Buoyed by overwhelming support in Park County, longtime Powell educator R.J. Kost defeated incumbent state Sen. Ray Peterson, R-Cowley, in Tuesday’s Republican primary election.
Peterson enjoyed strong support in the Big Horn County portion of Senate District 19, where he lives, but it wasn’t strong enough to overcome Kost’s more than 2:1 advantage among Powell area voters.
Kost received 2,246 votes (53.9 percent) to Peterson’s 1,921 votes (46.1 percent).
“At this point, I’m still overwhelmed and honestly I’m still extremely humbled by the results,” Kost said Wednesday morning. “I feel like I’ve got a big responsibility for the future; I need to take it seriously and make sure I do the job that I said I was going to do.”
Asked if he could pinpoint any particular reason that voters picked him over Peterson, “I think maybe in some ways, people wanted a change, but I really just don’t know,” Kost said. In visiting with voters in the district — which includes Powell and Frannie, Deaver, Cowley, Lovell and Greybull in northern Big Horn County — people talked about concerns ranging from education to economic diversity to agriculture to water issues.
“There was no single issue other than term limits that seemed to be a point in a lot of people,” Kost said. “Almost everybody I talked to were definitely in favor of term limits — term limits for everybody.”
Peterson — a 13-year Senate veteran who was seeking his fourth term — had made his experience a big part of his campaign. He’d tentatively planned to run for Senate majority leader next year and potentially become Senate president after that.
“I hate to see that seat go back to a rookie seat like it was when I got there,” Peterson said. He noted that seniority generally carries more influence and said it takes years for a freshman senator to learn the ropes.
He suggested that negative views of his positions on education played a leading role in his loss.
Peterson said he faced an uphill battle after sponsoring a bill in the last session, Senate File 117, that would have cut tens of millions of dollars from Wyoming’s education system.
Peterson said initial reports on his bill that described it as cutting $100 million were “flawed and misleading;” the senator said he immediately amended the legislation to be a roughly $40 million cut.
After unusually contentious negotiations between the House (which favored fewer cuts) and Senate, the Legislature wound up making smaller cuts to education this year. Peterson noted the Legislature still must come up with a long-term funding plan for education, calling the current budget “unsustainable.”
“I don’t envy those people that are left behind to try to deal with it, because it’s a no-win situation and you’re going to get on the bad side of teachers and the WEA,” Peterson said, referring to the Wyoming Education Association. “But I can hold my head high and in the fact that I tried to address the problem and we came out with a balanced budget.”
Peterson said his efforts to explain his reasoning on Senate File 117 — how he was trying to target areas where districts were overspending and to help smaller districts while not impacting classrooms — generally fell on deaf ears.
“The fire had started and the poison that had entered into a lot of our schools, and the WEA especially took a position against me and they were out canvassing for R.J. [Kost] — and that’s understandable,” Peterson said, adding, “I don’t mind so much the effort that WEA as a lobbying group put behind R.J. What I do mind is that it just wasn’t factual, and it still isn’t.”
For his part, Kost said education funding didn’t come up that often and that Senate File 117 was never brought up in his conversations with voters.
“I think that probably some of the cuts that were suggested by the Senate were extremely bothersome to some people, but I don’t know whether that made the result or not,” Kost said.
The WEA did some door-knocking in Greybull, Lovell and Powell for the longtime teacher and school administrator, so “obviously, I’m sure they had some input, but how much, I don’t know,” he said.
“Definitely WEA was trying to push for people that were more educational-friendly, and this was one of the districts that they were hoping to change,” Kost said.
Although he spoke critically of the WEA’s efforts, Peterson spoke highly of Kost.
“R.J., bless his heart, he’s going to do a good job,” Peterson said.
Saying that Kost has integrity, “I’m comfortable with giving that seat [to him] and saying, you know, we’ve got a good man down there that will represent us,” Peterson said.
Kost similarly said he has the “utmost respect” for Peterson and his service.
“He’s given of himself and his family and so my hat’s off to that and his dedication,” he said. “And I think that whether people agreed with his voting or disagreed with his voting, he deserves the respect for the amount of time and commitment he put in with it.”
With his time in the Senate wrapping up at the end of the year, Peterson said he plans to spend more time with his family and work around the house, saying his wife has a long “honey-do” list.
Kost, meanwhile, isn’t taking his election for granted in November, but he plans to get in touch with the area’s current lawmakers and other leaders as part of his preparations.
“It’s important that I go down there [to the Legislature] with the idea that I’ve got to learn and yet at the same time that you’re learning, you’ve got to hold true to what you’re running on …,” he said.