(Opinion) — An open seat in the U.S. House representing the Equality State usually sparks quite a bit of interest, but the GOP primary race to win retiring Rep. Cynthia Lummis’ seat is already crowded. There’s still four months to go before the filing deadline. Six Republican candidates have declared they will run, and two more are waiting in the wings.
Two Casper candidates are in: State Rep. Tim Stubson (R-Casper) and pizzeria owner Charlie Tyrrel. Other candidates who have announced they will run include state corrections worker Jason Senteney of Yoder, Northwest Community College professor Mike Konsmo of Powell, State Sen. Leland Christensen (R-Alta) and Gillette veterinarian Rex Rammell.
Wyoming Catholic College president Kevin Roberts of Lander has indicated he too will soon decide about running. But the person everyone is waiting for is Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney.
Liz Cheney ran a brief, disastrous campaign against U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi in 2014, but dropped out due to family matters. Lummis’ House seat is also the one held by Liz Cheney’s father from 1979-1989, and she’s told several reporters she’s “very interested” in the Wyoming race.
Don’t be surprised if the plumber you call to fix your sink hands you a bill and announces he’s running for Congress. This is a wide open race and I expect even more candidates to file.
It isn’t really a case of the more the merrier, but when there are several candidates in the race, all of them theoretically have a better shot at the party’s nomination. That’s because a House hopeful doesn’t need to get an actual majority of the votes. A candidate can win with a rather small percentage of the total votes cast, so targeting one’s base is essential.
It happened in 1994 in the House contest to replace Craig Thomas, who gave up the office to run for the Senate. Barbara Cubin won a five-way primary race with only 36 percent of the votes. Three of her opponents did well in their respective hometowns, but as the most conservative candidate, she managed to get her far-right supporters out to the polls statewide.
Going into the ’94 race, no one really had an edge in name recognition. Cubin was a state senator and former state representative, but one of her opponents, Doug Chamberlain, had just finished his term as House Speaker. That’s presumably a higher profile job — Chamberlain certainly thought so — but House members who rise to the top of the chamber’s ladder often learn when they seek higher office that they’re not as well-known as they’d imagined.
Other candidates included Rob Wallace, a former aide to U.S. Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyoming), and Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. Wallace had a unique campaign idea to improve his name recognition — he worked at a different job every day as he traveled around the state and local newspapers reported his adventures. He finished second.
One of the things that separated Cubin from her rivals was that the media gleefully spread the fact that she once passed out penis-shaped cookies to other state lawmakers. She denied baking them and explained she was just the deliverer, but it proved the adage that all publicity is good publicity as long as they spell your name right.
Cubin went on to defeat her general election opponent, Democrat Bob Schuster, by more than 23,000 votes. By the end of the race he even tried to make her look bad by bringing up the penis cookie allegation in his campaign ads, but it obviously didn’t help.
Cubin became the first woman in Wyoming to be elected to a federal office. In her initial campaign she vowed to step down after six terms (now that’s confidence) but she won a seventh before she retired in 2008.
Former State Treasurer Cynthia Lummis defeated three other candidates in the GOP primary race to replace Cubin, including Mark Gordon, who ironically later became Wyoming’s state treasurer. Her surprise announcement last November that she was not going to seek a fifth term opened the floodgates for candidates.
Since women have now held Wyoming’s lone U.S. House seat for 21 consecutive years, it’s possible that Liz Cheney or another female candidate will have an edge in 2016. Voters have gotten used to casting their ballots for a woman in the office.
If a baker’s dozen of Republicans end up trying to succeed Lummis, how will groups staging House debates handle the logistics? Will they follow the path of the national GOP presidential race and have a main stage and a kid’s table?
One thing Wyoming Republicans likely won’t see is their congressional candidates spending much time bashing Democrats instead of each other. What would be the point, other than to get in a few meaningless jabs at Hillary or Bernie? Republicans hold all of the congressional and state elected offices, plus huge a majority in the state Legislature. The only Democrat in the House race thus far doesn’t even live here.
Richard Grayson, who splits his time between New York and Arizona, won the 2014 Democratic nomination to take on Lummis. He spent only election day in Wyoming, but it was enough to qualify to run for Congress from here since candidates only have to “inhabit” the state on the day of the general election.
Grayson is the only Democrat to announce his intention to run in his party’s House primary, but he doesn’t actually want to represent Wyoming. He said his candidacy is meant to encourage several serious candidates to try to become the Democratic nominee. He said he will withdraw as soon as someone steps up to the plate.
Grayson won 22.9 percent of the vote when he ran against Lummis two years ago. In the 2012 contest, Democratic nominee Chris Henrichsen of Casper — who was a serious candidate — garnered 23.9 percent.
Unless Democrats find a candidate soon who is either independently wealthy or can raise enough money to really compete against whoever gets the Republican nod, the party’s long drought in the U.S. House will continue. Wyoming hasn’t had a Democratic congressman since Teno Roncalio left office in 1978.
As of this writing, the GOP might nominate a pizza maker, one of two state lawmakers, a veterinarian, a college professor, a college president, a former Fox News pundit or a prison guard. Perhaps the guy who takes your taco order, a movie usher and a lawyer will run, too. This year it looks like the Republican primary may have only one or two actual “politicians” on the ballot.
I’m not complaining. A diverse slate of candidates will likely be a good thing for Wyoming. But maybe Republicans should discourage erotic cookie bakers from throwing their hats in the ring and passing out their wares. It might give them an unfair advantage.
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