It seems that our fair state did something strange last week.
When Wyoming Republicans rejected the candidate who had the support of President Donald Trump, we were the first voters in the nation to do so this year. Every other Trump-backed candidate in 2018 has won his/her primary and a place on the general election ballot.
It was especially strange because it was only two years ago that we Wyomingites gave Trump his biggest winning margin over Hillary Clinton — more than 45 percent — earning Wyoming the title of the reddest state in the union.
Equally as strange is that Trump’s man, Foster Friess, was considered among the “real” conservative Republicans seeking the gubernatorial nomination, while the winner, Mark Gordon, was branded by his opponents as “too liberal for Wyoming.” Four other candidates, each of whom positioned him/herself as the most conservative person in the race, trailed, most of them badly.
Meanwhile, the Democrats had their own race to nominate a candidate for governor, but it was less interesting. Mary Throne easily won, receiving two-thirds of the votes in the primary, 10,000 votes more than the second-place candidate.
The outcome among the Republicans was notable enough that it drew the attention of national media, and naturally, it was big news for the Wyoming press. The Casper Star-Tribune, for example, devoted the majority of their front page and most of another page on Sunday to an extensive story about the results and what they mean for the election in November.
The writers noted that Throne and Gordon were the candidates who had a history of leadership and service in their respective parties and in state government, and both have deep roots in Wyoming. The story also called them the moderate candidates, and I’m sure the other Republican candidates would agree when it comes to Gordon. He was even called a liberal by some. As for Throne, she ran on a moderate platform, but she also had softer competition, facing opponents who were less well-financed and less well-known than she is.
As the old sports adage goes, it’s always the losers who complain about the officials. The political version holds that it’s always the losers who complain about the political leadership, the news media, and even about the rules themselves. So it wasn’t a surprise when Friess complained that his loss may have happened because Wyoming law allows voters to change their party affiliation at the polls. That allows Democrats to invade the Republican ranks for the primary and use their votes to support a more liberal candidate. He claims such Democratic invaders may have tipped the vote to the more liberal candidate, costing him the nomination.
Well, Friess is correct that Democratic voters could, and probably did, switch parties to vote for Gordon. But I seriously doubt that they cost Friess the election. He was after all, essentially an outsider up against a sitting elected official with a history in Wyoming. If he had a sexier Wyoming name, such as Barrasso or Cheney, he would have had a better chance, but who of us had ever heard of Friess at this time last year? Not so many.
A look at the unofficial numbers in the primary race tells a story that I think backs me up. Two years ago, Trump received a few more than 174,400 votes in carrying Wyoming. Last week, Gordon received a few more than 38,900 votes — some 9,000 votes more than Friess. The six Republicans all together received a few short of 118,000 votes. That means more than 56,000 Republicans, independents, and a few Democrats attracted by Trump in 2016 failed to show up last week for the primary. If just 10,000, a bit fewer than one in five of those people, had voted for Trump’s candidate in the primary last week, Friess would be the nominee. Why they didn’t, we’ll probably never know. Some of them might have moved to Colorado. Some may have decided that they made a horrible mistake two years ago and tried to correct it. Some might have been moderates in the first place, but couldn’t stand Hillary Clinton, so they voted for Trump for president. With Clinton not on the ballot, they felt free to vote for Throne. Some might have voted for a Republican with a proven record as an elected official rather than one who had only an endorsement from Trump and a lot of money to spend to list as his qualifications for office. You certainly couldn’t have found the 10,000 Democrats switching parties at the polls to give Friess a win over Gordon.
Whatever the reasons, the outcome presents us with three choices for governor in November, thanks to Rex Rammel, a hard-line conservative who switched his allegiance to the Constitution Party early this year. That party nominates its candidates in a party convention, and they were quite happy to nominate Rammel for governor in May. This presumably gives us voters a chance to choose between two relatively moderate candidates and one very conservative candidate when we pick up our ballots in November. Personally, I think that oversimplifies the situation, but it is at least partially true.
This means some interesting possibilities for the general election — good enough to write another column about.