Wyoming will remain steadfastly Republican

It is strictly business as usual in the race for U.S. Representative.  Republican Cynthia Lummis won the seat in 2008 with a convincing, although not overwhelming, win over Gary Trauner, the Democrat candidate who in 2006 came within 1,200 votes of unseating six-term incumbent Barbara Cubin.  Polls taken in the month before the 2008 election had Lummis and Trauner in a statistical dead-heat, but most of the undecided voters in those pre-election polls were Republicans planning to vote for John McCain in the presidential race.  In the end, they remained loyal to the Republican congressional candidate.  Lummis entered the 2010 general election campaign with a majority of the state’s population having a favorable opinion of her (57% according to the September Rasmussen Reports poll) and a monstrous advantage in fundraising over a Democratic opponent, David Wendt, making his first bid for elective office.  Unsurprisingly, polls consistently have shown Lummis with a 30-point margin over Wendt.

The gubernatorial race also features a Republican with a 30-point lead over the Democratic candidate, but the circumstances are somewhat different.  Democrats have dominated the governorship in recent years, winning seven of the last nine gubernatorial elections.  Retiring Democratic Governor Dave Freudenthal remains extremely popular.  A poll conducted in July for the Casper Star-Tribune showed 77% of respondents rating the centrist governor’s performance as “excellent” or “good,” making him more popular in the state than Republican Senators Mike Enzi (63%) and John Barrasso (62%).  In a pattern seen throughout his time in office, 90% of Democrats, 74% of independents, and 71% of Republicans gave Freudenthal positive ratings.  Had he sought re-election, Freudenthal likely would have won despite facing stronger opposition than during his 2006 re-election campaign.  (Although a statute limits a governor to two terms, the state Supreme Court has held corresponding restrictions on legislative service to be unconstitutional and likely would have issued a similar ruling had Freudenthal challenged the law.)

Working to the Republicans’ advantage in the gubernatorial race have been Freudenthal’s own actions.  First, Freudenthal did not announce his decision to retire until March 4, 2010.  While it was understandable for the governor to prefer avoiding lame-duck status during the state legislature’s annual session, the delay prevented other prospective Democratic candidates from getting early starts to their campaigns as Freudenthal had in 2002.  There were reports of Freudenthal working behind the scenes to recruit a strong Democratic candidate as his successor, but as late as January the governor’s public statements suggested he was seriously contemplating a third term.  Second, Freudenthal recently told reporters that Democratic nominee Leslie Petersen is “more than qualified to be a good governor” but stopped short of endorsing her candidacy.  Clearly the governor is not investing his abundant political capital in Petersen’s campaign.

Emerging from a competitive Republican primary was Matt Mead, a former U.S. attorney for Wyoming and the grandson of Cliff Hansen, a former governor and former senator.  He entered the general election campaign with two advantages in addition to those of all Republican candidates in Wyoming.  First, as a self-financed candidate, Mead has no fundraising woes.  News reports have pegged his primary spending at $1.4 million with $1.2 million coming from his personal fortune.  It is unlikely that Petersen, who reportedly spent $80,000 in the primary, will be able to raise the funds needed to be competitive.  Second, although the Republican primary was competitive it was not divisive.  This was in contrast to the 2002 Republican primary when negative ads targeting his G.O.P. opponents broadcast by Eli Bebout, who was comfortably ahead, produced a backlash that hindered his fall campaign. 

Republicans are headed toward wins in other races as well.  The incumbent secretary of state faces a young, politically-inexperienced Democratic nominee while the incumbent state treasurer, the Republican nominee for auditor, and a majority of Republican state legislative candidates are running without Democratic opposition.  The only possible obstacle to a G.O.P. sweep is the contest for state Superintendent of Public Instruction, where a three-term Democratic state senator who specialized in education policy faces a former public school principal who has not previously held elective office. 

Dr. James D. King is the department head and professor of political science at the University of Wyoming.