CHEYENNE, Wyo. — In January, the Laramie County Democratic Party had captains for only 10 of its 77 precincts.
Today, it has 30 precinct captains to help attract candidates and get out the vote in their neighborhoods — and it is working to get more, said Laramie County Democratic Chairwoman Linda Stowers.
“I think we’re on a better keel,” Stowers said.
The Wyoming Democratic Party has been on the decline for years, but now the party’s trying to come back from its worst election in decades.
In November, Republicans easily captured the governor’s office, along with all other statewide offices, and won 76 of 90 state legislative seats — the largest GOP legislative majority in the nation, and the most seats they’ve controlled in nearly 90 years.
Now, the Democratic Party faithful are working to stage a comeback. Next weekend, state Democratic leaders will meet in Casper to strategize exactly how to do that.
But it remains to be seen if 2010 will become Wyoming Democrats’ rallying point for a comeback or be just the most poignant sign yet that the party has been relegated to the margins of Wyoming politics.
Across the nation, 2010 was a tough year to be a Democrat. Fueled in large part by discontent over federal spending and President Barack Obama’s health care plan, Republicans took back control of the U.S. House of Representatives and statehouses across the nation.
The GOP wave certainly helped propel its candidates in Wyoming as well. But many political observers say Wyoming Democrats also shot themselves in the foot in a number of ways.
Democrats ran no candidates at all in 2010 for two of the five statewide offices and in 41 of 75 legislative races, and many of the candidates that did run were underfunded, undertrained, and started campaigning too late.
Democratic voter turnout was poor, and the party found it difficult to get volunteers to campaign.
“We had a hard time getting people engaged and excited,” said Wyoming Democratic Party communications director Bri Jones.
Perhaps most important, many said the Democrats lacked a coherent message about why they’d be the better party to govern Wyoming.
“It seemed to be individual candidates [running] as opposed to, ‘This is what our general framework is,’” said University of Wyoming political science professor Jim King.
Almost six months after election day, many Wyoming Democrats say their post-election gloom has given way to determination to not let a debacle like 2010 happen again.
Party leaders will plot long-term strategy this weekend during their central committee meeting in Casper. And already, many county parties have drafted their own comeback plans, begun to recruit candidates and strategized ways to bring in money and volunteers.
“I haven’t seen the county parties this strong and this excited since I came and worked for the party,” said Jones, who started in August of 2009.
In particular, everyone from party leaders to rank-and-file activists said their focus needs to be on improving three things: grassroots campaigning, candidate recruitment and the party’s message.
Wyoming’s electorate, retired attorney Chuck Herz from Moose said, is largely composed of demographics that have become heavily anti-Democrat: rural, white, multi-generation American, blue-collar and Christian.
“There’s no reason we shouldn’t be connecting with them,” Herz said.
Andrew Simons, who unsuccessfully ran for secretary of state in 2010, said the key to breaking the Republican dominance over Wyoming politics is for Democrats to get out and show voters that they’re not as bad as they might think.
“A lot of [voters] have never had any contact with a Democratic politician,” Simons said. “And I think a lot of people are going to have a whole different view of Democrats if we just go out there and ... show them that Democrats aren’t communist, gun-grabbing liberal welfare queens.”
The Obama factor
Perhaps the biggest difference between last year’s election and 2012 is that next year will be a presidential election year.
But as President Obama appears set to run for re-election, that could have positives and negatives for Democrats in Wyoming.
On one hand, the presidential election will get more Democratic voters motivated to turn out to the polls.
In addition, the Obama campaign will offer more money and resources to Democratic candidates in the state. The Democratic political action group Organizing For America will also be more active in Wyoming than in past elections, Jones said.
On the other hand, Obama could do more harm than good to Democratic candidates in Wyoming, where polls have consistently shown the president with approval ratings around 30 percent, the lowest of any state in the nation.
Luckett said while there is little doubt Obama will lose Wyoming next year, the size of his loss will affect the chances of Democratic candidates running for statewide and local offices.
“If we lose the presidential ballot by 40 points, that’s a big difference between losing it by 20 points, in terms of the effect that it has on down-ballot races,” he said.
Next week, the Wyoming Democratic Party will likely elect Herz to serve as party chairman. Herz has been serving as party chair since Leslie Petersen stepped down last spring to run for governor.
In the aftermath of last year’s election, some Democratic activists — particularly from the city of Laramie — grumbled that state party leaders weren’t being aggressive enough in challenging Republican dominance in the state.
But Herz is likely to run for chairman unopposed, and some critics, such as Simons, said they so far like what party leadership has been doing.
It appears inevitable that Democrats will rebound from the losses of 2010 — for one thing, it’s hard to see how things could get worse for them than they are now.
King said politics in general are cyclical. While it’s difficult to see a scenario where Democrats would take control of the Wyoming Legislature in the next decade, he said, there are opportunities for the party to win back a number of legislative seats.
But in a state where Republicans have a two-to-one voter registration advantage and have successfully tapped into Wyoming residents’ aversion to intrusion from Washington, D.C., King said, it’ll be difficult for the underdog Democrats to climb back into prominence.
“When the other team has the ball at the 30-yard line,” he said, “it’s easier to keep them from scoring with a minute to go than for you to score yourself with a minute to go.”