The barbs flew fast and furious in the gubernatorial debate last week and most were aimed at Republican candidate Mark Gordon.
The heated exchanges got me wondering: Could self-proclaimed conservative standard bearer Rex Rammell actually be an unwitting secret weapon of Democrat Mary Throne’s campaign?
She’ll need something to give her a leg up if she’s to have any hope of overcoming the Republican’s massive voter registration edge. A right-wing extremist attack dog could be just the thing.
In the debate at Casper College last Thursday, Rammell tried to paint GOP nominee Mark Gordon as a liberal in Republican clothing with claims that, because of his past association with environmentalists, he’s on the wrong side of the so-called “war on coal.”
Rammell has been a thorn in the State Treasurer’s side since dropping out of the crowded Republican primary to run as the Constitution Party candidate in the general election. He saved his fireworks for late in the debate, which allowed Throne — who took her own jabs at the frontrunner for not supporting Medicaid expansion — to sit back and watch Gordon look exasperated.
Debate topics featured myriad important issues, including education funding, the criminal justice system, hate crime legislation and the gender wage gap. I will focus on two: economic diversification and Medicaid expansion.
“I think Mark and his [environmentalist] friends did a tremendous amount of damage … and you can’t tell me that they didn’t have an impact on the coal industry. That’s the reason we’re struggling,” said Rammell, a Gillette veterinarian and perennial candidate who started his election losing streak in Idaho before moving to Wyoming.
“This man is an enemy of Wyoming,” Rammell proclaimed, shocking the audience with his loud outburst.
Rammell’s full frontal assault may have backfired. At one point he was so out-of-control that the moderator, retired Wyoming Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Golden, shut down his tirade. It earned some applause for Gordon.
Gordon pushed back, saying that he has been a life-long “conservative Republican” while Rammell has switched parties depending on what contest he’s entered.
“You know Wyoming’s future is based on an all-fronts energy portfolio,” the Republican said. “You know that I have worked very hard to make sure that our coal industry has ports [for export].”
Rammell may have appeared unhinged but it was a calculated move. He was clearly playing to the segment of Cowboy State voters who think President Trump’s no-holds-barred style is just what government needs. I don’t think it will score him many votes, but Throne may benefit if people see her own conservative, protectionist views on fossil fuel extraction as reason enough to vote for her.
Gordon’s connections to environmental groups before he was appointed and then elected State Treasurer may, in fact, hurt him with some GOP voters.
Some Democrats meanwhile may cringe at Throne’s statement that she supports Trump ending former President Obama’s Clean Power Plan (I know I did) but it’s not going to cost her many — if any — votes in her party. The disruptive back-and-forth between Gordon and Rammell gave her an opening to tout her unwavering support of fossil fuel extraction.
“I opposed the Obama administration’s regulations that affected coal in Wyoming,” Throne noted. “I’ve litigated against the Sierra Club’s ‘Beyond Coal’ campaign.
“But coal faces a challenging future due to market conditions,” she added. “We need to look for opportunities like a carbon capture pilot project in Wyoming. I’m a good ambassador for coal because of my expertise in the field.”
Then it was Gordon’s turn. “I’ve worked for an oil and gas company and I have funded uranium, coal and oil and natural gas issues in this state,” he said.
Throne focused on the 20,000 low-income Wyomingites who would benefit from Medicaid expansion. It’s a point she’s hammered home at every opportunity and a sharp contrast to Gordon, who delivered the same old Republican song-and-dance that expanding the program is too expensive and all Wyoming needs to do is develop its own solution.
“Montana has expanded Medicaid and their uninsured rate is much lower than ours,” the Democrat said. “… of course we can afford it. We take $2 billion in federal money with assorted matches. We can do the same thing with Medicaid.”
Libertarian candidate Larry Struempf joined Throne in supporting Medicaid expansion. “I’ve talked to a variety of hospital managers and board members, and they all pretty much concur that the hospitals would have greater profit margins,” he said.
Struempf offered a solution to funding education by raising property taxes four-tenths of a percentage point. None of the other candidates even hinted at raising taxes, which is considered the third rail of Wyoming politics and a sure-fire path to defeat.
The Secretary of State’s Office website reports that Republicans have 192,539 registered voters, while the Democrats’ total is only 44,253. The Libertarian and Constitution parties have 2,126 and 677 registered voters, respectively.
Democrats always have a steep uphill battle in Wyoming, but three of the last five governors have belonged to the party. Like Throne, Dave Freudenthal, the last Democrat to serve in the office, had strong ties to the minerals industry.
Throne is one of 16 women running for governor in the U.S., including four incumbents seeking re-election. Some political pundits believe they are poised to take several contests.
Could Throne be one of them? Much depends on whether conservative voters who supported Gordon’s more extreme opponents in the Republican primary — Foster Friess, Harriet Hageman, Sam Galeotos and Taylor Haynes — hold grudges against the winner. Many believe Democrats switching party affiliations to the GOP for the primary propelled Gordon to victory.
It’s exciting to think Wyoming could have its first woman governor since Nellie Tayloe Ross served in 1925-27. If it does happen, it’s because Throne worked hard to reach voters around the state and has outshone other candidates in debates through her solid preparation.
But Gordon was clearly the best choice of the GOP pack and would likely offer a style of leadership that relies less on ideology and more on building partnerships.
With two more debates on Oct. 25 in Laramie and Oct. 28 in Casper, residents who tune in have an opportunity to make an informed choice Nov. 6.
Sheer numbers give Gordon a huge advantage. But Wyoming voters have shown a penchant for putting political affiliations aside when it comes to electing governors. In the past we’ve looked at candidates’ qualifications and what they want to do for the state, not just the “D” or “R” by their name.
Any former governor will tell you legislators don’t blindly follow the chief executive’s agenda. But the next governor will preside over an important time in state history as Wyoming tries to diversify its economy, fund education, improve health care and examine its tax structure. Only voters have a direct say about who is the next governor, so please go the polls and make your voice heard.