Gonzales

Enzi retirement likely to spur competitive Wyoming primary, but for which seat?

If Cheney runs, battle may be for her House seat in country’s most Republican state

Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, talks with Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., during a ceremony to unveil a bust of her father in the Capitol Visitor Center's Emancipation Hall in 2015. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Sen. Michael B. Enzi’s decision not to seek a fifth term is causing more than a handful of his fellow Wyoming Republicans to evaluate their political ambitions. 

Only seven men (and zero women) have represented the Equality State in the Senate in the last 50 years, and this is Wyoming’s first open Senate seat in more than 20 years. Statewide office as a Republican in Wyoming is as close to a lifetime appointment as it gets in electoral politics these days.

News of Enzi’s retirement started to leak on Friday when Matt Herdman, who managed Democrat Mary Throne’s 2018 campaign for governor, tweeted about the rumor. Then the Casper Tribune officially broke the story the next day.

Wyoming normally eases into its campaigns with a summer filing deadline. But Enzi’s retirement and the potential for two open seats is pushing the state into an electoral sprint much earlier.

Do Democrats have a chance?

Open seats can create takeover opportunities for the party out of power, and Wyoming voters did elect a Democratic governor as recently as 2006. But it’s unlikely Democrats have much of a chance here this cycle.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s performance was dreadful. She fell short of 22 percent in her loss to Donald Trump. Wyoming is the most Republican state in the country, according to our Baseline metric, which accounts for all statewide offices over the most recent four election cycles. The GOP has a 67-26 percent Baseline performance advantage. That 41-point margin is 7 points greater than the next nearest Republican state (Utah).

Even if Wyoming’s former two-term Democratic governor, Dave Freudenthal, decides to run for Enzi’s seat, former two-term Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen of Tennessee proved last cycle how difficult a comeback can be. Bredeson lost an open seat race by 11 points to GOP Rep. Marsha Blackburn.

The last Democratic senator from Wyoming was Gale McGee, who lost re-election in 1976. So most of the action this cycle is likely to be on the Republican side.

Potential Republicans for Senate

For now, all eyes are on at-large Rep. Liz Cheney. She clearly has Senate ambitions since she challenged Enzi in 2014, even though she dropped out before the primary.

Two years later, GOP Rep. Cynthia M. Lummis decided not to run for re-election and Cheney ran for the open House seat. She won the primary with 40 percent against eight other candidates and won the general election with 62 percent. In 2018, she was re-elected with 64 percent.

There is a possibility that Cheney could forego a Senate bid to continue a family legacy in the House. Her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, represented Wyoming in the House from 1979 to 1989. And even though she’s only in her second term, Cheney is the third-highest-ranking Republican in the chamber as chairwoman of the House GOP conference.

She could be positioning herself to be speaker one day, but there’s no guarantee Republicans will be back in the majority anytime soon. The alternative she is looking at is being one of just 100 senators and, more importantly, likely starting her Senate career in the majority.

Other potential GOP Senate candidates include former Gov. Matt Mead, Lummis, and wealthy party donor Foster Friess.

Mead is a former U.S. attorney who was elected governor in 2010 and re-elected four years later. In his first race, he won a seven-candidate primary with 29 percent, less than a point ahead of the second-place finisher. Mead’s grandfather, Clifford Hansen, was a U.S. senator for two terms, beginning in 1967, and was previously governor.

Lummis was a state representative, state senator and state treasurer before being elected to Congress in 2008. She won a four-way primary for the open seat with 46 percent over now-Gov. Mark Gordon and two others. She defeated Democrat Gary Trauner (who might run in 2020) by 10 points in the general election. Lummis explored but declined to run for governor last cycle.

Friess, 79, is a wealthy investor and longtime donor to Republican and conservative causes. He might be best known for his support for Pennsylvania Republican Rick Santorum, including the former senator’s 2012 presidential bid. In 2017, he said White House adviser Steve Bannon asked him to challenge Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso in the primary, but Friess ultimately ran for governor instead. He finished second in the six-candidate field with 25 percent, about 8 points behind Gordon.

Cheney’s decision would have a domino effect, opening up two of Wyoming’s three congressional offices. If she decides to run for the Senate, multiple GOP sources believe Cheney could keep most of the biggest names out of that race, and her House seat could attract a more crowded contest.

Potential Republicans for the House

House Republicans can’t afford to lose any of the 13 women in their caucus. But Cheney could be replaced by another woman.

Jillian Balow was elected state superintendent of public instruction in 2014 after winning the GOP primary with 41 percent against Sheryl Lain and Bill Winney and the general election with 61 percent. Balow, who was unopposed for re-election in 2018, is also a former teacher and policy advisor to Mead, the former governor.

Other candidates are likely to look at an open House seat as well.

Former state Sen. Leland Christensen finished second to Cheney in the 2014 House primary with 22 percent (18 points behind Cheney) in 2016. Christensen lost the 2018 primary for state treasurer to Curt Meier, 50-45 percent. Meier, who is also a former state senator and wealthy, could also run for federal office, although he was just elected to his current position.

Wealthy businessman David Dodson, who leads a trucking company and an energy firm, unsuccessfully challenged Barrasso in last cycle’s Senate primary, losing 65-29 percent, and could run again. Dodson is a former independent who could conceivably make a third party run, but it probably depends on the shape of the GOP field.

Harriet Hageman is a lawyer who finished third with 21 percent in the 2018 gubernatorial primary. She could run again but might have trouble keeping up in fundraising against independently wealthy candidates.

Former state Rep. Tim Stubson, a lawyer, is also mentioned as a potential candidate. And more of the 70-plus current GOP state legislators might look at climbing the ladder.

How it plays out

The stakes are high for local Republicans because there is not expected to be another open seat in the near future. Barrasso, 66, was re-elected to his second full term last fall, and all but one of the most recent six Wyoming senators were elected to at least three full terms.

Local sources expect at least one expensive contest in Wyoming next year. The 2018 race for governor featured three wealthy candidates (Gordon, Friess, and Sam Galeotos) and spending topped $8 million, obliterating previous records.

And despite the retirement and some uncertainty, both the Senate race and potential contest for the House seat remain rated Solid Republican for now.

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