(Opinion) —No ballots have been cast yet, but something amazing has already happened in Wyoming politics this year.
Competition has been largely missing in state legislative races since 1992, when Wyoming adopted single-member districts that placed Republican and Democratic primary winners in head-to-head contests. In many districts the GOP is so dominant that the Republican primary serves as the de facto election. Often it’s literally the only race with Democrats failing to even field a candidate. But not this year — Democrats have at least one candidate in 11 of 15 Senate races and 49 of 60 House contests.
The GOP has had a huge advantage in registered voters in this ultra-red state for decades, and in many areas it’s been nearly impossible for Democratic Party leaders to even get candidates to think about throwing their hats in the ring. The party has generally had no trouble finding well-qualified people, but it hasn’t had much of a sales pitch for getting them to run. “Put your name on the ballot for a legislative seat, but realize you will spend a lot of time and money on a race you will almost certainly lose” is honest, but it’s not very persuasive.
The lack of competition has given far too many Republican incumbents a free ride, without either primary or general election opponents. Barring primary write-in candidates accepting bids — which doesn’t happen very often — many elections have been essentially over when legislators file for the office and pay their fees. The problem is that, lacking alternatives, voters just keep sending the same state lawmakers back to Cheyenne, whether they effectively represent their districts or not.
In case you haven’t noticed, many do not.
In 2014, 30 percent of Wyoming legislative candidates ran unopposed. More than a quarter of House races and nearly half of the Senate seats were uncontested.
Wyoming voters in 2016 may well decide to keep the legislators they have, but this time they will finally have a choice. Competition should make candidates have to work harder to win, especially if an incumbent has both primary opposition and a general election candidate trying to block his or her path to victory.
The Wyoming Senate elects half of its 30 members every two years. In 2014, the general election resulted in an extremely lopsided chamber with 26 Republicans and only four Democrats.
This year 11 Democrats have filed to run in the Senate. None has a primary challenger, so they will have some time to build up their name recognition without having to actually mount a primary campaign. Except for what they decide to budget for yard signs, campaign brochures and shoe leather to walk their districts, most of the money they raise can be saved and spent on the general election.
Only two incumbent senators lack either a primary or general election opponent — Hank Coe (R-Cody) in Senate District 18 and Dave Kinskey (R-Sheridan) representing SD 22.
Coe’s free ride is particularly interesting — or amusing, depending on your point of view about the 2013 controversy over stripping then Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill of her duties. Hill’s supporters loudly vowed to defeat Coe when he came up for re-election.
Coe and Rep. Matt Teeters (R-Lingle) led the anti-Hill movement in the Legislature. GOP primary voters in 2014 successfully purged Teeters and replaced him with Republican Rep. Cheri Steinmetz. But Coe, who seemed to be the main target of Hill’s backers and the superintendent herself, has managed to skate through the re-election process this year on his way to another four-year term.
Since the epic battle ended when the superintendent’s term expired in 2015, perhaps the Tea Partiers who pledged to avenge Hill no longer have the drive or numbers to challenge Senate Education Committee Chairman Coe. After all, as a former Senate president who has served in the body for 26 years, Coe would likely be difficult to defeat.
Two Republican incumbent senators both have one primary challenger. Brian Boner representing Converse and Platte Counties in SD 2 will meet fellow Republican Darek Farmer, while 10-year Senate veteran Mike Von Flatern in Campbell County’s SD 24 will face GOP challenger Rod Mathis. No Democrat filed to run in Von Flatern’s district, but William Cullen III is the Democratic candidate in SD 2.
There are several races that should be particularly interesting to watch. Senate President Tony Ross of Cheyenne will vacate the SD 4 seat providing an opportunity for Democratic Rep. Ken Esquibel (HD 41) to move to the Senate. Esquibel will square off against the winner of a three-way GOP primary between newcomers Bill Weaver, David Pope and Tara Nethercott.
In Laramie a Republican House member, David Zwonitzer of HD 9, is also trying to move to the upper chamber to fill the SD 6 seat where Sen. Wayne Johnson decided not to seek re-election. Zwonitzer has two primary opponents — Anthony Bouchard, the right-wing executive director of the Wyoming Gun Owners Association, and Lindi Kirkbride, a Meriden rancher who led opposition to the MX missile program in southeast Wyoming in the 1980s.
Another crowded Republican primary will play out for the sprawling Big Horn/Fremont/Hot Springs/Park/Washakie SD 20 seat opened by the retirement of veteran Sen. Gerald Geis. Mixing it up for the GOP will be Bob Bayuk, Ron Harvey and Wyatt Agar. The winner will take on Democrat Mary Jane Norskog.
Two of the longest serving members of the Legislature are unopposed in the primary but will have Democratic opposition in November. Eli Bebout (Riverton – SD 26), who spent 14 years in the House before moving to the Senate eight years ago, will meet Democrat Chesie Lee, director of the Wyoming Association of Churches and an avid proponent of Medicaid expansion. Sen. Charlie Scott (Casper – SD 30), whose 36 years make him the longest serving lawmaker in Wyoming’s history, will meet Democrat Robert Ford in the general election.
The lack of primary opposition to Scott is surprising, given his close race in 2012 against former Rep. Bob Brechtel, a one-issue right-to-life candidate. Scott only defeated Brechtel by 75 votes and was unexpectedly helped by contributions from pro-choice Democrats. He shouldn’t expect any money this year from the same source, given his wildly unpopular (at least in Democratic circles) opposition to Medicaid expansion. Unquestionably, the one candidate Democrats would most like to defeat this year is Scott, who as the powerful chairman of the Senate Labor, Health and Social Services Committee has single-handedly killed many Democratic proposals over the years.
In the House, the fact that Democrats have candidates in all but 11 districts is remarkable, especially in light of past legislative elections. Democrats held only 13 of the 60 House seats during the budget session earlier this year, and their new-found and welcome competitiveness has given the party the potential to make significant gains in November.
Three of those Democratic incumbents are already assured of reelection: JoAnn Dayton (Rock Springs – HD 17), Andy Schwartz (Jackson – HD 2) and Stan Blake (Green River–HD 39). A fourth, former Wyoming Democratic Party Chairman Mike Gierau, is seeking his first term and has no opponent from either party in Teton County’s HD16.
Only four Republican incumbents will get free rides this year in the house: Cheri Steinmetz (Lingle – HD 5), Gerald Gay (Casper – HD 36), Tom Walters (Casper – HD 38) and David Miller (Riverton – HD 55).
The race that has drawn the most candidates is HD 18 in Lincoln, Sweetwater and Uinta counties, where five Republicans will vie for the seat given up by Rep. Fred Baldwin, who is running for SD 14. The quintet includes Kevin Simpson, Lyle Williams, Scott Heiner, Thomas Crank and Zem Hopkins. The last Republican standing will meet Democrat Michele Irwin in the general election.
Meanwhile, Democrats have three contested House primaries. In HD 22, now held by Marti Halverson (R–Etna), two Democrats will battle for the nomination: Chris Christian and Marylee White. Halverson will also have a GOP foe, former U.S. House candidate Bill Winney.
The two Democratic candidates in Cheyenne’s HD 41 are Amy Simpson and Rich Wiederspahn. The HD 57 Democratic race to replace retiring GOP Rep. Tom Lockhart in Casper will feature Audrey Cotherman, former deputy superintendent of public instruction, and Jane Ifland, former executive director of the Wyoming Democratic Party. Two Republicans are also going head-to-head in HD 57: conservative Casper broadcaster Chuck Gray, who narrowly lost to Lockhart two years ago, and Casper City Councilman Ray Pacheco.
Gillette has an open HD 32 seat due to the retirement of GOP Rep. Norine Kasperik, and four Republican primary candidates: Don Dihle, Grant Lindblom, Jarik Dudley and Timothy Hallinan.
For political junkies in Wyoming, the August primary promises to be the most talked-about and closely watched in ages due to the influx of new candidates, particularly on the Democratic side. Prior to 1992, Wyoming’s multi-member system usually led to a large number of candidates from both major parties running for a specified number of seats in each county. When Wyoming dumped that system in favor of single-member districts, advocates claimed the new method would result in not only better accountability to voters but also more people seeking office.
Twenty-four years later, it’s finally happened. Better late than never.
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