Saying Gov. Matt Mead “won” an attempt to censure him by members of his own party is like saying a boxer who earned a split decision victory has a lot to celebrate after being beaten bloody and sent to the hospital.
Yes, it goes in the record books as a “W,” but all things considered, a close vote that ultimately didn’t censure him shows that Mead’s standing in today’s Republican Party is weaker now than it’s ever been since he narrowly won a crowded GOP primary in 2010 to go on to a landslide victory.
It’s been a downhill slide within the Wyoming Republican Party for Mead ever since. The question that lingers after a 145-132 vote not to censure him at the state convention in Evanston on Saturday is how far the governor’s popularity might slide before August’s GOP primary.
Mead backers portrayed the ultra-conservative, Tea Party Republicans who led the censure effort as a small band of rogues who don’t really represent the views of the vast majority of state Republicans.
With such a close vote, that argument doesn’t hold much water, and all it’s going to do is completely tick off the people who voted against him. Tea Partiers or not, the fact remains these conservatives managed to get elected as delegates to the party’s state convention, and they came within a seven-vote swing of censuring a sitting governor who is the party’s standard-bearer. Even if it turns out there aren’t a lot of them statewide, they are having a big impact on Wyoming’s politics. These are the folks who definitely vote and get their neighbors and relatives to the polls, too.
Who really should have the title of standard-bearer, of course, will be decided in the primary. That’s when Republicans will be able to determine whether moderates or far-right, radical conservatives actually control the state party. Standards will play a large part in the effort to defeat Mead by Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill and Cheyenne rancher Taylor Haynes.
Of course, it’s Hill’s supporters who tried to censure Mead, largely because he signed the bill in 2013 that was rushed through the Legislature, stripping the superintendent of many of her powers in favor of an education director appointed by – whom else? – the governor.
Anyone who has read this far should know that Hill sued and won a split Supreme Court ruling that determined most of the “Hill Bill” was unconstitutional. When she tried a month later to reclaim her actual office space, along with the powers of her elected position, Mead’s attorney general said she couldn’t come back until a district court judge made a final ruling.
This added insult to injury, and Hill’s supporters are now out for blood. They smell it in the air. The defeated censure resolution tried to take several bites out of Mead’s hide: “Only in times of egregious betrayal is it necessary to publicly censure one of our leaders,” it stated. “Today, we are faced with such a betrayal.”
“The current governor took your vote, and now he wants to have your vote,” Hill said. Mead spent much of his time on stage touting all of the economic development that’s occurred during his watch, and downplayed the rift between himself and Hill as much as he could.
Undeterred, Hill threw some anti-Mead red meat to the crowd. “People are taking notice of government, not because it’s doing such wonderful things, but because the hard-working men and women of Wyoming have seen that government is taking greater and greater control over democracy,” she said.
Conventional political wisdom still says that Mead should win the GOP primary in overwhelming fashion, for several reasons. One, he’s got a lot of money. Two, Hill and Haynes are likely to split the extreme conservative vote. Three, he’s the incumbent governor, and they don’t lose when they seek another term in Wyoming, no matter which party they belong to (i.e., Stan Hathaway, Ed Herschler, Mike Sullivan, Jim Geringer and Dave Freudenthal).
Hill comes to the race with a lot of political baggage. Her supporters may be rabidly anti-Mead because of the way he has embarrassed her, but it doesn’t negate the fact that the effort was led by members of her own party. Angered by her refusal to follow their marching orders, Republican lawmakers basically portrayed her as totally incompetent. As if that weren’t bad enough, after stripping her of her powers, they launched their own investigation into her time as superintendent and strongly suggested some of her uses of federal education money may be against the law.
She buried the committee in paperwork when members demanded to see her records, including lots of irrelevant material such as texts of an interview with a superintendent from the 1970s. This was not only hilarious but sent legislators the message that she wasn’t going down without a fight. Before the probe was completed, Hill won her Supreme Court case, and her leading detractors turned tail and ran for cover.
So, what does all of this mean? It’s hard to know, but we’re pretty comfortable that Al Simpson’s predictions for Wyoming’s Republican party regarding Liz Cheney’s short-lived challenge to Mike Enzi apply to this Hill – Mead warfare: “It’s a disaster — a divisive, ugly situation.”
One thing does seem crystal clear, though: Hill’s supporters, whether they are Tea Party Republicans or not, demonstrated at the state convention that they wanted to punish Mead for his actions, and will come out with a vengeance against the main backers of the “Hill Bill” when they dare to seek re-election.
Whether that anger extends to everyone who voted for the measure, and not just its main proponents, remains to be seen. But that “no” vote is guaranteed to come back to haunt a lot of Republican incumbent lawmakers, and should result in more primary challengers than the party has seen in a very long time. Competition at the polls is essential in a democracy, but this pull to the right doesn’t bode well for an efficient and effective approach to governing the state.
NEXT: How will Mead’s and Hill’s different positions on the controversial “Common Core” standards affect the Republican race?