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Wyoming Senate: And Then There Were Three

The death of Sen. Craig Thomas (R-W.Y.) has set off one of the most fascinating games of inside political baseball in recent memory.

In most states governors are given almost complete authority for making appointments to fill vacancies in congressional delegations. Under Wyoming law, the governor -- in this case Democrat Dave Freudenthal -- shares that responsibility with the state parties. The law is designed to ensure that the seat in question will stay with the party the voters chose in the previous election.

Yesterday, the 71-person Wyoming GOP state committee narrowed a huge lists of potential Senators to just three names: state Sen. John Barrasso, former Thomas chief of staff Tom Sansonetti and former state Treasurer Cynthia Lummis. Freudenthal now has five days to pick between them.

The big question is whether any of the three potential Thomas replacements make it possible for Democrats to make this race competitive next fall when a special election is held for the remaining four years of Thomas' unexpired term.

National Republicans see Barrasso as the strongest choice of the remaining three but believe that any of them will hold the seat easily next fall.

Democrats argue that the two strongest candidates -- state Rep. Colin Simpson, the son of former Sen. Alan Simpson, and former U.S. Attorney Matt Mead -- didn't make it through the Republican vetting process and believe that they now have a chance at the seat regardless of who Freudenthal ultimately chooses.

Among the names mentioned as possible candidates include: 2006 House nominee Gary Trauner, state Sen. Mike Massie, 2002 gubernatorial candidate Paul Hickey and attorney Pat Hacker. Freudenthal, who would be the strongest potential candidate, is uninterested in coming to Washington.

Although Wyoming is widely thought of as a ruby red state, Democrats have had some glimmers of hope in the past few elections. Freudenthal's election in 2002 and 70 percent re-election victory last November have served as a model for how Democrats can run and win statewide in Wyoming. And, Democratic strategists point out, Trauner came within 1,012 votes of defeating Rep. Barbara Cubin (R) in 2006.

All true, but the reality is that casting Freudenthal's success and Trauner's near-miss as signs of a Democratic reawakening in the state miss the mark. Freudenthal was a known commodity in Wyoming politics (he had spent the past seven years as U.S. Attorney from the state) and benefited from the fact that the seat was open as Gov. Jim Geringer (R) was term limited. Freudenthal ran on a decidedly non-partisan message of reviving the Wyoming economy, a message that is -- frankly -- impossible in the decidedly more partisan nature of federal races.

As for Cubin, she is not a normal Republican candidate. Her last campaign was hamstrung by a series of misstatements including her allegedly telling her Libertarian opponent that she would have slapped him if he wasn't in a wheelchair due to multiple sclerosis. Cubin disputed that she used those words but did apologize for the remarks. While her 2006 race was the closest of her 12 years in Congress, she has regularly underperformed compared to other Republican candidates. In 2004, President Bush won the state with 69 percent but Cubin took just 55 percent in her at-large district.

The last time Wyoming played host to a competitive Senate races was way back in 1988 when Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R) narrowly defeated state Sen. John Vinich (D) by just more than 1,000 votes. The last Democratic Senator from Wyoming was Gale McGee who was elected in 1958 and lost a bid for a fourth term in 1976 to Wallop

For Democrats to have a chance in this seat next fall, they need a few lucky breaks.

First, whoever the Republicans nominate must struggle during his or her time as the appointed Senator. (Sansonetti seems to have the most chance of making that come true; Democrats are already pointing to a letter he wrote requesting leniency to an Interior Department official embroiled in pay for play scandal centered on lobbyist Jack Abramoff.)

Second, Democrats need one of the Republicans not chosen either by the state central committee or the governor to decide to make a primary run against the appointee next year. Such a contest would be a money drain for the eventual Republican nominee and could well weaken him or her for a general election. (Of course, in 2004 appointed Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) came under heavy fire from her Republican primary opponents, won less than six in ten primary votes, and went on to hold the seat against former Gov. Tony Knowles (D).)

Third, Democrats need to find an A-list candidate of their own. Does Trauner or any of the others mentioned qualify? It's hard to say. The only obvious A-lister -- Freudenthal -- is not running.

In short, making Wyoming competitive for Democrats is a long shot.

By Chris Cillizza  |  June 20, 2007; 5:12 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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Comments

I don't see it as unconstitutional at all. I believe in checks and balances at all levels of government, particular those laws which limit executive powers at all levels. The ability to appoint a senator, particularly in a situation to influence the balance of power at the national level, is quite a potent ability indeed. I like the limit on the governor's power here. Mind you, I write this as a committed Democrat. The process is more important than the people.

Posted by: Andrew | June 22, 2007 7:19 PM | Report abuse

I don't see it as unconstitutional at all. I believe in checks and balances at all levels of government, particular those laws which limit executive powers at all levels. The ability to appoint a senator, particularly in a situation to influence the balance of power at the national level, is quite a potent ability indeed. I like the limit on the governor's power here. Mind you, I write this as a committed Democrat. The process is more important than the people.

Posted by: Andrew | June 22, 2007 7:19 PM | Report abuse

Barrasso just got picked.

Posted by: C | June 22, 2007 3:36 PM | Report abuse

ours is not a parliamentary system - we vote for individual candidates, not political parties. while it was good perhaps that wyoming's law spared us the unnervingly partisan reactions like those to johnson's illness in south dakota, it presumes that americans vote on a political party's ballot.

and that article about the consitutionality of wyoming's law is very good.

Posted by: peter | June 22, 2007 9:54 AM | Report abuse

the key phrase in the clause "the legislature of any State may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct" is "may empower."

Here is a good article which argues that the legislature can give the authority to the governor to appoint someone but once they give that authority, the legislature cannot constrain the governor's choices.
http://writ.news.findlaw.com/amar/20070608.html

Wyoming and Utah have very similar laws (party committee choice a list). In HI, AK and AZ, the governor just has to pick someone from the same party as the former incumbent. I don't believe these laws have been challenged. Freudenthal of course will follow Wyoming law and appoint one of those three.

Posted by: gomer | June 21, 2007 7:33 PM | Report abuse

Don't be so sure that Gov. Dave doesn't want to go to Washington.....a group of lobbyists sitting in a bar in Cheyenne the evening that the State GOP narrowed their list to 3 candidates, all agreed they think Governor will not choose the strongest candidate to fill Thomas' seat because he might just run for US Senate next year. I'd say he'll get the full court press from the National Democratic Party. Hummm

Posted by: sue mcginley | June 21, 2007 5:54 PM | Report abuse

Don't be so sure that Gov. Dave doesn't want to go to Washington.....a group of lobbyists sitting in a bar in Cheyenne the evening that the State GOP narrowed their list to 3 candidates, all agreed they think Governor will not choose the strongest candidate to fill Thomas' seat because he might just run for US Senate next year. I'd say he'll get the full court press from the National Democratic Party. Hummm

Posted by: sue mcginley | June 21, 2007 5:54 PM | Report abuse

To the anonymous poster who said that Wyoming's system for replacing Senators is "glaringly unconstitutional": I would appreciate some insight into your reasoning.

The 17th amendment states that "the legislature of any State may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct." I don't particularly like the Wyoming process, but doesn't this language allow the legislature to "empower" the Governor to make a temporary appointment from a list of candidates compiled in a manner specified in the Wyoming statute?

Posted by: Yellow Dog | June 21, 2007 5:03 PM | Report abuse

I hate it when the Constitution glares at me

Posted by: Anonymous | June 21, 2007 4:32 PM | Report abuse

WyoNative:most people in the state live there because of quality of life - access to wildlife, public lands and fishing, good schools, low crime, clean air, and control over the major influences that impact a family. Wyoming is the LEAST religious state in the nation, and fully 80% pro-choice. This is not a socially conservative state.
Without links to where you are getting this, this whole thing is nothing but conjecture. Please give us links next time.

Posted by: Kevin | June 21, 2007 3:58 PM | Report abuse

Scott Farris gave a very thoughtful and articulate overview. I'd like to add to his point about Wyoming electing Dems who somehow seem to come from no-where. By way of background, I'm a Wyoming transplant and now live in Maryland. Teno Roncalio actually worked in my Great-grandfather's store as a teenager! Easterners often mistake Wyoming as a "Conservative" state - it is not Conservative in the same sense as Southern states. Indeed, Wyoming is much more populist than conservative. Just look at the Presidential results in 1992 - the state was nearly a three-way split between Bush I, Clinton, and Perot. Folks there basically want government to stay out of their bedroom, out of their gun rack, and out of their wallet. BUT, that's balanced because most people in the state live there because of quality of life - access to wildlife, public lands and fishing, good schools, low crime, clean air, and control over the major influences that impact a family. Wyoming is the LEAST religious state in the nation, and fully 80% pro-choice. This is not a socially conservative state.

If Dems want to compete, they need a candidate with these qualities: long family history in the state, civic participation (this DOES NOT have to mean elected office - just a history of engagement in and commitment to the community), ability to navigate the Dem primary (we all too often can't rally behind the right guy and the result is everybody looks weak and liberal), from either Cheyenne or Casper with appeal in the Southwest part of the state, and moderate.

I'm impressed Cillizza found Pat Hacker - he's the real deal: Native. Civic involvement. Conservative. Family man. From Cheyenne. And can convert GOP votes in the western part of the state where his religion (he's Mormon) will cause otherwise knee-jerk Republicans to be open minded.

Posted by: WyoNative | June 21, 2007 2:10 PM | Report abuse

The Wyoming system for replacing senators is absurd. It is glaringly unconstitutional and it reverts the system back to a time when backroom dealings and political maneuvering among the party machines chose members of the senate.

Posted by: mark | June 21, 2007 10:46 AM | Report abuse

The Wyoming system for replacing senators is absurd. It is glaringly unconstitutional and it reverts the system back to a time when backroom dealings and political maneuvering among the party machines chose members of the senate.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 21, 2007 10:46 AM | Report abuse

I like the Wyoming law, too, in that it preserves the original intention of the voters for the office in question. I do wonder, however, if it gives the parties too much power. Party committees in a given state are, after all, unelected positions. Perhaps it might work better for the responsibility to fall upon the party leaders within the legislature. Those aren't statewide positions but at least someone voted for them. Of course, my wife points out that the governor is elected so the voters' interests are represented.

Posted by: Andrew | June 21, 2007 8:35 AM | Report abuse

While I don't think Wyoming's Senate seat will flip, I don't think Murkowski is a good example. She won her full term with 51% of the vote in a decidedly Republican year. If current political winds stay the same, 2008 looks to be promising for Democrats and a well run campaign by Dems against a primary-embattled Republican could be the big surprise of 2008.

Posted by: Greg | June 21, 2007 1:04 AM | Report abuse

Scott Farris, thanks for the insight into WY which the national media never, ever, covers as well as you did in your post.

Posted by: Mark in Austin | June 20, 2007 11:23 PM | Report abuse

Don't go betting the ranch that this seat will change parties!

Posted by: Anonymous | June 20, 2007 10:14 PM | Report abuse

2008 promises to be a rare year of real excitement and uncertainty in Wyoming politics with both Senate seats and the state's long congressional seat up for grabs. One thing Chris should note is that successful Democratic candidates in Wyoming often are way off the conventional political radar screen. Neither current Democratic Governor Dave Freudenthal, previous Democratic Governor Mike Sullivan nor previous Democratic Secretary of State Kathy Karpan had held elective office prior to winning their statewide races -- and this was also true for Wyoming's last Democratic congressman, Teno Roncalio, and the last Democratic senator, Gale McGee. Therefore, the paucity of current Democratic officeholders may mean less here than in other states. Rather, an attractive, articulate, thoughtful moderate/conservative Democrat with statewide friendships has a real opportunity in a state this size (500,000 people) to sneak up and capture one of these three seats.

While Sen. Mike Enzi is a likely shoe-in for re-election, we already know that Republican State Rep. Colin Simpson, son of former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson, has said he intends to challenge Republican Congresswoman Barbara Cubin in the primary. Furthermore, no matter who Freudenthal chooses to fill Thomas' seat, it is likely some of the other disappointed seekers of that seat on the Republican side will challenge that person in the Republican primary. Raucus Republican primaries also open the door, however slightly, for a Democratic candidate.

One last thought: I think Wyoming's system, which ensures a vacated seat stays with the party which won in the last election, is a sensible process and I am amazed other states do not follow that example.

Posted by: Scott Farris | June 20, 2007 6:42 PM | Report abuse

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