Scott, Nicholas face tough challengers in eastern Wyo primaries
Guest column by political blogger Meg Lanker-Simons
Spend more than a few months in Wyoming and you’ll understand how unique we are – “one long Main Street” is an oft-used phrase by native Wyomingites. This extends to the political season as well. Wyoming is an odd political animal compared to other states with a similarly conservative population. Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) is fond of describing Wyoming’s legislature as a true citizen body, referencing the availability of legislators to their constituents, and none are truly professional politicians.
Wyoming legislators serve for roughly 40 days in an odd year – less than a month in even years – then return to everyday life within their own districts. Several legislators have done this cycle of traveling to Cheyenne every winter for more than a decade. With an incumbency rate hovering over 90 percent, Wyoming’s state legislature remains relatively stable through each election cycle.
This election year, however, a perfect storm of factors have the potential to unseat a handful of moderate GOP members and change the moderate character of the legislative body. Several homegrown Political Action Committees (PACs) are aiming to influence elections on both ends of the political spectrum, emboldened by the Citizens United v. FEC (2010) decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.
It is a presidential election year, meaning high voter turnout. Redistricting has reshaped Wyoming’s legislative districts at the state level. And anger over national politics has spilled onto Wyoming’s “one long Main Street,” dotting it with campaign yard signs challenging long time incumbents. Wyoming’s primary season is in full swing, and it promises to be a whirlwind next few weeks. In central and eastern Wyoming , the two most contentious primaries to watch are Sen. Charlie Scott (R-Casper) versus Rep. Bob Brechtel (R-Casper) in Senate District 30; and Sen. Phil Nicholas (R-Laramie) versus Anne Alexander (R-Laramie) in Senate District 10. Both races will be decided in the primary, barring Democratic write-ins.
Scott is the incumbent in SD 30, and has never faced the kind of challenge Brechtel has launched with the support of socially conservative PACs like WyWatch. This year, socially conservative PACs are aiming to boot RINOs (Republicans in name only) from office and are leaning heavily on SD 30. Brechtel has blasted Scott with three mailers based on social issues thus far, charging Scott with attempting to “remake Wyoming into San Francisco.” WyWatch PAC sent out a fundraising email July 19 to their members asking for “a sacrificial gift to WyWatch PAC” on behalf of Brechtel – oddly, based upon Scott’s supposed support for “Obamacare” and his reluctance to prevent it from becoming law in Wyoming. Scott played a role in defeating Brechtel’s 2011 bill that proclaimed the Affordable Care Act was unconstitutional and even went so far as to impose a $5,000 fine on any person who attempted to enforce the Affordable Care Act in Wyoming.
Scott stated his disagreement with the Affordable Care Act as recently as July 15, branding it “bad legislation” and calling for its repeal. With the U.S. Supreme Court’s approval of the Affordable Care Act, a federal law, there is little Wyoming can do as a state to completely disregard the law other than secede.
Scott and Brechtel have similar voting records. Brechtel, however, is running mainly on social issues, while Scott tends to focus on health care and education.
In a 2010 Facebook post, Brechtel wrote, “Perhaps pornography, misappropriated use of sex and abortion have so greatly robbed society of the dignity of motherhood that it is for this reason that America has lost its faith and moral code; and thus we are tragically close to losing our Republic.” Based upon Brechtel’s campaign literature and answers to questionnaires, he places a high priority on opposition to abortion as well as equality for gay Wyomingites.
While Brechtel has served in the Wyoming House of Representatives since 2003, he has only successfully passed two of his 23 bills. In 30 years in the Wyoming Senate, Scott has passed more than 50 – averaging at least one to two bills each session. This may be due to Scott’s apparent reluctance to sign onto social issues legislation. Wyoming’s conservatism is streaked broadly with social libertarianism – or a persistent belief that good fences make good neighbors on Main Street.
Scott has occasionally voted for anti-gay measures, including SJ 5 in 2011, which would have inserted Defense of Marriage Act language into Wyoming’s state constitution. However, Scott largely focuses on health care and education in Wyoming. With a re-configured SD 30, it will be interesting to see what the district voters are looking for – a crusader for “traditional” morality, or a longtime incumbent with a more varied, lengthy record?
In Albany County, the race for Senate District 10 has Wyoming politicos in a stir. Incumbent Sen. Phil Nicholas (R-Laramie) is facing a primary challenge from Anne Alexander (R-Laramie), a professor at the University of Wyoming. An economist by trade, Alexander serves as the Director of International Programs at UW. The 2012 election marks Alexander’s first bid for elected office. Alexander will face a tough incumbent in Nicholas, a local attorney. Nicholas currently serves as Vice President of the Wyoming Senate and as chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee. He was elected in 1997.
The race in Albany County could not differ from Natrona County more – both candidates in Albany County are pro-choice, though Nicholas’ stated position on marriage equality is slightly more conservative than Alexander’s. In a WyWatch questionnaire, Alexander indicated her support for allowing Wyomingites to consider same-sex civil unions, while in a recent interview on my own radio show, Nicholas stated he believes marriage is between a man and a woman and legal relationships between gay couples can be established via contracts – much like business partners.
Alexander is also running on ameliorating the wage gap between men and women in Wyoming, which currently stands as the worst in the nation, according to the National Women’s Law Center. If elected, Alexander would be one of two women in the Wyoming Senate. Currently, Sen. Leslie Nutting (R-Cheyenne) is the only female state senator in Wyoming.
Nicholas may face a tougher route to re-election than Albany County residents anticipate. Some in Albany County charged Nicholas with a conflict of interest regarding his support in the 2012 legislative session for a bill that would have appropriated $15 million for a land purchase of roughly 11,000 acres of agricultural land over the Casper Aquifer. The stated goal of the bill was to protect water quality in the aquifer. The aquifer provides much of the drinking water in Albany County and its protection is a contentious issue – not only because of the cost, but because the land’s current owner, Doug Samuelson, is a friend and client of Nicholas’ law firm. To ease constituents’ concerns, Nicholas stated he would not vote on items related to the deal, but to some residents, Nicholas’ primary concern seemed to be enriching Samuelson. The legislation was scrapped, but it’s likely to come back before the legislature in 2013 – regardless of the Senate District 10 victor in November.
Though Wyoming truly is one long Main Street, I remember the words of Chuck Graves, who passed away last August. Graves, a long-time Wyoming attorney and former Democratic Party chairman, was chuckling as I called into Campbell County on behalf of Gary Trauner for Congress in 2008. I asked him what was so funny and he said I was missing one fundamental element of Wyoming’s Main Street politics – it’s still politics, and therefore, a full contact sport not discussed at the dinner table or in otherwise polite company. Wyoming’s primary season is shaping up to be hotter than the summer temperatures, and much like wildfire season, may result in scorched earth depending on your view of Main Street.
– Meg Lanker-Simons is a prolific political writer and activist based in Laramie, attracting in-person interviews from across Wyoming’s political spectrum. She has lived in Wyoming for 10 years. Lanker-Simons worked as a journalist in the U.S. Navy, and for the past two years has written about the innards of Wyoming and national politics at her own site, Cognitive Dissonance. She also hosts a radio show by the same name every Friday night from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. in Laramie on 93.5 KOCA FM. Contact Meg at [email protected]
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