The 2010 Wyoming governor’s race is difficult to handicap.
The main uncertainty is whether two-term Gov. Dave Freudenthal will challenge the state law for term limits which prevents him from running for a third term. The State Supreme Court already overturned the statute that affected legislators on this issue. A new court case is considered a slam-dunk for the incumbent if he chooses to challenge term limits and run again.
And although he is sounding and acting more like a candidate all the time, there are just as many compelling reasons for Freudenthal to bow out after eight years and make room for new blood.
Dave’s dallying is one thing. But there are also many questions involving other candidates from both parties. For example:
Top money raiser among Republicans is former legislator and State Agriculture Department Director Ron Micheli of Fort Bridger.
Micheli comes from a remote part of Wyoming and is a member of the LDS faith, which constitutes about 12% of the population. The latter gives him a strong base although voters have never elected a Mormon to high office in the state.
Micheli, however, has raised nearly $200,000 and many stalwarts in the party view him as the leader. Can he pull it off?
A secret weapon working for Micheli is his formidable family team of eight adult children. He is a Wyoming version of Mitt Romney, who impressed the national press last fall with the competence and hard work of his offspring during the campaign.
A not-so-secret weapon for Micheli is the strong endorsement of his good friend Diemer True of Casper. True is arguably the most powerful GOP operative in the state. Gov. Freudenthal says he is not worried about Micheli, but rather, as he once said, “the puppet master, Diemer True.”
State Auditor Rita Meyer recently announced her intentions to run as a GOP candidate. She is popular and favored by many centrist members of the party.
A lack of money could hurt her chances. But her victory in a statewide race four years ago plus her role as Chief of Staff for former Gov. Jim Geringer give her more experience than other candidates. She is also a former head of the Wyoming Air National Guard.
It’s been a long time since Wyoming had a woman governor. Nellie Tayloe Ross was the first in the country back in 1925. Others have tried and failed, notably Mary Mead in 1990 and Kathy Karpan in 1994. Can Rita do it?
Another hopeful is Speaker of the House Colin Simpson (R-Cody). He is the son of a three-term U. S. Senator Al Simpson.
The pedigree doesn’t stop with his dad. Colin’s grandfather was Milward Simpson, a governor and U. S. Senator for Wyoming.
An attorney, Colin has said he will wait until after the February Legislative budget session is completed to announce and start campaigning. Will that decision leave him too little time to catch the other candidates?
His supporters have been smarting ever since Simpson did not finish in the top five in the contest within the Republican Party to select a candidate to replace the late U. S. Sen. Craig Thomas in June, 2007. Simpson’s detractors felt it showed a lack of statewide support for him as John Barrasso, Cynthia Lummis, Tom Sansonetti, Ron Micheli and Matt Mead finished ahead of him.
Freudenthal got to choose from the top three selected by the party. The governor picked Barrasso who in 2008 won reelection to that Senate seat and is now serving. Lummis won election to the U. S. House and faces reelection this fall. Micheli and Mead are both running for governor this time around. Sansonetti went back to practicing law in Cheyenne.
The fourth candidate in the Republican field is former U. S. Attorney Matt Mead of Cheyenne and Jackson. His Wyoming political pedigree is probably as good as Simpson’s. He is the grandson of former Gov. and U. S. Senator Cliff Hansen and son of the late GOP gubernatorial candidate Mary Mead of Jackson.
Mead has managed to accumulate friends in two corners of Wyoming’s vast expanse but is still relatively unknown to the rest of the state. His family has the money to finance a first-rate campaign if donations do not come in fast enough.
A dark horse fifth potential GOP candidate is former House Speaker Roy Cohee of Casper. The trucking company owner has appeared to be unlikely to jump into the race but said he will make his decision after the budget session.
Although Wyoming is correctly viewed as one of the most Republican state in the union when it comes to national elections, it is a different story at home. Of the four governors elected in the last 36 years, three have been Democrats.
This includes Gov. Ed Herschler of Kemmerer, who served three terms. Both Gov. Freudenthal and his wife Nancy worked for Gov. Herschler.
Following those three terms, Gov. Mike Sullivan of Casper served two terms and, most recently, Freudenthal, a native of Thermopolis, has been elected for two terms.
So never count out Democrats if they can field a serious candidate when handicapping the governor’s race in Wyoming.
As a broad generalization, all of these Democratic governors have been very conservative by national Democratic Party standards and, in several cases, were elected to be watchdogs against the big out-of-state energy companies, which tend to favor the GOP candidates.
When it comes to the Democratic Party this year, no doubt the only big dog in the fight is the incumbent Freudenthal who has kept everyone else in his party from even talking about running.
It is no secret that Gov. Freudenthal loves to have leverage over the Republican-dominated State House and Senate. His toying with running for a third term takes away the lame duck status he would be stained with if everyone thought he was retiring this year. This will allow him considerable power over what happens in the upcoming budget session.
But it could also be argued that this posturing is making it impossible for any other Democrat candidate to gain enough momentum to win next November if Freudenthal does not run.
A neutral observer would probably assume that the GOP candidates are so strong this year, it really does not matter. There just are not any viable Democrats. Or are there?
So if Freudenthal does not run, then who are the likely Democratic players?
One who probably will not run is attorney Paul Hickey of Cheyenne, who ran hard against Freudenthal in the Democratic primary eight years ago. Hickey has the money and the moxie to run a good race but has been lying low, politically, in recent years.
The son of a former governor, he appears to have made his one big try at the top job and now is enjoying life as one of the state’s highest paid corporate attorneys.
The candidate most often mentioned is that of State Sen. Mike Massie (D-Laramie).
Massie is an outstanding legislator and respected on both sides of the aisle. A former state employee (he was curator of the South Pass City Historical Site years ago), he currently works as a historian, when not doing legislative work.
He has strong feelings for the job of State Superintendent of Public Instruction, too. He recently joined the state’s P16 Education Council, as a reflection of his interest in education.
By far the most interesting possible candidate on the Democrat side would be Milward Simpson of Cheyenne. He is the current director of the Wyoming State Parks and Cultural Resources Department and would probably lose his job if there is a new Republican governor.
He is openly talking about running for the top job.
But what makes this so interesting is that he is the first cousin of Colin Simpson. And Milward is the son of Pete Simpson of Laramie, who was the unsuccessful 1986 GOP standard bearer against Mike Sullivan. He is also, like Colin, the grandson of the elder Milward Simpson.
From a media perspective, a Simpson versus Simpson race would almost be too delicious.
But it is early.
Way early to determine who the final two candidates will be or to try and predict who will lead the state into the next decade of the 21st century.
These are the best of times for political candidates. No public polls have been taken and they all look like winners. At least to themselves and their family and friends.
Some of these state politicians were out in force at the annual meeting of the Wyoming Press Association convention held recently in Casper.
Besides Gov. Freudenthal, who always holds a Meet the Press event, the group also enjoyed the company of newly-announced candidate Rita Meyer.
The biggest talk in the press association’s well-stocked bars was the speculation about Gov. Dave running again.
During his Meet the Press event, our two-term leader stoked that fire.
He sounded more like a candidate than a retiring governor as he both seriously and jokingly reminded the press “of all the great accomplishments of the past seven years.”
The governor pulled a huge slip of the tongue at the end of the Meet the Press event, though, when he concluded it, waved and smiled broadly (like a candidate) and said: “See you all next year.”
Oops. The only way he will be there next year is if he runs again and wins.
Later he was coy about it and said it was a slip of the tongue. Should we call it a Freudenthalian Slip?
One reporter at the convention said he felt the governor would not run for several reasons: First, his family is opposed to it. Second, his wife who will soon be a U. S. District Judge, cannot serve as First Lady and a judge because it would damage her judicial impartiality. And third, it just does not make sense. The only governor to ever serve a third term (Gov. Dave’s former long-time boss, Ed Herschler) was severely burned out during his third term and, many people feel, pretty much did it for the money.
Casper Star-Tribune columnist Joan Barron pointed out a fourth reason, which is that the governor really has not raised that much money.
Most folks know that Freudenthal is a great fund-raiser and if he were to commit for sure, the money would roll in.
Perhaps the fifth reason he would not run is the belief that Democrats will be slaughtered at the polls this November. This comes after the big victory in Massachusetts by a Republican for the seat Ted Kennedy held for 50 years.
Back to the press convention:
Rita Meyer was well received. Two publishers said they felt very comfortable with her. A few were openly skeptical about other governor candidates, such as Colin Simpson and Micheli, as “being too far to the right.”
Although Micheli did not show up, his comments were shared earlier in the Evanston newspaper:
“In a crowded Republican primary, 40,000 votes could win the election,” Micheli was quoted as saying. “So, with an Ag base, an LDS base, a social conservative base, a minerals base and then the western Wyoming base, it doesn’t take too long to get to 40,000 votes, so we think it’s doable. We’ve made that analysis,” Micheli said.
“It will be a crowded primary with a lot of good candidates. But we’re definitely viable,” he told the Uinta County Herald.
Besides the time he spent in Cheyenne as a legislator for 16 years, he also lived there for eight years as former Gov. Jim Geringer’s Agriculture Commissioner.
Another one of the biggest factors going into the 2010 statewide campaigns and elections could be some dysfunction within the state Republican Party.
Most recently, they fired their newly-hired state director Randy O’Hara, who just moved his family to Casper from Salt Lake City. Did he even work two months?
Meanwhile, the groups like the Wyoming Liberty Group and the Ron Paul disciples (Libertarians) staking out turf to make sure their individual agendas get heard.
Former U. S. Sen. Al Simpson always talked about the importance of Wyoming Republicans having “a big tent”—one that could welcome a wide spectrum of thinking. That seemed to work back in his day.
Hard to imagine that Wyoming Democrats (normally a pretty dysfunctional group:it’s been strong individual gubernatorial candidates, not the party, who have won seat in the past) seem to be better organized than the dominant Republican party.
Sniffin, www.billsniffin.com ,is a longtime Wyoming journalist from Lander ran for governor as a Republican in 2002. Sniffin is on Facebook as William C. Sniffin. His Twitter address is Billwyoming.