CHEYENNE — Common opinion has it that the winner of Tuesday’s Republican gubernatorial primary might as well start measuring for drapes in the governor’s mansion.
Republican registered voters outnumber registered Democrats by more than 2-to-1.
On top of that, the political winds are firmly at the GOP’s back; poll numbers show that more than half of Wyomingites say President Barack Obama is doing a “poor” job in office.
Yet history has shown that Wyoming Republicans have a knack for shooting themselves in the foot when it comes to the governor’s race.
Three of the past four governors have been Democrats, and each won elections over a heavily-favored Republican opponent who lost because of party infighting, overconfidence, or both.
But is there any chance Republicans can blow it this year?
“I think the chances are pretty long for that,” said Oliver Walter, dean of the University of Wyoming’s political science department.
A look back
In 1974, Democrat Ed Herschler won easily over Republican Dick Jones in a landslide year for Democrats nationwide. Four years later, he won re-election after a combative Republican primary divided the party. In 1986, Democrat Mike Sullivan won for the same reason. And in 2002, now-outgoing Gov. Dave Freudenthal upset Republican Eli Bebout after Bebout ran a subpar campaign.
But such scenarios aren’t likely to occur again this year, Walter said. Not only are voters dissatisfied with national Democratic leaders, he said, but there’s a difference in tone among the four major Republican candidates.
While the four candidates — Matt Mead, Rita Meyer, Ron Micheli and Colin Simpson — have occasionally sniped at one another on issues, they haven’t launched the sort of full-scale attacks that would cause supporters of the losing primary candidates to hold back support from the winner.
“I don’t see the Republican candidates attacking each other with as much vehemence as they did then,” Walter said.
Another reason that Republican infighting is unlikely this year, said former U.S. Sen. Al Simpson, R-Wyo., is that party loyalists are sick of seeing a Democrat in the governor’s mansion.
“They want to get a governor,” said Simpson, Colin’s father. “After 32 years, they’ve only had eight years with a Republican governor. That ought to give you some energy.”
Wyoming Republican Party Executive Director Ryan Taylor, who’s been traveling the state with state GOP Chairwoman Diana Vaughn, agreed.
“Everywhere we go, Republican enthusiasm is extremely high,” he said.
But not everyone is counting the Democrats out of this year’s race for governor.
“I think that the right candidate and the right political candidate at the time, and it is possible,” said Phil Roberts, a UW history professor who lost the Democratic primary for governor in 1998. “It certainly is not going to be a landslide by any means, I don’t think, for either party.”
The winner among the two major Democratic candidates, Pete Gosar and Leslie Petersen, certainly will try to capitalize on the overwhelming popularity of Freudenthal, who a recent Casper Star-Tribune poll showed had a 77 percent approval rating, including a 71 percent approval rating among registered Republicans.
And if the Democratic nominee can win Cheyenne, Casper and Teton County and make a reasonable showing in the blue-collar counties in southern Wyoming, Roberts said he or she could surprise people in November.
“I think either one of the Democrats, as long as they don’t make any mistakes, and the Republican candidate does — at least to the same level that Bebout did in 2002 — I think it’s a good possibility they could eke it out,” Roberts said.
Walter didn’t share that view, though he said the Democratic nominee could have a shot if Ron Micheli, the most conservative of the four major GOP candidates, wins Tuesday’s primary.
“Frankly, I think Micheli would have a more difficult time gaining the middle and the independents than the other three Republican candidates,” Walter said.
Simpson also disagreed, pointing out that Petersen, the favorite, only announced she was running on the last day of the state’s filing period after the party couldn’t find anyone else.
Because the Republicans are each spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on TV ads for the primary, they’ll also have a significant advantage in name recognition over the Democratic nominee, Simpson said.
Walter said the Democratic nominee would do well to follow Freudenthal’s lead as a moderate, virtually nonpartisan leader — an image Petersen, at least, has worked hard to cultivate.
“That’s what you’ve got to do in Wyoming when the parties are so uneven,” he said.
Contact Jeremy Pelzer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 307-632-1244.