Two conservative Republican candidates in Wyoming are aiming to unseat incumbent Gov. Matt Mead on August 19, when GOP primary voters will cast their ballots for Wyoming’s highest state office.
Mead, a fiscal and social conservative, is facing Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill (R), and Dr. Taylor Haynes (R), both of whom intend to ramp up Wyoming’s opposition to federal policies. The winner of the Republican primary will face Pete Gosar (D) of Laramie, who ran unsuccessfully in the Democrat primary for governor in 2010.
In this off-year election, the primary candidates for governor represent the divisions within Wyoming’s Republican Party, even as they pursue similar platforms.
All four candidates share an awareness that Wyoming’s coal industry — which contributes billions in revenue for state government and schools — is under the gun. Coal production for electricity generation is losing market share to natural gas, while proposed carbon regulations will likely squeeze the state’s mining industry even further.
“Any candidate who wants to be successful will complain that the federal government is overextending its reach and they [carbon rules] are a detriment to Wyoming’s interests,” said University of Wyoming political scientist Jim King. “They are all going to have basically the same position on this.”
Aside from coal issues, King said that jobs, the economy, and limited government are all core issues that form the foundational platform of any successful candidate in Wyoming.
Mead has taken care to address all of these issues. During his tenure Wyoming’s economy has made headway, with increasing revenue, declining poverty rates and an overall increase in jobs to unprecedented levels. At the same time, he’s drafted budgets that keep state government nearly flat, and even modestly decreased the numbers of state employees.
As for Mead’s approach to dealing with the federal government, he has filed numerous suits against the EPA, and joined a suit seeking expanded gun rights. A former U.S. Attorney who defended the federal government in court, he has not shied away from launching legal attacks at his past employer, even if he says lawsuits are not his favorite tactic.
“In terms of where you want to grow proactively, litigation to stop something doesn’t get you there,” Mead said. “You need something more than that.”
King said Mead’s chances of winning the primary and the general election are strong, particularly with the approval rating of 50 percent that he logged in a poll last July. Some 31 percent of respondents disapproved of Mead’s performance, another 18 percent were undecided.
King expects undecided respondents to split along roughly the same lines in the August primary, giving Mead the margin he needs to win.
“I would expect the power of incumbency to enable Gov. Mead to be re-nominated,” King said. “He has none of the vulnerabilities that usually mark an incumbent for defeat.” In King’s view, the only things that could damage Mead’s chances are a major scandal or a policy decision “that runs totally counter to opinion in the state.”
The major controversy during Mead’s tenure relates to Senate File 104. That measure removed most of the duties of the state superintendent of public instruction, transferring them to an appointed director for the state Department of Education. The legislature passed that bill with a nearly two-thirds vote in the 2013 session, but the Wyoming Supreme Court overturned it in a split vote early in 2014.
Mead explained Senate File 104 as an attempt to revise the structure of the Department of Education for the “maximum benefit” of students and the state. “Both the legislature and myself, it wasn’t an attempt to cause problems,” he said.
Mead acknowledged the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the law. “We have to accept that,” he said. “When you make a mistake you’ve got to own up to it. The buck stops with me, and then you’ve got to try to improve and move forward.”
Whether or not Senate File 104 is a “major scandal” depends on one’s point of view. King believes that for most people, leadership at the Department of Education doesn’t rise to great importance because it’s not central to their daily lives. Even for those who have children in public school, questions of who leads the Department of Education in Cheyenne might not be a major concern, he said.
“There are probably a lot of people that know something is going on, but don’t know the issues, and see it as mostly just a bunch of politicians going at each other, and it just turns them off,” King said.
However, Mead’s opponent Cindy Hill — the very superintendent whose duties were axed by Senate File 104 and reinstated by the Supreme Court — thinks otherwise. She frames Senate File 104 as an effort to “take away the people’s vote,” and one in which Wyoming voters take a great interest in. That mindset has traction in some Republican circles, and among Democrats, including gubernatorial candidate and state school board member Pete Gosar.
The notable event at last month’s GOP state convention in Evanston was a vote to censure Mead for signing Senate File 104. The measure came within seven votes of passing.
Counties whose delegates voted nearly unanimously to censure Mead included Big Horn, Park, Uinta, Sublette, Converse, Platte, Goshen, and Washakie. However, Mead avoided censure through roughly 50-50 support he received in counties with large population like Laramie and Natrona, plus support from Sheridan, Johnson, Teton, Albany, Fremont and Sweetwater counties.
To some, the censure vote indicated a popular groundswell of opposition that revealed Mead’s vulnerability. King is skeptical, saying the delegates who vote at the state convention aren’t necessarily a representative slice of Wyoming’s overall GOP voters.
“If you are interested enough to be active in being part of the county committee, and are going to attend the party convention, you are probably not going to find yourself in the middle of the political spectrum,” King said. “You are there because you have very firm and committed ideological beliefs.”
Out of 277 delegates, 132 voted for censure, which Hill took as a major sign of discontent toward Mead. “I think most people thought that was significant,” she said.
Hill frames Senate File 104 as an effort to upset the balance of power in Wyoming government. “We have an issue around the separation of powers,” she said. “It is very difficult to see the separation of powers.”
Others see the court’s overturning of Senate File 104 as evidence of each branch of government fulfilling its role. “The fact that a law was tested by a court isn’t necessarily as dramatic as people may think,” said Liz Brimmer, a veteran campaign consultant and GOP staffer. “It actually proves the system of checks and balances of what we all know from early civics lessons.”
According to law and historical precedence, the Legislature does have the authority to assign some of the duties to the superintendent’s office, such as management of the Department of Education, which didn’t exist when the Wyoming Constitution was written in 1889. Other duties, like “general supervision” of the state’s schools, are enshrined in the state constitution.
From a policy standpoint, Hill plans to push back against federal government and the federalizing she says is sweeping through Wyoming.
“It’s time for Wyoming to have a woman governor who respects the people of Wyoming — government does not know best, the people know best,” Hill said. “We need a governor who will listen to and respect the people of Wyoming.”
If elected, Hill plans to repeal the Common Core education standards, which were adopted by Wyoming as part of a movement initiated by Bill Gates, the National Governor’s Association, and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The Obama Administration later embraced the Common Core as part of the Race to the Top program.
“I will be moving our state toward no longer federalizing our education, land, water, and air,” Hill said. “I will be decentralizing and not centralizing.”
Hill said she would like to reform Wyoming’s budget process to make it more accessible to the public. There are few people who know what is in Wyoming’s budget, she said.
“(The budget) is controlled by a few legislators, highly placed bureaucrats and the governor,” Hill said. “It is controlled by the few. That should never happen. It is the people’s money. The people must remind those in government that every dollar comes by way of the people.”
Hill has held onto her core supporters despite ongoing investigations — which some dismiss as being politically motivated — into alleged financial mismanagement, nepotism, and misappropriation of federal dollars during her tenure as head of the Department of Education.
This summer, the Wyoming House Special Investigative Committee will report on its investigation into Hill’s tenure. It’s unknown to what degree the report will help or hurt Hill’s chances, or where she stands among voters today.
Last July a poll found that 46 percent of respondents disapproved of Hill’s job performance as superintendent, while 23 percent approved and 31 percent were undecided.
Meanwhile, Hill sees herself as a very electable candidate. That confidence is based in part on her performance in the 2010 GOP primary that won her election as superintendent. Not only did she beat incumbent Jim McBride, she won the primary vote in all 23 counties. After that, she defeated former Democratic state senator Mike Massie in the general election.
Hill’s tallied significantly more votes (47,165) in the superintendent’s primary than Mead did when he won the governor’s primary (30,308).
It’s uncertain whether Hill’s ability to get out the vote in the 2010 superintendent race will convert in the governor’s primary in 2014. King notes that the two offices have different levels of visibility. Hill’s 2010 results can’t necessarily be used to predict outcome in the governor’s race, where candidate name recognition is higher and more people are watching, he said.
Additionally, the dual challenge Mead is facing from Hill and Taylor Haynes could work to Mead’s benefit.
“There is a potential of (Haynes and Hill) splitting the more conservative vote in the primary,” King said. “That was Mead’s advantage in 2010 when Ron Micheli and Rita Meyer more or less split the more conservative vote.”
In 2010, Taylor Haynes won seven percent of the general election votes for governor while running as an independent. Like Hill and Mead, he also wants to push back against Washington. He aims to banish EPA from Wyoming and turn control of federal lands in the state over to Wyoming.
“There is no federal land in Wyoming,” he said. “It’s a ruse, a hoax, a misunderstanding. Every square inch belongs to the people of the state.”
Hayne’s stance relies on his interpretation of Article I Section 8 Clause 17 of the U.S. Constitution, which he says limits federal land ownership to Washington D.C. and military bases, making all other federal land ownership unconstitutional.
If elected, Haynes says he would pursue legal action to transfer federal land in Wyoming, and reroute mineral royalties that flow to the U.S. government into state coffers. In place of the EPA, he would give the state Department of Environmental Quality full authority over environmental regulations in Wyoming.
“When I take over 100 percent of our mineral wealth, we’ll have a 51 percent increase in mineral income, so it would be a very different look on budgeting, with more resources going back to the cities towns and counties,” Haynes said. Currently Wyoming receives approximately 49 percent of the federal mineral royalties derived from resources produced on federal lands.
Haynes’ case for transferring federal lands and management decisions to the state is popular concept among some circles here. The view runs counter to current federal policy, which operates on the premise that the U.S. Constitution upholds federal land ownership and environmental regulation.
Haynes’ constitutional views also underlie his stance on gun rights. “The second amendment is your concealed carry permit, and you don’t need to jump through any hoops to carry a weapon in any way you want,” he said. “If you can afford a fully armed F-16, great,” he said in a recent speech.
Haynes also brings a distinctly Christian voice to the election, saying he is strong on “traditional Judeo-Christian values” when it comes to opposing same-sex marriage and abortion.
“Abortion is murder, and usually it destroys two lives,” he said in a 2010 speech. His combination of anti-federal sentiment with religious values places him squarely within the conservative Christian segment of the GOP, which is increasingly influential at the national level.
Win the primary, win the general?
About 106,000 voters turned out for Wyoming’s 2010 primary election. That’s roughly half of all registered voters in the state, or less than a third of the entire voting age population. Assuming a similar turnout this year, two thirds of Wyoming’s voting-age citizens won’t even bother to go to the polls for the primary.
That means a candidate will need as few as 33,500 votes to win the GOP primary for governor this August 19.
In a state where Republicans outnumber Democrats almost three to one, some say the GOP primary winner has a strong chance at winning the general election.
“I think mid-term Obama administration, the probability in a state like Wyoming of a Democrat winning governor is very small,” Brimmer said.
Whoever wins the GOP primary will face Democrat Pete Gosar in November. Originally from Pinedale, he currently lives in Laramie where he owns an aviation business and pilots Wyoming’s state plane. Gosar is running on a platform that emphasizes economic diversification.
“If we rely solely on producing our (mineral) exports like we’ve done for the last four decades, then we are going to have a future similar to Flint, Michigan,” Gosar said, referring to the economically depressed factory town in the upper Midwest.
“We have to find a way to adapt our coal industry to the markets as they exist today and not to how we wish they would exist,” Gosar said. “The markets are asking for lower emissions for burning coal. Those are the facts.”
Gosar believes emission-reducing technology can provide a solution for coal, but developing that technology will require an “all hands on deck” type of approach.
“If we don’t have a moon shot on reducing emissions, then we stand to be left out and lose millions and perhaps billions of dollars to our local economy, and that will have drastic effects,” Gosar said.
Matt Mead also is a major supporter of coal, saying he’s committed to preserving the coal industry.
“I am bound and determined to help find solutions for coal,” Mead said. “Having technology lead solutions rather than rules and regulations is really where we should be going. … I will do all I can to influence and try to guide it in the right direction, but to the extent I don’t do that, we will litigate.”
While Wyoming gets significant revenue from other mineral resources like oil and natural gas, Mead is intent on maintaining the coal industry rather than pivoting the economy toward other mineral resources.
“Our first pursuit is we are not going to give up the battle on coal,” Mead said. “I am steadfast on that. My plan A, B, and C, is to fight for coal.”
At the same time, Mead is looking to develop Wyoming’s technology sector by expanding broadband access in the state. He hopes having infrastructure for technology will help keep more young people in Wyoming.
Should Mead’s incumbent status and high approval rating propel him to win the primary, he’ll also have the benefit of a sizable campaign war chest. In the 2010 race Mead self-financed his $1.8 million in fundraising dollars to the tune of $1.2 million, something that’s not lost on Hill.
“Matt Mead has tremendous wealth,” she said. “And of course he bought it last time, and that’s common knowledge.”
Money can certainly raise the name recognition of a candidate, but it’s not a sure thing that the candidate with the most money wins the election. As columnist Bill Sniffin has noted, several other Wyoming candidates who raised more than a million dollars through self-finance did not win.
Having enough money to put up signs and fly around the state to appear at more events can help, King said, but money alone isn’t enough. “Money does play a role, but I always tell my friends you can’t buy an election,” he said.
Mead doesn’t plan self-financing to the degree that he did last time, a decision he and his wife made together. He plans to rely on donations to run the majority of his campaign. “My wife and I will put some money in, but probably not much,” he said.
Mead also won’t campaign exhaustively or spend a lot of time going door to door because he still is focused on the job at hand. “I am going to run on my record, and run on the job I’m doing, and I hope that is more than a good substitute for attending every campaign event in the state,” he said.
In the end, Brimmer said concerns over education policy and carbon regulation may not matter to Wyoming voters as much as jobs and the economy.
“I think there will be a question in terms of what a challenger offers for the future of Wyoming’s economy and people,” she said. “If that can’t be answered with a better future than the one they have now, I think that challenger won’t win.”