Wyoming Primary Races Counter Conventional Wisdom

Wyoming Primary Races Counter Conventional Wisdom

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Three factors are generally considered major keys to winning elections: raising a lot of money, the amount of political experience a candidate has, and how in tune he or she is with the public’s beliefs.

Sometimes, that’s how things play out in Wyoming — but not always.

WyPols’ examination of campaign financing for one Senate contest and two House races shows that neither money, incumbency nor ideology are necessarily the major factor in deciding which candidates will win Wyoming primary elections.

We chose three Republican primary campaigns in which there were clearly significant differences in the political beliefs of the candidates.

In Senate District 5, incumbent Sen. Fred Emerich, a moderate, faced a right-wing challenger, Rep. Lynn Hutchings, who was elected in House District 42 in 2012 and decided to try for a seat in the upper chamber this year.

 

In House District 5, tea party favorite Cheri Steinmetz took on another Lingle resident, incumbent Rep. Matt Teeters, who is chairman of the House Education Committee. Teeters is unquestionably conservative, but not as far to the right as Steinmetz’s campaign indicates she is.

Trying to replace Hutchings in HD 42 were Theodore (Jim) Blackburn, a right-wing newcomer, and Tom Jones, a veteran House member making a comeback in politics after serving for decades as a lobbyist. Jones was known as a conservative during his years in the House, many moons ago, but the GOP has shifted significantly to the right since then. By today’s standards, he’s a moderate.

The results show that Republican primary winners can be top fundraisers or have relatively little to spend, may have spent years in the Wyoming Legislature or not even served a day as a lawmaker, and be politically moderate or to the extreme right.

First, let’s examine SD 5, which is the closest of this trio of contests in terms of where they ranked among all candidates in total contributions. Incumbent Emerich was the top Senate fundraiser, with a war chest of $22,570. Hutchings raised only $10,067, but ranked seventh in contributions.

Emerich received five donations of at least $1,000 each from political action committees (PACs). Topping his list was the Farmers Employee Agent PAC, which gave $1,500. The $1,000 PAC donors were CONPAC Contractors PAC, the Petroleum Association of Wyoming (PAW) Political Action Council, the Wyoming Public Employment Association PAC, and the Wyoming Realtors PAC.

SD05_Spending

Hutchings’ biggest donor was her fundraising committee left over from her House campaign, which contributed $2,798. Husband Thomas Hutchings of Cheyenne gave her $1,000, as did two well-known conservative contributors: Susan Gore of Cheyenne and WyWatch Family Action. The latter’s primary focus is its anti-abortion crusade, but the group has also made headlines with its rabid opposition to same-sex marriage.

The winner in SD 5 was the moderate veteran lawmaker whose campaign was financed by a combination of relatively small donors along with five PACs. Emerich garnered 2,191 votes to 1,706 for Hutchings, who leaves the Legislature with one less conservative voice. Strangely, Hutchings had two contributors list their addresses as the North Pole — Edward Buoncore ($500) and Tram Brunsberg ($200). Maybe she’d have better results sticking a little closer to home.

Next, let’s examine the race in HD 5. Teeters moved up the ranks quickly in the GOP House in his eight years, serving as chairman of the busy (and due to his leadership, controversial) House Education Committee. Steinmetz made her first bid for public office in 2012, when she was handily defeated by conservative incumbent Sen. Curt Meier of LaGrange.

Conventional wisdom says incumbents have a huge advantage in several areas, including the ability to raise money and their lawmaking experience. That might have held true in HD 5, if Teeters hadn’t ticked off so many constituents with his support of Senate File 104, an unpopular move that stripped most of the powers of Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill and let the governor appoint a director to head the Department of Education — at least until the Wyomimg Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional and put things back the way they were.

 

Teeters also sponsored a last-minute amendment to the state budget bill earlier this year that prohibits the Wyoming Board of Education from funding — or even talking about — the Next Generation Science Standards. The proposed standards have been widely criticized in coal-dependent Wyoming for teaching that climate change is primarily caused by man. See, it’s bad for business, and the state doesn’t have any history of biting the hand that feeds it.

 

Without the Hill debacle, Teeters might have survived his challenge by Steinmetz, who managed to neutralize his objection to the NGSS by saying she opposed it too, but Teeters’ action showed his disregard of transparency and the First Amendment. Since many conservatives were already mad at him for his terrible treatment of Hill, they apparently bought Steinmetz’s argument.

 

Teeters raised only $2,400, which made him 68th on the House primary candidates’ money list. Steinmetz took in a whopping $18,447, the third highest total in the chamber.

Steinmetz-Teeter in HD 5

 

Teeters only had 11 donations, and didn’t have a single contributor give more than $500, the amount he received from both the Wyoming Realtors PAC and DEFPAC, which has its headquarters in Oklahoma City. Colleagues Sen. Hank Coe (R-Cody) kicked in $250, and Rep. Ruth Petroff gave him $50.

 

The state’s top conservative donors all flocked to Steinmetz’s side. Dan and Colleen Brophy of Jackson each donated $1,000, as did John and Jane Dooley of Jay Em. Showing how unpopular Teeters must be in the Capitol these days, Sen. Meier — Steinmetz’s opponent two years ago — also contributed at the $1,000 level. For the record, Meier is also the largest contributor to WyWatch, donating $5,000 to the conservative watchdogs.

 

Steinmetz, who believes abortion is murder and is steadfastly against gay marriage, had no trouble earning an endorsement from WyWatch. Teeters never even had a chance at getting the blessing of the group, because it disqualified any incumbent who voted for SF 104.

 

Teeters not only backed it, he co(e)-wrote the bill with Sen. Coe, chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

 

On primary election night, Stenmetz easily outpolled Teeters, 1,270 to 867. The result surprised some observers, who should have seen it coming, given the paltry amount Teeters raised compared to his opponent and the amount of flak he took from Hill die-hards in his conservative district. Still, any time an incumbent is dumped from the state Legislature in a primary election, it’s noteworthy because it doesn’t happen very often.

 

In the HD 42 contest to succeed Hutchings, Jim Blackburn raised only a small fraction of the amount Tom Jones did. Blackburn had $3,120 to work with — which put him at No. 57 — while Jones raised $16,100, the fourth highest total in the House.

HD42_Spending

 

Like Teeters, Blackburn had only 11 donations, but they included $1,000 each from Colleen Brophy and Susan Gore. Jones, who spent $5,000 of his own money on the race, had 52 donations, but only one at the $1,000 level, from the Wyoming Realtors PAC.

 

Newcomer Blackburn won, defeating Jones, 983 to 790. It appears Jones’ big edge in fundraising could not overcome the winner’s ultra-conservative message, and could not match Jones’ popularity in Cody — which he represented in the House from 1977 to 1986 — with the response to his candidacy in Cheyenne, even though he moved to the capital city more than 25 years ago.

 

While serving in the Legislature, Jones was co-chairman of the powerful Joint Appropriations Committee, making him one of the most influential lawmakers in the state. During the campaign he told the Casper Star-Tribune he was unhappy with Hutchings’ representation of HD 42 and thought he could do better.”I think the Legislature needs to get back to working together,” he said, calling for more civility in debates. “We don’t have to agree. The person who is your opponent today is your best friend tomorrow. You don’t carry on about things.”

 

One of the things Hutchings loudly carried on about was same-sex marriage and domestic partnerships. Last year, the lawmaker – who is black — accused gays of “carpet-bagging on our civil rights movement.”

 

Despite the fact Jones has spent the past three decades working at the Capitol as a legislator and lobbyist, and his vastly superior ability to raise campaign funds, he won’t get his wish to be a moderate alternative to the current occupant of the HD 42 seat. If Blackburn gets past Democratic nominee Gary Datus — who only drew 191 votes in his unopposed primary — Hutchings will be followed by an inexperienced new legislator much more closely aligned with her views than Jones is.

 

Even though Hutchings lost to Emerich in their Senate race, it looks like the Legislature won’t lose a conservative voice in the House after all. For moderates and progressives who think there are already too many extremists serving there now, it’s a pity.

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