A Democrat has no chance of becoming Wyoming’s next governor, right?
Not so fast. Politics here is a lot more complicated than that, in part because a meaningful number of registered Republicans in this reddest of states are really — get this — Democrats.
And Democrats now are running their strongest candidate in a dozen years — Mary Throne, a politically moderate energy-industry attorney — for the state’s highest office, which they’ve held eight of the last 15, 28 of the last 43, and 32 of the last 55 years.
After beating three little-known candidates in Tuesday’s primaries, Throne faces Republican State Treasurer Mark Gordon for governor. Meanwhile, Gordon’s nomination has some Republicans grumbling that Democrats have an outsized influence on Wyoming politics.
The problem is Wyoming voters can register to vote — and change party affiliation — at the polls, vanquished gubernatorial candidate Foster Friess grumbled to state Republican Party Chairman Frank Eathorne and four of Friess’ five opponents by email Wednesday.
“Democrats have been able to control our elections with putting on a Republican coat,” Friess wrote.
Friess didn’t copy in Gordon, who beat him 33 percent to 26 percent and declined to comment. Past attempts in the Legislature to do away with registering at the polls, based on the same argument as Friess,’ have stalled amid concern about suppressing turnout.
Friess is one of the national Republican Party’s biggest donors. Those feelings could change.
“What I’m gauging from feedback around the state is party members really ought to vote in their own primaries. We consider it an ethics issue,” Eathorne said Thursday.
As of Monday, Democrats represented fewer than 1 in 5 registered voters in Wyoming, down from over 1 in 4 a decade ago. It’s a daunting obstacle for Throne. Even her supporters aren’t exactly optimistic about her odds come November.
“In this state? Probably not much of a chance,” said Democrat Vicki Seals of Cheyenne.
Yet on Tuesday, only about 40 percent of the number of voters registered as Democrats on Monday voted for Democratic candidates for governor. That’s compared to about 65 percent of the number of voters registered as Republicans who voted for Republican candidates for governor.
It may be that a lot of Democrats didn’t vote. More likely, Democrats did indeed cross over in large numbers to vote in the more exciting and consequential Republican primary.
“I’m certainly tempted sometimes to do that,” said Democratic voter Joe Phelan, a retired college instructor from Cheyenne. “You hate to waste your vote. And that’s what you feel like as a Democrat in this state.”
This year, Democrats aren’t contesting state treasurer, state schools superintendent and 45 of the 75 seats in the Legislature up for a vote. Democrat Pat Seals, of Cheyenne, said he changed registration at the polls to vote in the Republican primary.
“The Democrats, you know, are not running too many people,” Seals said.
How many left-leaning voters maintain Republican registration to make their votes count more is difficult to determine. But conservative Republicans nationwide have a term for such folks: Republicans In Name Only, or RINOs.
Gordon was the only Republican running with experience in elected office. He was also the most politically moderate of the six Republican candidates and no doubt most appealing to crossover Democrats.
Seals passed over another fairly moderate Republican candidate, Sam Galeotos, who touted experience as a tech industry executive, and voted for Gordon.
“He’s been in government for quite a while, and I think he did a pretty good job,” Seals said. “Being a businessman and thinking you’re going to be great at government I don’t think works very well.”
Not just advertising or even party affiliation tends to decide races in rural, sparsely populated Wyoming as much as how many people candidates meet.
Democratic Gov. Dave Freudenthal won in 2002 and 2006 largely by getting seriously out and about. Knocking on doors also worked for Republican Gov. Matt Mead, a popular centrist who unsuccessfully argued for expanding Medicaid and is now term-limited.
Throne graduated from Princeton and Columbia law school after growing up on a ranch in what’s now the nation’s most productive coal-producing region. She served 10 years in the Wyoming House, including four years as minority leader — of a caucus of nine.
She is better known than the Democrats’ 2010 and 2014 gubernatorial candidates, a former county commissioner and a commercial airplane pilot. Politically she’s a lot like Freudenthal, a practiced but down-to-earth policy wonk who espoused nonpartisanship.
“We’ve focused too much in this state the last several years on party loyalty. And it’s not about party loyalty or following a party platform,” Throne said after clinching the nomination. “It’s about being independent and thoughtful and focusing only on what’s best for Wyoming.”
While many dismiss her chances, some do so with a wink.
“She doesn’t have a chance in hell,” said Phelan. “And I think the average person would say that. But you know, you never know.”
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