Wyoming voters will have four choices for the U.S. Senate seat that is up for election this November, in a race where the 18-year incumbent Sen. Mike Enzi (R) has all the advantages of name recognition and a well-funded campaign.
The three challengers include an airline pilot who has flown 747s, a former Catholic priest who served as a missionary in Venezuela, and a cook who is a newly-minted Libertarian. All are shunning money from political action committees (PACs), seeking to distinguish themselves from Enzi, who has raised more than $3 million since the beginning of 2013.
Enzi’s fundraising for this race broke his earlier fundraising records, partly because he initially had a strong Republican challenger in Liz Cheney. She announced in July 2013 that she would challenge him in the GOP primary, but dropped out of the race in January, citing family concerns.
In the strongly Republican state of Wyoming, Enzi is broadly popular and considered the favorite to win. Yet the candidates running against Enzi are challenging his record, and a few key Senate votes that stirred up criticism. Each challenger seeks to offer an alternative to the former state legislator and energy industry accountant who has worked his way into the Washington D.C. establishment since 1997.
A key issue for the challengers is Enzi’s acceptance of donations from industry donors and PACs. In the wake of the Citizen’s United decision that removed limits on political spending by corporations so long as they do not coordinate with candidates — and the subsequent McCutcheon decision which removed cumulative caps on donations from individuals — Enzi has placed himself firmly on the side of the new status quo.
Earlier this month, Enzi voted against a proposed constitutional amendment that would have empowered Congress to regulate campaign spending, overturning the Citizens United decision. The amendment didn’t specify what kind of regulation would be pursued, instead allowing Congress the power to regulate contribution amounts.
Speaking from the floor of the U.S. Senate, Enzi couched his opposition to the proposed amendment in terms of free speech.
“Giving the federal government the ability to regulate what we say is flat out dangerous,” Enzi said. “What is a reasonable limitation on political speech? The sponsors of this proposal can’t answer that and it’s reckless to assume that federal courts will determine the correct answer. What concerns me the most is where does this regulation stop? The answer is not clear and at the very end of the day this constitutional amendment limits the way in which Americans can voice their concerns about their elected officials.”
Charlie Hardy, the Democratic candidate for Senate, interpreted Enzi’s statement as giving a green light to the moneyed interests he believes have seized control of the political process.
“As I read what he said, every place where he said ‘Americans’ I heard ‘corporations’ and every place where he said ‘free speech’ I heard ‘money,’” Hardy told WyoFile in a recent interview.
In terms of dollars raised, Hardy is the No. 2 candidate in the race, bringing in $53,000 through the end of June, and spending $45,000 up to that point.
Curt Gottshall, the Laramie pilot who is running as an Independent, had loaned $6,415 to his own campaign as of July 30. Since then he has accepted a $2,500 gift from his father for printing t-shirts.
“Other than that it’s all been out of my pocket,” Gottshall said. “I have accepted no money that would let people think there are strings attached.” Gottshall said he spoke to potential campaign consultants who said they could line up $100,000 in PAC money if he hired them, but he declined the offer.
“It’s obvious that the peoples’ voice is not being represented in Washington, and not just in Wyoming,” Gottshall said. “You can’t blame them (politicians). If a corporation is giving you half a million, you have to do something in return or they wouldn’t give you that donation. … I would hope that that’s all (donors) are getting is a little more access, but I’m afraid that’s not the case.”
Gottshall didn’t have any examples of votes given in exchange for campaign funds. It’s important to note it is illegal for corporations to give directly to candidates. However, companies can give money through PACs, and individual employees can also give to candidates. Corporations can also engage in independent spending to support candidates, so long as they don’t coordinate with the candidate’s campaign.
Joseph Poramabo, the Casper cook running on the Libertarian ticket, did not file a quarterly report with the Federal Election Commission in July because he did not pass the $5,000 threshold for contributions or expenditures.
“(Our) political system today has become a system of big money where if you don’t have the big contributions from the businesses and political action groups you stand very little chance of getting elected,” Poramabo said. “By taking funds from special interest groups and PACs you are beholden to them when you get to Washington. The only people I want to be beholden to are the people of Wyoming and the United States.”
Enzi has spent nearly $1.8 million on the race so far. He’s paid more to several of his campaign consultants than the other candidates have spent on their entire campaigns.
In some respects, Enzi’s fundraising success reflects strong local support for his conservative policies. He is endorsed by the National Rifle Association, pro-life, and anti-Obamacare. One of Enzi’s favorite fiscal policy proposals is his “penny plan,” which would reduce the national debt by enacting a 1 percent overall budget cut that could be targeted to specific programs. Another policy would institute biennial budgeting and require 12 bills for the different parts of government spending, ending the use of continuing budget resolutions.
Enzi’s policy successes include bringing home hundreds of millions in Abandoned Mine Lands money in 2006. More recently, 2013 brought the passage in the Senate of the Marketplace Fairness Act, which would require internet retailers to collect sales tax and return it to local governments. That bill is still waiting consideration in the House. This move by Enzi has brought criticism, even from his conservative supporters.
Yet Enzi’s fundraising success also reflects the Washington-based connections he’s built up during his career. Roughly 56 percent of his money comes from PACs, while another 40 percent comes from large contributions of $200 or more, according to data at OpenSecrets.org. Enzi collected $146,393 in small contributions.
“What we have in Washington today is legalized corruption, legalized bribery,” Hardy said. He noted that former Sen. Alan Simpson has advocated for campaign finance reform, including advocating for the proposed constitutional amendment that Enzi voted against.
The red and blue candidates
In some respects, Hardy and Enzi aren’t so far apart. Hardy says he would support Enzi’s Marketplace Fairness Act and carry it forward if elected. Both candidates say they would be supporters of Wyoming’s coal industry, which pays more than $1 billion in taxes and federal mineral royalties to the state each biennium. Wyoming’s two-year budget is more than $8 billion in state and federal funds.
While they agree on a few issues, Enzi and Hardy diverge widely in their professional background. Both spent their childhood in Wyoming, but after leaving high school Enzi became a small business man working in his parents’ shoe store. He then won election as mayor of Gillette and served in the state legislature while working as an accountant for Dunbar Well Service, and as a director for Black Hills Corporation, an electric utility with several coal-fired power plants.
Hardy entered seminary after high school, and became a Catholic priest. He served in Cheyenne and then took an assignment in Caracas, Venezuela, where he lived in a cardboard shack with a tin roof in a barrio on the edges of the capital city.
During his time there, Hardy had government soldiers point their rifles at him, and witnessed the democratic revolution that elected Hugo Chavez. After seeing the neighborhood he lived in improve drastically under Chavez, Hardy became a supporter of the regime. (See video below.) He also criticized the American government’s negative view of the socialist president who won reelection four times until his death in March, 2013.
For Hardy, the experience of living in Venezuela made him align his interests, as he says, with the oppressed, including those in poverty, women, Native Americans, and others. From a policy standpoint, this has made him a proponent of raising the minimum wage.
Enzi, on the other hand, has argued against raising the minimum wage, saying it would cause a ripple effect through the economy that would result in wage inflation and price inflation.
“Money is usually related to your education, your skills, and how long you have been on the job,” Enzi said in a speech on the Senate floor. “Just raising them with a federal mandate, one-size-fits-all for the United States, does not work. The problem is it will raise everyone’s wages. If you have someone making $7.25 and they go to $10.10, you have to raise the person making $9 up to about $12. You’ve got to keep that separation based on the amount of training and skills and the work that they do. And it has to go all the way up the chain, otherwise it’s not fair to people who have more skills and have been there longer, and are able to produce more.”
Hardy argues that low wages paid by corporations and big businesses don’t provide a living wage for working families. As a result, he says, the taxpayer has to assume responsibility for people who are not being paid a decent salary.
“It is cruel not raising the minimum wage in the United States today,” Hardy said. “In Cheyenne every Friday in school season it is my understanding that school workers slip food into the backpacks of 600 students so their families have food over the weekend. That sounds nice, but we should be ashamed.”
Key votes by Enzi
During his current term Enzi has made a number of key votes that made headlines in Wyoming:
- Voted for the Budget Control Act of 2011, which set in motion the sequester of $53 million in Federal Mineral Royalties from Wyoming in 2013. Enzi later worked to get the funds restored.
- Voted against the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in February 2013, because of a provision allowing non-Indians to be tried in tribal courts. He viewed that provision as unconstitutional.
- Opposed the debt limit increase in October 2013, leading to the government shutdown. “I didn’t want to vote to raise the debt limit without a plan to decrease the deficit,” Enzi said.
- Voted against National Defense Authorization Act of 2014, and advocated for reduction of surveillance on individuals by the NSA.
- Opposed Minimum Wage Fairness Act of 2014 on April 23, 2014.
- Opposed proposed constitutional amendment enabling Congress to regulate campaign donations in September, 2014.
Despite leaving messages with Enzi’s campaign staff and emailing a list of questions relating to this story, no one from Enzi’s offices provided a response to WyoFile.
Third Party Candidates
Curt Gottshall is pinning his campaign on the ideas of campaign finance reform, freezing government spending, and the benefits of being an Independent. When he first registered to vote at age 18, he signed up as an Independent, and has never registered as a Republican or a Democrat. He believes that gives him the ability to represent people without the kind of deal making and coercion that happens within the D.C. party system.
“Enzi has a lot of experience but he has also been very Washington-ized in his last 18 years,” Gottshall said. “The beauty of being an Independent is I can’t get bullied into doing something. … The only reason I am there is to do things for the people.”
At the same time, Gottshall says his center-right politics provide Wyoming voters with a chance to support a new candidate without giving up their values. He advocates for federal enforcement actions, such as the National Park closures during the 2013 government shutdown, to be mediated through local authorities.
Joseph Porambo of Casper is running as a Libertarian. He works as a cook at an assisted living facility.
“I’ve watched my government — of the country that I love with all my heart — tear my country down,” Porambo said in his nomination speech by the Libertarian Party. “I’ve watched our rights be eroded. I’ve watched my government spend money that it didn’t have.”
Porambo criticized policies relating to the national debt, NSA surveillance, and the mandate that all citizens purchase health insurance.
“We don’t need more government,” Porambo said in his speech. “We need more freedoms.”
Porambo has lived in Wyoming since 2001, spending about five years in Cheyenne and the rest of the time in Casper. He has worked as a paramedic, and spent 30 years as a professional cook. He says his background helps him connect with Wyoming voters.
“I am one of them,” Porambo said. “I am a hard-working American that works eight to five, who knows what it is like to struggle to pay my bills, pay my rent, keep my electric and my gas on and take care of my family. I think that resonates with the average voter (who) feels like their leaders no longer have an understanding of what it takes to survive on a daily basis.”
Porambo started out his campaign as an Independent, but switched to the Libertarian ticket because of the high threshold of signatures required to become a candidate.
“The bar that they set for signatures is almost unachievable for a person who is working a full-time job,” Porambo said. “It’s 5,000 signatures, but (the Secretary of State’s office tells) you to get 10,000 because they throw so many out. It takes a full-time effort to do that. I lined up with the Libertarian platform and they agree with everything that I am saying.”
What it will take to win
In the 2008 election, Enzi pulled in more than 180,000 votes, soundly defeating Democratic challenger Chris Rothfuss, who received 60,000. Nearly 250,000 voters cast a ballot in that race.
Unlike 2008, this year brings an off-year election with no president on the ballot. Wyoming may see as little as 190,000 people come to the polls. That’s roughly the number that voted in the 2010 off-year election.
Assuming similar rates of voting this year, and the unlikely scenario of nearly equal popularity among candidates, the winner will need a minimum of 47,500 votes to gain a majority over his three opponents.
For further reading on Sen. Enzi:
Wyoming lawmakers differ on approach to debt ceiling, August 2, 2011 Wyoming AML funding stream slowing to a trickle, April 17, 2012. A compounding connection: Texas pharmacy leads Barrasso donors, February 12, 2013. Wyoming’s senators choose politics over protecting women, February 26, 2013. Liz Cheney can win in Wyoming, but she has hurdles in her way, March 26, 2013. Subsidair: Tiny Wyoming airline tops in federal support, April 23, 2013. How a letter withheld $53M in mineral royalties from Wyoming, April 18, 2014. Politicians raising more money to win Wyoming elections, May 13, 2014. Wyoming, Meet Liz Cheney, July 23, 2013. Barrasso, Enzi, Lummis walk GOP line on shutdown, debt limit, October 9, 2013 Report: Liz Cheney income is nearly $1M since 2012, November 20, 2013. Liz Cheney withdraws from U.S. Senate campaign, January 6, 2014. Politicians raising more money to win Wyoming elections, May 13, 2014. U.S. Senate debate on Wyoming PBS, August 14, 2014.
Candidates in the Wyoming race for U.S. Senate speak