Wyoming secretary of state candidates wary of “big money” raceBy Gregory Nickerson — June 3, 2014
Leading up to the close of candidate filing period last Friday, the five candidates for Wyoming secretary of state were sizing each other up, and preemptively denouncing any opponent who spends big money in the race.
Some have predicted that this could be the most expensive secretary of state race in Wyoming history. Campaign watchers like Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne) — who recently decided to drop out of the race to seek another term in his House seat — told the Casper Star-Tribune that single candidates in the 2014 race may spend $100,000 to $500,000 or more. Zwonitzer said his decision to leave the race reflected a desire to continue work in the legislature, and had nothing to do with projected amount of fundraising for the secretary seat.
Candidate Ed Buchanan denounces big campaign spending, which he says amounts to buying elections. “If some campaign is willing to buy this election by spending $200,000 to $250,000, or north of that, I think that’s a sad day for this race and for Wyoming politics,” Buchanan said. “(That) is really not Wyoming style.”
The candidates for secretary of state include four GOP candidates, one Constitution Party candidate, and no Democrats. That means the action leading up to the GOP primary will be a four-way Republican scramble, which has the signs of being a robust race among some well-groomed candidates. The Constitution Party candidate is running unopposed in the primary, and will automatically be on the general election ballot.
Even this early in the primary season, the GOP contenders are trying to gauge how much money their opponents will raise. In an odd dynamic, they seem to be speaking out against heavy spending in the race, while also seeking to raise as much money as possible on their own. No one will actually know how much the others are spending until the August 12 filing deadline for campaign finance reports, a week ahead of the August 19 primary.
The GOP candidates include Ed Murray, a Cheyenne real estate developer, and Clark Stith, a Rock Springs attorney and city council member. They will compete against Republicans Pete Illoway and Ed Buchanan, both former leaders in the Wyoming House of Representatives, each with a highly-developed web of political associations, and at least a decade of legislative experience.
The fifth secretary of state candidate is Jennifer Young of Goshen County, current chair of the Constitution Party. She is best known for heading up a petition campaign seeking a referendum to overturn Senate File 104, the controversial 2013 bill that changed the leadership duties of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction. The Wyoming Supreme Court struck down the law this January.
While some consider five secretary of state candidates to be a crowded field, it’s actually common for multiple candidates to jump into a primary for a Wyoming executive office when there is an open seat. When Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D) declined to seek a third term in 2010, seven Republicans and six Democrats faced off in the primary. This year, incumbent Secretary of State Max Maxfield is stepping down after his second term, leaving the seat open.
Historically the cost of running a race for secretary of state has not risen above $100,000 per candidate. Back in 2006, Max Maxfield raised $96,668 in his successful bid. As an incumbent running for reelection in 2010, he raised just $58,000. Maxfield’s total career fundraising, including two races for state auditor in 1998 and 2002, stands at $250,339. That amount was enough to gather the votes needed to win four statewide elections.
Much of the speculation about how much candidates will spend in the race centers around candidate Ed Murray, a Cheyenne developer considered to have significant financial resources that could be used to self-finance much of his campaign. Murray comes from a multi-generational Cheyenne family that developed hundreds of acres of property into stores, hotels and residential neighborhoods in south Cheyenne.
“Running campaigns in Wyoming is expensive. It just is. So we are just going to do whatever we think we need to do in order to win,” said Bill Cubin, a Casper-based political consultant working with the Murray campaign.
Cubin is the son of former U.S. Rep. Barabara Cubin (R). In 2010 he was campaign manager for Ron Micheli in the GOP primary for governor. More recently, Cubin helped establish a super-PAC Called Wyoming’s Own, which raised money to support U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi (R) in his primary race against Liz Cheney, who subsequently dropped out.
Cubin expects this year’s secretary of state candidates to raise more than the $96,000 Maxfield pulled in for his 2006 race. “I think every campaign is planning on spending more than that. It’s an open seat, campaigns are more expensive, and it’s a competitive primary,” he said.
Several other candidates said they wouldn’t be raising unprecedented amounts of cash. “You are not going to see the Buchanan campaign bring big money politics to Wyoming,” said Buchanan, a Torrington-based lawyer and former Speaker of the Wyoming House of Representatives.
Candidate Pete Illoway also portrayed himself as having no intention to “buy” the election. “I have limited funds. I am running an energetic campaign,” Illoway said. “I am not trying to buy it. I am not trying to be governor. I am running a campaign for secretary.”
This past winter, Murray wrote a pair of columns in the Casper Star-Tribune that critiqued Matt Mead’s performance as governor. The letters specifically questioned the passage of Senate File 104, the subsequent investigation into the tenure of Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill, and Mead’s rejection of Hill’s requests for documents relating to the genesis of Senate File 104.
“In reviewing the governor’s record on constitutional and transparency matters about which I care most, he’s taken positions contrary to my notion of strong leadership – jeopardizing our rights and costing us millions of dollars in the process,” Murray wrote in a February 9 opinion column in the Casper Star-Tribune.
For some Cheyenne observers, the letters raised speculation on whether Murray was positioning himself for a run for statewide office, perhaps against Gov. Mead.
At that point in the year, current Secretary of State Max Maxfield had not yet announced whether he’d seek reelection, so it’s unclear if Murray’s intentions ran beyond offering a critique of Mead’s performance.
For his part, Murray said he has his sights set squarely on the secretary of state’s office. “I’m not running for secretary of state in order to position myself for some office down the road. In fact, the thought of that is negative,” Murray said. “It is counter to my intent and my purpose. I’m running for this office because it is the office for which I am best suited, and I am excited to run for it without any other office on my mind.”
Along with Murray, all the GOP candidates intimated that they don’t see the secretary of state’s office as a stepping-stone to another office. Of the four candidates, Stith is the only one who has expressed interest in holding other positions in Wyoming’s executive branch. When State Treasurer Joe Meyer passed away in 2010, Stith was on the list of three finalists chosen by the central committee of the Wyoming GOP to replace Meyer. Ultimately, Gov. Mead chose Mark Gordon. Stith told Wyoming Tribune Eagle reporter Trevor Brown that he had also considered running for Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2018.
Each of the GOP candidates for secretary of state has a prospective pot of money identified for fueling their campaign.
Stith said he is not planning on seeking funding from special interest groups. “I am engaging in fundraising from regular voters,” he said. “I see my campaign as being about the core of the Republican Party that wants to see a smaller government. So as a result special interest groups would be unlikely to contribute to my campaign.”
Illoway said he was open to receiving contributions from all quarters. “Anybody that wants to help me run a campaign against some one that is trying to buy (the election) can help,” he said.
During Illoway’s 14 years in the Wyoming House of Representatives, he spent seven as chairman of the House Corporations, Elections, and Political Subdivisions Committee. Over that period he raised a total of $60,434 to win seven campaigns.
Some of Illoway’s 2010 campaign contributions came from companies like Union Pacific Railroad, Black Hills Corporation, Qwest Communications, AT&T, Arch Coal, Marathon Oil, Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, Exxon Mobil, groups like the Wyoming Education Association, and the Wyoming Realtors Association, and several Political Action Committees. Nearly all of the donations were for less than $500. Many other members of the Wyoming legislature receive contributions from the same companies and organizations.
Buchanan’s campaign website includes endorsements from Steve Klein and Amy Edmonds, both employees of the Wyoming Liberty Group. Susan Gore, a wealthy heiress of the family that invented Gore-Tex, funds the Liberty Group. In recent weeks the organization has called for Wyoming to eliminate the maximum $25,000 limit on aggregate contributions to candidates in statewide races, which would bring Wyoming in line with federal election law in the wake of the McCutcheon decision in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Buchanan said the endorsements from Klein and Edmonds were just two among many comments he got from supporters and posted on the site. He said he has no interest in carrying forward the Liberty Group’s goal of eliminating the maximum limit on aggregate contributions to candidates.
“This point coming up on unlimited contributions, that’s totally contradictory to the way I am conducting my campaign,” Buchanan said. “This is a grassroots deal. This is old-fashioned Wyoming politics a lot of effort, sweat and volunteers, certainly not a campaign that is going to try to buy an election. We’re working a lot to meet a lot of people. It’s pretty straightforward.”
Political advisors and commentators in Wyoming typically say it is that kind of on-the-ground effort that is the key to winning, particularly in the primary. That makes the question of how much money is raised just one of many factors in the race.
Cubin said he doesn’t think a statewide office could be “bought” in a Wyoming election. “The voters are very interested in who their elected officials are going to be,” he said. “You have to spend money campaigning, but they are really more interested in your message. They can sort through all the chaff and whatever is spent is fine, but the voters in the end have the final say, and no one can buy a voter in Wyoming, I believe.”
As for whether self-finance can be a liability or an asset to a candidate, the record is mixed. In the 2010 race for governor, Matt Mead put $1.2 million of his own money into his $1.8 million campaign in the primary and general election. Mead won the primary by a scant 703 votes, beating Rita Meyer, who raised $617,000.
“I don’t think it hurts anyone to self finance,” Cubin said. “Matt Mead self-financed and he is the governor today. Mark Gordon self-financed against Cynthia Lummis (in the 2008 GOP primary for U.S. Congress) and he was not successful. I think the voters have a lot to say about it and they are going to say it in this race too.”
In the 2010 election, a non-presidential year like 2014, the voter turnout was about 105,000 for the Republican primary for governor, and 91,883 for secretary of state. A similar turnout this year would mean in a field of four GOP candidates for secretary, a candidate could win with just over 23,000 votes.
Whoever wins the GOP primary will face Constitution Party state chair Jennifer Young, a home business owner from rural Goshen County. Last fall, Young announced she would seek the secretary of state office, several months after leading a petition campaign to put a referendum on Senate File 104 on the ballot.
That effort gathered 20,000 signatures, but still fell short of reaching the 23,000 required to put the measure before the voters. She submitted the signatures to the staff of the secretary of state’s office, who she felt were unfamiliar with the process because referendums are so rarely conducted.
“I obviously saw some things I’d like to change,” Young said. “After seeing the corruption and the cronyism, I realized that it was imperative that the people step up and take back this government of, by, and for the people, or it would be to our own detriment. That’s not to say Max Maxfield is corrupt. I am saying there is corruption in our state government and we need to step up.”
Young views herself as the candidate to beat in the race. “It’s not about who I’m running against. It’s about who is running against me,” she said.
[wpex more=”Click here to read more about secretaries of state who went on to become governor….” less=”Collapse”]
Being secretary of state has historically been a stepping stone to the governor’s office — but not by means of election.
Nine of Wyoming’s 32 governors were previously secretary of state, but making the jump to governor generally occurred when their predecessor moved up to the U.S. Senate, or died in office.
Of Wyoming’s nine secretaries of state who rose to the governor’s office, five took over after their predecessors moved to seats in the US Senate. Three more secretaries filled in for governors who died in office.
Invariably, secretaries who filled a mid-term vacancy in the Wyoming governor’s did not to hold onto the seat. Of the eight of Wyoming’s secretaries who took over in the governor’s absence, every single one wound up losing the next election.
Only one Secretary of State, Lester Hunt (D), was elected to the office of governor in his own right, after serving in the lower office for two terms. He served six years as governor (1943-49) before being elected to U.S. Senate.
(In 1954 Sen. Hunt committed suicide in his Washington D.C. office after receiving threats that his son’s arrest for soliciting a male prostitute would be used against him in his reelection campaign. This story was recently brought back into the public eye by the book Rodger McDaniel’s book Dying for Joe McCarthy’s Sins.)
The last secretary of state who rose to the governor’s seat was Jack Gage (D). He served as governor from 1961-1963, replacing Gov. John Joseph “Joe” Hickey (D) who moved up to the U.S. Senate. Both lost their bids for reelection in the 1962 election. That means it’s been more than 50 years since a secretary of state became governor.
Note: This article was updated to clarify that the Wyoming Liberty Group advocates for lifting the aggregate contribution limit of $25,000 an individual can allocate among all candidates in elections to state office.— Gregory Nickerson is the government and policy reporter for WyoFile. He writes the Capitol Beat blog. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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