Up the Road in Wyoming, Democrats Hopeful

Posted August 26, 2008 at 4:07pm

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — At a time when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is walloping Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in the race for Wyoming’s three electoral votes 62 percent to 25 percent, according to a recent poll — and when the state’s two Republican Senators are waltzing to re-election — the Democratic nominee for Wyoming’s at-large House seat is not only making his second straight credible run for the office but also has a sizable money edge over his Republican opponent.

In her contest against Democrat Gary Trauner, “I will be outspent,” conceded Republican nominee Cynthia Lummis in a recent interview here — a notable acknowledgement in a state that is about as Republican as they come. She does not expect help from the cash-strapped National Republican Congressional Committee.

“If I do, it would be a marvelous, happily received Christmas present,” she said.

By the July 30 pre-primary campaign finance reports, Lummis reported raising $432,000 with $172,000 on hand. Trauner reported raising $1.04 million with $667,000 on hand. The disparity has raised eyebrows in political circles here.

But Lummis argues that money shouldn’t be an insurmountable challenge in the general election, noting that she won her Aug. 19 GOP primary against Mark Gordon, a wealthy rancher and energy executive, 46 percent to 38 percent — despite being outspent by about $1 million. The final numbers are still being calculated.

Lummis is not alone in believing that she can overcome money woes. Observers here, including representatives of both parties, say the race is likely Lummis’ to lose.

She is well-known across this vast but close-knit state for her service as a state legislator and then as a two-term state treasurer. Moreover, the Republican ballot line itself is worth a significant edge in most Wyoming contests. And while voters here tend to be comfortable with conservative Democrats in the governor’s office — including popular Gov. Dave Freudenthal — it’s been decades since Wyoming sent a Democrat to represent the state’s interests in Congress.

“I have heard Republicans say to me, ‘I will vote for a Democrat but would never send one to Washington,’” state House Minority Whip Debbie Hammons (D) said.

Yet politicians here do give Trauner, an Internet entrepreneur and local school board chairman who came roughly 1,000 votes short of ousting incumbent Rep. Barbara Cubin (R) in 2006, a shot at winning.

“He’s more comfortable this time with people across Wyoming,” Hammons said. “He came to our town, which is 75 percent Republican, and was introduced to a lot of people, and he listened and engaged with them in a way he probably would not have in his first campaign.”

One downside for Trauner is that he will not be running for a second time against Cubin, whose sometimes ill-advised comments rubbed even some Republicans the wrong way. This time he’ll have to win back a slice of the Republican vote that supported him in 2006 because of dissatisfaction with Cubin — no easy feat.

On the upside, the Democratic Party has come back from the near-dead in this state. Both Obama and his rival in the primaries, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), mounted an unprecedented grass-roots effort in March to contest the state’s caucuses, which Obama won. Trauner said he visited four caucus sites that day, witnessing events that would usually attract 75 to 100 people instead drawing at least 1,000, and in some places several times that.

“The confluence of these factors make this a different race” than in 2006, Lummis said.

Trauner said that one of the biggest lessons of the 2006 race is that he needs enough money to run an effective campaign down to the wire. Two years ago, Cubin benefited from a large dump of national GOP money in the campaign’s waning days — a sum that the Democrat was unable to match and that may well have been enough to shift the contest.

“I don’t want to be in that position again,” he said.

Trauner supporters have been cautiously testing a response to a charge that almost certainly hurt him in 2006 — that he’s a newcomer to the state. The fact that he’s lived in Wyoming for 18 years doesn’t cut it for some here, and the fact that he’s based in Teton County, with its affluent homes and gorgeous mountain vistas, rather than in more hardscrabble parts of the state only strengthens the attack.

This time, the Trauner camp can point to popular Republican Sen. John Barrasso — who was named to succeed the late GOP Sen. Craig Thomas in 2007 — as another Wyoming politician whose out-of-state origins hasn’t stopped him from becoming a popular voice in Congress.

One key unresolved question is what kind of mood voters will be in by Election Day. Lummis should benefit if there’s a comfort with the status quo, given her familiarity from years of service in state government. Trauner, by contrast, stands to benefit if voters are tired of Congress’ performance.

In Lummis’ favor, high energy prices have created a boom in Wyoming, with low unemployment and loads of tax revenue flowing into state coffers.

“There is an attitude of comfort in Wyoming that people’s jobs will be there the next day, and they can better afford the higher food prices that people around the nation are chafing under,” Lummis said.

But Democrats detect an undercurrent of economic anxiety, fed by high gasoline prices and a looming hike in energy costs for the average Wyoming household. Weighing in on the side of change, the state’s two most influential newspapers endorsed Lummis’ opponent, Gordon, during the GOP primary.

“Not even the highest tide lifts all boats, but with the higher prices for food and gasoline, people are hurting,” said former state Democratic Party Chairwoman Linda Stoval. The challenge for the Democrats, she said, is to make clear the connection between their own economic situation and federal policy.

Another wild card in the race is what role Freudenthal will play in the contest. Local Democrats sometimes chafe at his apparent reluctance to boost the state party and Democratic candidates. He did endorse Trauner in 2006, but it came late in the contest, and some here believe that earlier and more aggressive backing from the governor could have spelled the difference for Trauner.

This year, Freudenthal has not yet announced an endorsement for the seat, which some observers find surprising, because politicos sense little love lost between the governor and Lummis. Lummis downplays any rift, saying that when Freudenthal informed her that he had selected Barrasso over her for the Senate seat — their last direct contact — it was cordial.

Trauner, for his part, welcomes an endorsement from the governor but isn’t holding his breath.

“I think he likes to keep his counsel close,” Trauner said. “I hope over time that we’ll be able to get strong help from him, but that’s his choice.”