they did in 1986, when a bitter Republican primary helped propel Mike Sullivan into the governor’s office? That largely depends on the strength of their candidate, who at this writing doesn’t even exist.
The camps of Mead and Hill should make the Hatfields and McCoys look like best friends. The candidates seem to have a genuine contempt for each other, even though they have managed to keep it in check so far at joint appearances, like the governor’s State of the State address to the Legislature. That probably won’t last after several debates between the pair and the third Republican candidate, Cheyenne physician and rancher Taylor Haynes, who is the wild card in the race.
Hill did not look like a strong candidate when she announced her plan to run against Mead in the primary more than a year ago. The governor and Legislature had successfully made her office mostly a ceremonial one, leaving her in charge of things like the “teacher of the year” program while Mead picked his own director to head the Education Department.
But a funny thing happened to Hill’s political exile: Wyoming’s Supreme Court ruled just before the recent budget session of the Legislature that unilaterally taking the superintendent’s powers away was unconstitutional.
That ruling alone was enough to stir up Wyoming’s Tea Party set — which thinks Hill is the victim of the state’s good ol’ boys system – to unite and take action. If Mead had allowed Hill to return to her office within a reasonable time, it would have likely disarmed the right-wing activists, and mainstream Republicans might have forgotten what all the fuss was about when the Aug. 19 primary rolled around.
I can understand why Mead and the Legislature wanted to wait until Hill’s case was sent back to to the District Court for a final order. However, it has been seen by many as the governor being hell-bent to keep a duly elected state official from doing her job. These potential primary voters don’t necessarily think Hill would be a competent governor, and moderate Republicans are convinced she would be a disaster.
Still, they think Hill didn’t deserve to have the stake driven even deeper into her heart after the Supreme Court’s ruling, and they don’t like it one bit. But is that enough to keep them from voting for Mead? Probably not, but for those who can’t stomach the thought of voting for either Mead or Hill, Haynes is waiting in the wings – albeit the far-right wing – trying to cast himself as a capable alternative.
Haynes ran for governor as an independent in 2010, and with very little money managed to get more than 7 percent of the vote. He threw his cowboy hat into the ring because he thought ultra-conservative candidate Ron Micheli had been unfairly treated by his primary foes in 2010.
He’s back because he doesn’t like how the state is being run, and he’s convinced he would do a better job than either of his opponents. Haynes likes to say that he’s not running to be the first black governor in Wyoming’s history, but to be the best governor the state has had.
Haynes said he would govern with the Constitution and the Ten Commandments as his guide, and without the Hill-Mead feud, he would undoubtedly appeal to many who align themselves with the Tea Party. He has some pretty radical ideas, including abolishing property taxes, taking back the management of federal public lands and using a voucher system for education. But these are conservative crowd pleasers, and it’s conservatives who are most likely to show up at the polls in August.
Haynes is also an articulate speaker – just watch his 2011 address to the Constitution Party on YouTube if you want proof – and it’s easy to see that his style could favorably set him apart from his opponents if they start attacking each other personally.
Conventional wisdom says Hill and Haynes would likely split the Tea Party vote, and give Mead an easy victory. I listened as a reporter suggested that scenario to Haynes while he was recently campaigning at the Capitol, and he maintained his campaign will have broader support than just the Tea Party.
Mead has been busy these past few months trying to curry favor from conservatives, doing everything from joining Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) at an American Legislative Exchange Council convention to ridiculously denying climate change is caused by man. Conservatives have never considered Mead as one of their own, and were bitter when Democrats upset the balance of the Republican world when they crossed over in droves to vote for Mead four years ago.
Because he hasn’t even remotely been as moderate as he portrayed himself to be in 2010, Democrats won’t bail him out a second time. But depending on how the situation looks closer to the primary, they might still have an impact on the race if they cross over again and this time try to make the weakest GOP candidate the party’s nominee.
I think Mead will win by a comfortable margin, because it’s almost impossible to unseat an incumbent governor who can use the power of the office to raise funds. Mead noted at a recent news conference that he spent a lot of his own money on his first campaign in 2010, and he’s not going to do that again. He shouldn’t have to, but he also can’t simply write Hill off as an opponent. She won her only campaign for statewide office the same year Mead did, and trounced her Democratic rival, Mike Massie, even though it should have been clear to anyone who watched or listened to their debates that he was eminently more qualified to run the state’s public schools.
One of the interesting things about a candidate who largely starts out with the support of the Tea Party is that it’s actually a political movement and not an organized party. It doesn’t have many recognized leaders in Wyoming because members usually organize themselves in communities throughout the state around local issues, whether it is opposition to Common Core educational standards or blocking city planning efforts because they crazily think it’s the first step to the United Nations taking control of our government.
In picking a fight with Hill and then trying to keep her on the political sidelines by blocking her return to office, Mead handed her the perfect issue for the Tea Party to wrap its collective mind around. He did something that was determined to be unconstitutional, which really ticks them off. Moreover, it seemed pretty obvious to many observers that the governor and lawmakers should have known it was unconstitutional, but they plunged ahead anyway.
I was disheartened when Liz Cheney dropped out of the U.S. Senate race against Sen. Mike Enzi, but this gubernatorial primary more than makes up for that loss. With this cast of characters and the campaign issues that have already surfaced – and the impacts the Tea Party and Democrats could have on the outcome — this race should be three times as much fun to watch.
— Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake is a contributor to WyoHistory.org. He also moderates the WyPols blog.
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