Mark Gordon is either the most liberal Wyoming Republican to ever win the party’s nomination for governor or a candidate whose GOP rivals have unfairly tarnished his conservative credentials.
Which version of State Treasurer Gordon is closest to the truth? The answer largely hinges on whether the measuring stick is the classic definition of American political conservatism or the amorphous label that’s supplanted it in our recent discourse — a zero-sum, us versus them, with us or against us brand that says more about tribal affiliation than governing philosophy.
Merriam-Webster defines conservatism as:
a : disposition in politics to preserve what is established
b : a political philosophy based on tradition and social stability, stressing established institutions, and preferring gradual development to abrupt change. Specifically : such a philosophy calling for lower taxes, limited government regulation of business and investing, a strong national defense, and individual financial responsibility for personal needs (such as retirement income or health care coverage)
2 : the tendency to prefer an existing or traditional situation to change
I’m hard pressed to find room in there for governing bedroom behavior, interfering with reproductive rights, restricting women’s health care, criminalizing free speech, demanding blind party loyalty or willfully ignoring environmental catastrophe… but if the right-wing radicals laying claim to “true conservatism” are to be believed, those are all non-negotiable elements of the philosophy.
The six-way gubernatorial Republican primary was a primer on how Gordon, the favorite from the outset, was relentlessly targeted by several opponents and forced from the beginning of the campaign to defend his conservative values.
Why is being the most “conservative” candidate in a GOP contest so important? Why would every gubernatorial hopeful conduct a yard sign, billboard and advertising blitz declaring they are a “true conservative” or “real Wyoming conservative?”
It should surprise no one here that Wyoming was determined by The Gallup Poll to be the most conservative state in the nation during 2016-17.
In Wyoming, Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by 46 percentage points, his largest margin of victory in the country. The number of states with conservative majorities has dropped from 44 to 39 since Trump’s election, according to Gallup. But Wyoming is one of only three states where self-defined “conservatives” tightened their grip on power.
By asking Wyoming voters how they identified their political philosophies, Gallup determined that those choosing the conservative brand outnumbered Wyoming voters willing to call themselve liberal by a 3.5-to-1 ratio. It’s no wonder candidates would take special measures to outdo each other to earn the “most conservative” title.
Gordon is no exception. His website proclaims, “A lifelong conservative, Mark works to defend the Wyoming values of limited government, low taxes and personal responsibility.”
It also stressed his lifetime membership in the National Rifle Association. “Mark hunts, taught all his kids to shoot and owns a personal firearm,” the website stated. “Mark will continue to be a relentless defender of the Second Amendment.”
It sounds like Gordon checks most of the legitimate conservative boxes: he’s for small government, low taxes, and is a proud gun rights defender. All six GOP candidates for governor agreed with those positions. They also all said they were pro-life — no wedge there either.
So how did opponents spin the idea that Gordon is a “Republican in name only?”
Harriet Hageman, a Cheyenne lawyer who specializes in water rights, also targeted businessman Sam Galeotos and Jackson multi-millionaire/philanthropist Foster Friess as far less conservative than herself. But she saved her harshest rhetorical knocks for Gordon, the front-runner.
Hageman, who finished third in the primary race, noted Gordon’s political contributions to Democrats John Kerry and Gary Trauner and his leadership positions in environmental groups like the Sierra Club and Nature Conservancy.
“While I was fighting for water, Mr. Gordon was funding the Sierra Club’s efforts to drain Lake Powell, which would have been devastating to the state of Wyoming,” Hageman said at an August debate on Wyoming PBS.
Since the primary, Constitutional Party nominee Rex Rammell, a former Republican, has continued the “real conservatives” line of attack against Gordon. Without citing any evidence to back up his claim, he told the Casper Star-Tribune that GOP state leaders urged him to run against Gordon in the general election “to protect the conservative movement.”
Blogger Mike Pyatt of Wyoming Net questioned whether a “genuine conservative” could vote for Democratic nominee Mary Throne.
“Given that [Gordon] garnered about one-third of the GOP votes, how strong will he be if a lion’s share of conservative voters flee elsewhere?” Pyatt pondered. “… Many conservatives have opined, ‘There’s not one whit of difference between Gordon and Throne!’
“Should Throne prevail, the GOP-controlled House and Senate would be a check on her liberal bent,” the blogger added. “They might even put on their ‘big boy’ pants and take a principled stand.”
Throne has one advantage in the general election that also helped Dave Freudenthal, the last Democrat to serve as governor. The Cheyenne attorney has spent much of her career representing energy companies. Unlike many members of her party, she can’t be tagged as anti-fossil fuels. Voters concerned about the loss of coal severance taxes that significantly fund state government may see Throne as friendlier to the minerals industry than Gordon — or any of the “true conservative” also-rans for that matter.
While the Republican primary candidates seemed obsessed with wrestling the “conservative” label from one another, it should be a back-burner issue in the general election. Despite the contention by some right-wing radicals that Gordon and Throne have essentially the same liberal-to-moderate views, the two major party candidates differ widely on several important issues, including state spending priorities. The contrasts should become clearer in the days leading to the general election.
Perennial candidate Rammell may yell to the hinterlands that he’s the “true conservative” in the race, but the Idaho transplant has never proven he can draw votes in Wyoming and likely won’t do any better this time around. If conservatives want to make their votes count, their only real choice is between the moderate Throne and the is-he-or-isn’t-he-a-RINO Gordon.
Some far-right social-warrior Republicans will always distrust Gordon. But if their strategy of branding him as less than conservative had actually resonated with voters, one of them would have won.
I doubt enough supporters of Friess, Hageman or Galeotos will break ranks with the party to threaten Gordon’s general elections chances. But I also think Gordon can’t automatically count all Republicans in his camp, especially given that three of the past five Wyoming governors have been Democrats.
That means the Gordon-Throne race will likely be fought on terms other than political labels, such as who would be the best governor. What a welcome change of pace that will be.