GOP Free for All

Wyoming Race Has Two Frontrunners

Posted July 15, 2008 at 6:21pm

The Republican primary for Wyoming’s at-large House seat is shaping up as a contrast between consummate party insider Cynthia Lummis and wealthy political novice Mark Gordon, with five weeks to go before voters head to the polls.

Four candidates are competing for the right to replace retiring Rep. Barbara Cubin as the Republican nominee in the November general election — among them are 2006 GOP primary

candidate Bill Winney, a retired Navy Captain who has worked in the Pentagon, and physician Michael Holland.

But GOP strategists intimately familiar with Wyoming expect the race to boil down to a two-person contest between Lummis, a former two-term state treasurer, and Gordon, a wealthy rancher who has never run for political office. Winney, who garnered 40 percent of the vote in his challenge of Cubin, is considered a dark horse.

“Cynthia is the stronger of two,” said David Featherly, Winney’s campaign manager. “Mark Gordon has spent a lot of money but doesn’t have name recognition.”

Winney has no other official campaign staffer besides Featherly and has no plans to bring on paid outside consultants in advance of the Aug. 19 primary election.

But Featherly said the former nuclear submarine commander has scores of volunteers working for him throughout the state and added that Winney does plan to advertise — both in print and on television.

Still, GOP strategists with Wyoming experience are expecting either Lummis or Gordon to emerge from the primary and face presumptive Democratic nominee Gary Trauner in November. Trauner came within less than one percentage point of knocking off Cubin in 2006.

“Right now I’d say the race is between Mark Gordon and Cynthia Lummis,” said a Wyoming-based Republican strategist following this race.

This time around Trauner has the support of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He has been named to the DCCC’s list of “Red to Blue” candidates who get fundraising and structural support. Trauner, a native New Yorker but a Wyoming resident for nearly two decades, is set to report second-quarter fundraising figures of $323,000 raised and $702,000 in cash on hand.

While some of Trauner’s left-of-center positions and his status as not being native to Wyoming could hurt him in the general election, Democrats believe that the second time could be the charm for this candidate, who does not face an opponent in the primary.

“Wyoming residents, no matter where they fall on the political spectrum, are embracing Gary Trauner’s campaign for change,” DCCC spokesman Yoni Cohen said.

Particularly because it is a presidential year, Republicans should have the upper hand this fall in conservative Wyoming. Sen. Mike Enzi (R) is running for re-election and faces only nominal opposition, and appointed Sen. John Barrasso (R) is also expected to win his bid in a special election to finish the remainder of the late Sen. Craig Thomas’ (R) term.

Thomas died in June 2007 after losing his bout with leukemia.

Republican strategists following trends in the state note that GOP voters there still tend to back President Bush — Vice President Cheney represented the state in Congress and is considered a favorite son — and they tend to be less pessimistic about the direction of the country than voters in other states.

Over the years, Cubin had worn out her welcome with Wyoming voters, and Republicans readily concede that her seat would have been vulnerable to a Democratic takeover had she run for re-election. But because she chose retirement, Republicans now expect most of the action for Wyoming’s single House seat to be in the GOP primary.

Gov. Dave Freudenthal is the one Democrat who might be able to upend this dynamic. But the moderate-to-conservative chief executive has shown no inclination to either run for federal office or expend his political capital on Democrats who do.

“No amount of money will win the general election for the Democrats,” said one Republican operative with experience running races in Wyoming.

Because Wyoming is an energy-producing state, its residents have been less affected by escalating gas prices.

The Republican strategist based in Wyoming said voters there are generally concerned about the economy, education and health care. The Gordon campaign said the GOP primary itself is more a contest about leadership than it is about issues.

“I think there’s a lot of agreement between the candidates,” Gordon campaign spokesman Renny MacKay said.

A message left for the Lummis campaign had not been returned at press time. But Lummis’ political strength is her experience in elected office, her history of being elected by Wyoming voters and her close ties to state Republican Party activists.

Lummis’ family has a long history of ranching in Wyoming, and the former state treasurer got her start in politics by winning a seat in the state Legislature when she was still in her 20s. Lummis was also on the short list to replace Thomas when Freudenthal was considering whom to appoint as his successor.

Gordon, a former executive with the Apache Corporation, an energy company, is boosted by personal wealth that is a combination of family money and money that he has earned himself. Like Lummis, he is a Wyoming native. But unlike Lummis, no one knew who he was until he launched his House bid.

To gain name recognition, Gordon has dumped nearly $600,000 of his own money into his race thus far. He was on television early in the campaign and is still the only candidate who has been on the air in this race. More television ads from Gordon are planned, although MacKay said the campaign also includes a strong grass-roots component.

His only stint in public service was his appointment by Freudenthal to serve on a state board. That appointment was not renewed, a fact that might come in handy when running in a Republican primary — Lummis has also had her disagreements with the governor.

According to one Republican operative with extensive campaign experience in Western states, Gordon has a good chance of winning.

“For a long time, this looked like it would be Cynthia Lummis’ race to lose, but Mark Gordon has turned a few heads with his campaign effort,” this GOP operative said.