CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Just about anyone who paid attention to Wyoming politics this election season knew that 2010 was going to be a Republican year.
But what took state politicos — including top officials from both parties — by surprise was the extent of the GOP landslide in the state Legislature.
Republicans won nine state House seats and three state Senate seats this year, giving them a 50-10 majority in the House and a 26-4 majority in the Senate. That's the most dominant the GOP has been in the Legislature since 1921.
Those wins were far more than what even Republican and Democratic strategists — whose job it is to track and anticipate election outcomes — were anticipating.
“People on both sides of the aisle were surprised, I think, to the extent that this wave washed over us,” said Wyoming Democratic Party Executive Director Bill Luckett.
In late August, Luckett sent out an internal memo to leading Democratic candidates and party figures ranking every Democratic legislative candidate's race by priority.
Some Democrats who ultimately lost got top priority in the memo, including state Reps. Terry Kimble in Uinta County and Mike Gilmore in Natrona County.
But the memo gave a rosier outlook to several other Democratic candidates who ultimately lost. The memo stated that Democratic state Reps. Mary Hales of Casper, Seth Carson of Laramie and George Bagby of Rawlins “should be OK.” All three ended up losing their seats to Republicans.
Luckett ranked the candidates based on factors such as media coverage, opponent advertising, word-of-mouth awareness and how hard candidates worked.
Republicans, too, were caught off-guard by the size of their victory.
“We knew we were going to do well,” said Wyoming Republican Party Executive Director Ryan Taylor. “But to the extent that we did, it was a nice surprise.”
Explaining the win
Predicting legislative races in Wyoming can be tougher than in other states.
For one thing, Wyoming legislative districts are the smallest by population in the country: As of 2002, the average Senate district had 16,459 people, while the average House district had just 8,230 people, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Because a comparatively small number of voters decide the election, it's harder to predict the outcome.
In addition, many Wyoming political strategists said that unlike many other states, there's no polling done in many Wyoming legislative races — even by the campaigns themselves.
Of course, long before Election Day, Republicans looked set to make political gains in Wyoming. Polls in Wyoming indicated deep dissatisfaction with President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats.
There was also little help at the top of the ticket for Democratic legislative candidates. Gov. Dave Freudenthal, Wyoming's most prominent Democrat, only announced in March that he wouldn't seek re-election, giving little time for other Democrats to launch gubernatorial campaigns of their own. The eventual Democratic gubernatorial nominee, former Wyoming Democratic Party Chairwoman Leslie Petersen, ran a shoestring campaign against her wealthy Republican opponent, former U.S. Attorney Matt Mead.
Democrats put much of their hopes into Mike Massie's campaign for state superintendent of public instruction. But Massie proved to be of little help: He was trounced by Republican Cindy Hill 61 percent to 39 percent.
Republicans, Luckett said, “had natural advantages on those top-of-the-ticket races, and they had ripple effects all the way through.”
Both Luckett and Taylor said one factor was that Republicans and conservative voters were clearly motivated to vote by their opposition to national Democrats.
Interestingly, though, only 66 percent of registered Wyoming voters turned out for the general election. That's the lowest turnout for a midterm election in Wyoming since 1978, according to the Wyoming secretary of state's office.
Taylor said the state GOP made legislative gains a priority this year, sinking money and effort into winning more seats from the Democrats.
One big factor, Taylor said, was that Republicans had good candidates who communicated a clear, conservative vision for Wyoming.
“That's something that voters connected with,” he said.
Luckett disputed that, saying that a number of Republicans won legislative seats this year despite doing little to no campaigning.
“In hindsight, it's easy to say, 'This is why this happened,' or 'This is why that happened,' and as much as we deluded ourselves into thinking we were going to be able to overcome it, we couldn't,” Luckett said. “The puzzle that we face going forward is, how do we get people to look past the letter next to somebody's name on the ballot when it comes to the next election?”
Contact Jeremy Pelzer at email@example.com or 307-632-1244.