A Look at Wyoming

Posted July 18, 2003 at 6:45pm

They call Wyoming the Equality State, but politically, it has been anything but for many, many years.

Aided by the presence of favorite son Dick Cheney on his ticket, George W. Bush defeated Al Gore in Wyoming by a yawning 40 points in the 2000 presidential election. Republicans hold both of the state’s Senate seats (Wyoming hasn’t sent a Democrat to the Senate since 1958) and its lone at-large House seat. The GOP enjoys a 2-1 margin in the state Senate and a 3-1 edge in the state House. [IMGCAP(1)]

But the voters gave Democrats a new lease on life last November when they elected former U.S. Attorney David Freudenthal (D) governor. He defeated former Speaker of the state House Eli Bebout (R), a protege of Cheney’s, by 3,800 votes.

Like most Democratic politicians who thrive in the Rocky Mountain West, Freudenthal is a pro-gun moderate who governs, in the words of one state Republican operative, “like [Sen.] Zell Miller (D-Ga.).” But Democrats believe Freudenthal’s upset victory means their party is gaining strength.

Wyoming first lady Nancy Freudenthal recently told a Democratic gathering that she and her husband view party building as “a responsibility” of high office. And Freudenthal essentially got as many votes from Republicans as he did from Democrats.

“It’s absolutely clear that Democrats are the resurgent party in Wyoming, despite the voter registration,” said Kyle DeBeer, executive director of the

Wyoming Democratic Party. “There’s a tangible excitement around the Democratic Party.”

David Bush, political director of the Wyoming GOP, dismisses that view, noting that the state was led by Democratic governors Ed Herschler and Mike Sullivan from 1974 to 1994 and remained a Republican stronghold all that time.

“I wouldn’t say the dynamic changed too much,” Bush said. “It’s pretty much politics as usual.”

But Tom Throop, chairman of the Equality State Policy Center, a good-government think tank based in Lander, said that while the state’s partisan balance wasn’t necessarily altered, the 2002 elections were still explosive. In party primaries and the general election, Throop said, voters punished candidates who were perceived as being too close to the state’s special interests — particularly the extractive industries that hold so much political power.

Voters came to believe that their leaders were too cozy with the special interests when the state faced a deficit in the late 1990s because the Legislature doled out so many tax breaks to big business, he said — while most other states were swimming in cash.

“The citizens of the state started to realize that they were being run like a resource colony by some of the largest multinational corporations in the world,” Throop said.

Bebout lost to Freudenthal in part because he worked in the uranium industry.

“It wasn’t so much Republican and Democrat,” Throop said. “In the final analysis, people looked at the candidates and said one of them was the industry candidate.”

At the same time, six of the 11 Republican chairmen of state House committees were defeated last year in primaries or the general election, in what Throop called “an astounding phenomenon.”

Even five-term Rep. Barbara Cubin (R) found herself caught in some of the anti- special interest backlash. While trouncing her Democratic opponent, Air Force veteran Ron Akin, 60 percent to 36 percent, Cubin wound up winning her home turf, Natrona County, the business and industrial center of the state, by just one vote.

Political reform has certainly been a long time coming in Wyoming. Until recently, statehouse lobbyists were not required to report what they spent to influence state policy. And a new law just went into effect requiring state candidates to list their campaign contributions before Election Day.

What all these developments mean for 2004 — when Cubin, the state House and half the state Senate come before the voters — or the more decisive 2006 election, is difficult to predict.

One rumor in Wyoming has Cubin, who is just 56 but whose husband was seriously ill during the 107th Congress, retiring either in 2004 or 2006. The frontrunner to replace her could be state Speaker of the House Fred Parady (R), an ambitious and photogenic lawmaker who is considered part of the new generation of Wyoming Republican leaders who are more independent than their predecessors.

Traditionally, House speakers in Wyoming only serve for one year, meaning Parady, in the word of one statehouse insider, “is casting around for something to do.”

Cubin may not be ready to retire yet, however: She reported raising $91,000 in the past three months and had $89,000 in the bank.

Regardless of what Cubin does, Akin, who spent just $19,000 to Cubin’s $639,000 in 2002, is running again. But Democrats hold out hope that Cheyenne attorney Paul Hickey, runner-up to Freudenthal in the Democratic gubernatorial primary last year, decides to enter the House race. His father is a former governor and his mother is a former state Senator.

Another unknown is whether Sen. Craig Thomas (R) decides to seek a third term in 2006, when he will be 73. The Democrats’ best hope for picking up Thomas’ seat — or Sen. Mike Enzi’s (R) in 2008 — may rest with Freudenthal — or Hickey.

The party’s other rising political stars include state Senate Minority Leader Jayne Mockler, state Rep. Marty Martin and state Rep. Ann Robinson. Robinson’s profile is a classic for a Democrat in the Mountain West: In addition to being a member of the National Rifle Association, she is also a member of the Wyoming Old Time Fiddlers Association.

Some Democrats also hope that former Wyoming Secretary of State Kathy Karpan, the party’s unsuccessful nominee for governor in 1994 and Senate in 1996, tries to make a political comeback.

After Parady, the Republican rising star list features state House Judiciary Chairman Colin Simpson (R), the 43-year-old son of former Sen. Alan Simpson (R), and state House Appropriations Chairman Philip Nicholas.

Another intriguing possible candidate for future office is the new Wyoming Republican Party Chairman Jim Wilcox Jr., a 36-year-old rancher and real estate developer.

But for all the changes under way in Wyoming politics, Bush, the state GOP operative, said few voters are paying attention 16 months before the next election, because they’re “more worried about wildfires and droughts out here than they are about political fires.”

DeBeer conceded that Bush will win big in Wyoming in 2004, but insisted that it won’t be “a good barometer” of voter attitudes.