No one could blame Wyoming Democratic candidates for feeling like the most unlikely of underdogs.
The last Democrat to represent Wyoming in Congress left office in 1978. Democratic state legislators are rarer than black-footed ferrets, with only a dozen out of 90 members. All five state elected offices are held by Republicans.
Donald Trump won Wyoming in last year’s presidential election by 46 percentage points. Of the Cowboy State’s 23 counties, he was victorious in all but Teton.
All in all, it’s a pretty grim picture for Democrats. So why does Joe Barbuto, state chairman of the Wyoming Democratic Party, sound so optimistic about his party’s chances in 2018? Is it a case of being down so low the only place to go is up?
“This looks to be a good year for us, because people are so upset by what’s happening in Washington and Cheyenne with Republicans in control of everything,” said Barbuto, a former state legislator from Rock Springs. “There’s a lot more enthusiasm now than we’ve had before. Our people are excited about the possibilities.”
He has no data to back this up. Enthusiasm is tough to measure and no one has conducted a statewide poll to try. But anecdotally, Barbuto and other observers sense an erosion in Wyomingites’ support for Trump, and in many cases mounting frustration, even embarrassment, among the 174,419 Wyomingites who voted for him. National polls show about one in eight Trump voters now regret supporting him, and the figure is rising with each daily gaffe and scandal.
But it isn’t just dissatisfaction with the president that has Barbuto believing Democrats can make significant gains in the next Wyoming elections. He believes the job performances of GOP legislative, state-office and federal officials also open the door to campaigns for change.
Particularly if the Dems can establish themselves as offering credible solutions for issues affecting the 4 “E’s”: education, environment, energy and the economy.
“Believe me, on every door we knock on in Wyoming we’ll be talking about education,” Barbuto said. “We’ll hold Republican incumbents’ feet to the fire for their votes on [cutting] funding for our public schools.”
Barbuto said Wyomingites overwhelmingly support the Democratic position that “public lands need to stay in public hands.” He also said residents know that Wyoming can no longer afford to depend on the energy sector for so much of its state funding, and that diversification is the key to growing the state’s economy.
When Wyoming voters consider their values, he said, they realize how much the Democratic Party’s positions line up with their own views.
Helping them make that realization remains a tall task however, and not one that the Democratic party in Wyoming has had much success with of late. Electoral bright-spots have been incremental, few and far between.
The Democrats had more competitive legislative primaries in 2016 than in previous years, and Barbuto thinks that positive trend will continue. More primary battles, he believes, will stir up voters and better prepare the party’s eventual nominee for the general election.
While there are obviously gains to be made in the Legislature, Barbuto thinks the party’s best chances may be in Wyoming’s five statewide elected offices — governor, secretary of state, auditor, treasurer and superintendent of public instruction.
Mary Throne, the first Democrat to enter a statewide race this cycle, recently announced her bid to succeed two-term Republican Gov. Matt Mead. If she wins, Throne would be the first woman to be elected the state’s governor in nearly a century, the second in all of Wyoming history. The first female state chief executive, Nellie Tayloe Ross, was also a Democrat.
The state party has to treat all Democratic candidates equally and cannot favor one over another in a primary. Barbuto said there may be other Democrats in the gubernatorial race, but Throne already has several positives in her fledgling campaign, including her legislative service as the minority party leader in the House. “She’s well-known throughout the state and she’s been an effective leader in Cheyenne,” Barbuto said.
Throne is well acquainted with Wyoming people and issues. During her tenure in the Legislature, I noticed her ability to pepper Republican leaders with criticism and articulate how her party would have differently handled issues such as approving Medicaid expansion and increasing education funding. She enjoys getting under their skin.
Throne’s failure to win re-election in her home district, however, does give one pause regarding her chances in a statewide run.
Wyomingites have shown a penchant for electing Democratic governors. Three of the past five governors have been Democrats.
Two current state officeholders — Secretary of State Ed Murray and State Treasurer Mark Gordon — have been mentioned as possible Republican gubernatorial candidates. If both enter the race, two more state contests would lack an incumbent, creating a couple more opportunities for the Democrats.
For ages it’s been difficult for Wyoming Democrats to field competitive candidates in congressional races. Winning a U.S. House or Senate race from this state is tantamount to being elected for life. Until retirement or death, Wyoming Republicans in Congress have little more to do than file for office every two or six years. Their campaign coffers are so full after one term they hold a huge fundraising advantage.
Yet Barbuto believes the incumbent delegation has handed Democrats an opening here too. Republicans are so assured of victory that they forget they still have to answer to Wyoming voters. 2018 is the year to remind them they need to earn votes, and that having an ‘R’ behind their name on the ballot isn’t enough.
U.S. Sen. John Barrasso and U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney are both up for re-election. The pair, and Wyoming’s senior Senator, Mike Enzi, have shown they consider themselves so insulated from the electorate that they no longer need to justify their House and Senate votes to constituents.
They do fly home regularly, but usually their respective staffs won’t make their schedules available to the press or public. Rather than hosting town hall meetings where they are forced to defend their votes, they attend closed meetings of groups like the Chamber of Commerce or private invitation-only fundraisers. Often they’re out of town before anyone even knew they were here.
Such lack of engagement and unwillingness to field the occasional question from a concerned constituent is outrageous, and in Barbuto’s eyes, an opportunity.
Wyoming’s congressional candidates win office by unbelievable margins — Barrasso drew 76 percent of voters in 2012 and Cheney captured nearly 63 percent in her first House race. They always have great poll numbers, Barbuto noted, but they don’t deserve them based on their performances. “We’re going to make them have to earn those numbers by actually talking to Wyoming voters,” he said. “We have to be hold them accountable.”
Amy Rathke of Lander, head of the Wyoming Young Democrats, agreed with Barbuto that members of the party “are motivated in a way I haven’t seen before. We’re hoping to have some candidates for offices that may be less intimidating for young people to run for, like city councils around the state.”
“Last fall was a bit of a wake-up call for a lot of folks,” she said. “I think young people realize there just isn’t a lot of diversity of thinking in the rooms where decisions are made here. People are wanting to see things change.”
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Many young residents became interested in politics for the first time in 2016 because of their great enthusiasm for presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont). While some of those voters may still be disappointed with the national outcome, Rathke said, “We’re not interested in re-hashing what happened in 2016. We want to move forward.” That includes working toward having Wyoming Young Democrats offices in all 23 counties.
It’s much too early to predict how well Wyoming Democrats may fare next year, but they should have a reasonable shot at fielding credible candidates who can trade effectively on widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo.
And if Trump finds himself impeached by next summer, the chances of those candidates succeeding could significantly increase. He’s the party’s standard-bearer, and as more people become embarrassed by his performance in the Oval Office, more may be willing to embrace political changes in 2018.