GOP gubernatorial primary will be tight race to the end

The next governor of Wyoming will immediately have to face a “structural deficit” of up to $1 billion and confront Republican legislative leaders who have shown how combative they can be against chief executives from their own party.

With those two certain headaches and other problems waiting in the wings — like how to kick-start Wyoming’s minerals-based economy and whether to fund public education or keep stashing away money — the mystery isn’t who will win but why there are six Republicans who even want the job.

Oh, but they all do. It comes with a mansion, use of a state plane, a large staff and an impressive office in the Capitol Building, if the state ever finishes renovating it. Did I mention all the power a governor wields in the state? There’s that, too.

But with just two weeks to go before the Aug. 21 primary — the election to determine who’ll meet the presumptive Democratic nominee, former state legislator Mary Throne — there’s no clear Republican front-runner. Only one of the half-dozen GOP hopefuls, State Treasurer Mark Gordon, has ever won a statewide office.

What will determine who wins? There are several factors, beginning with money.

Candidates Gordon, Sam Galeotos, Harriet Hageman and especially mega-rich Foster Friess have plenty to spend on this race as it goes down to the wire. Lack of campaign spending power won’t be an excuse for the losers from that group.

Sheridan businessman Bill Dahlin has some intriguing proposals that haven’t gained any traction, such as commercializing hemp products to help the agriculture industry. It makes sense, but that won’t keep him from being at the bottom of the pack on primary day.

Self styled constitutionalist and ultra-conservative rancher Dr. Taylor Haynes hasn’t spent on the level of his better funded competitors, but he’s kept his name in the public eye.

A judge Friday decided he could stay in the race despite unanswered questions about his legal residency. A still looming potential disqualification would be a fatal liability for most candidates, but Haynes’ campaign is spinning the slow-motion scandal as a net positive — saying it has motivated and energized his base.

Given the propensity for today’s electorate to fixate on “deep state” conspiracy theories, he may be right.

In a crowded primary race it doesn’t take a high percentage of the total votes to win a party’s nomination.

Facing four opponents, Rep. Barbara Cubin won her first GOP congressional primary in 1994 with only 36 percent of the vote, largely because she made sure her conservative base went to the polls.

The man this year’s candidates hope to succeed, two-term Gov. Matt Mead, won the seven-way primary in 2010 with less than 29 percent.

Like most Republicans the candidates in the 2018 primary all hate taxes, are anti-abortion and want to abolish “gun free zones” in defense of the Second Amendment.There’s not a lot of daylight between them on traditional party positions.

When there have been, natural resources attorney Hageman of Cheyenne has been the one most eager to exploit them and criticize her main opponents.

She has knocked Gordon for allegedly spending too much state money on investment advisers, a charge the treasurer has denied.

Hageman has accused Galeotos of being “ideologically obsessed with so-called green energy” and labeled him anti-coal. Galeotos, who seemed dumb-founded by such a ridiculous charge when so many states are leaders in renewable energy and leaving Wyoming behind, noted being green is simply “part of the modern-day world.”

Other attempts to stir controversy have popped up, including letters to editors charging that Gordon is a “Republican in name only,” also known as a RINO. The writers cite his previous donations to Democrats and service on the boards of environmental organizations with “extreme” agendas, like actually working to protect the environment.

In his unsuccessful congressional primary bid in 2008, winner Cynthia Lummis was able to make Gordon’s support for left-leaning causes a campaign issue that worked to her advantage. Never underestimate the ability of a determined Wyoming conservative politician to go further to the right than any like-minded opponent.

Galeotos’ business acumen was a good selling point with moderate voters early on, but he seems to have lost some steam by trying to tie his campaign to President Trump even though he has not received the president’s official endorsement.

I asked University of Wyoming History Professor Emeritus Phil Roberts, who retired earlier this year, if he sees Galeotos’ support eroding.

“Galeotos made a huge mistake in introducing himself outside of Laramie County by comparing himself to Trump,” Roberts said. “Bad timing, beyond [being] a bad tactic.”

Roberts ran for the Democratic nomination for governor in 1998, so he has a unique perspective on what it takes to run a statewide race.

But that was before serious candidates needed to have at least a million dollars in their campaign war chests to even think about running. The professor spent less than $10,000 and captured nearly 20 percent of the primary vote.

Roberts also observed that Galeotos is well-known in Cheyenne but not in other parts of Wyoming, which does not bode well for statewide success.

He said while Friess has been a major donor in national political races and to conservative causes, his Wyoming profile has been low outside of his considerable philanthropic work with his wife.

“I think [Friess] is perceived both as an outsider — out of state, and as an insider — he’s Jackson rich,” Roberts said. “Neither is healthy at this point in the state’s history.”

Like Galeotos, Roberts said he sees no help coming Friess’ way by showing his strong support for the president.

“If it were not for what we’re seeing with Trump, I think Friess would have a good argument about being a ‘conservative businessman,’” Roberts added. “Wyoming voters already see what that means. I’d say anyone tying himself to Trump is all but finished.”

Donald Trump Jr. endorsed Friess with an op-ed Sunday in the Casper Star Tribune.

Although Wyoming gave Trump a 46 percent margin of victory over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, Roberts said he believes his support in the state is pretty soft because a vote for Trump was actually a vote against Clinton. It may be wishful thinking on the part of two old progressives, but I agree with him.

Does Hageman have a shot at being in the first head-to-head contest between two women for governor in the state’s history?

She may have succeeded in staking out the position as the most conservative candidate in the race, but that’s not always been seen as an asset in Wyoming governors.

Voters historically have elected conservative lawmakers and moderate governors to run the state.

This is a delicate subject to bring up, especially about the only woman candidate in the primary, but it’s an honest political concern and not meant as a gender jab.

Roberts pointed out a trait that he believes could cost Hageman votes. Her often argumentative tone may be a plus in a courtroom, but it’s usually a negative for most candidates, men and women alike.

“People in Wyoming don’t like ‘mean,’” he explained. “I think it will weigh heavily against her in the end.”

That leaves Gordon, who I think will win. Roberts concurred, citing the treasurer’s regional name recognition and support in Laramie and Johnson counties.

His key positive is that he holds a statewide office that requires him to know what’s in the state budget and exactly how it works. There may be only a few percentage points separating him, Galeotos, Hageman and Friess when it’s over but Gordon has the skills and demeanor to prevail.

Millions of words have been written about Trump’s masterful ability as a con artist to make people believe he’s a populist outsider representing blue-collar workers when he’s obviously a billionaire who doesn’t care about them at all.

But I still think Wyoming voters aren’t easily fooled. I predict they will prefer a state chief executive with government experience over rivals whose business skills may not match the duties of the office.

Kerry Drake is a veteran Wyoming journalist, and a contributor to He also moderates the WyPols blog. He has more than 30 years experience at the Wyoming Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune as a reporter, editor and editorial writer. He lives in Casper.

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