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Colleagues Mourn Thomas

As Wyoming and Capitol Hill mourned the loss of Sen. Craig Thomas (R), who died Monday night at age 74, political operatives quietly looked ahead to the impact his passing would have on the 2008 election landscape, while the future of his committee assignments remained clouded late Tuesday.

Thomas’ death could scramble politics in Wyoming, where state law directs the governor to appoint a Republican replacement who will serve until Election Day 2008, when a special election must be held to fill the final four years of the late Senator’s term.

Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) also is up for re-election next year, but he is considered a shoo-in for a third term, as popular Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D) has expressed no interest in challenging him and no Democrat is seen as capable of waging a strong campaign. But the death of the extremely well-liked Thomas could give the Democrats another opportunity to play out West, however unlikely the possibility of victory appears this far out.

“The party of course sees this as a big opportunity, but it’s too early to know how it’s going to play out,” said one Democratic operative based in Wyoming. “One big question is whether Gary Trauner [D] might try to run for the Senate.”

Trauner, an Internet entrepreneur, held Rep. Barbara Cubin (R-Wyo.) to 48 percent of the vote last year, losing by just 1 point in his maiden run for Wyoming’s statewide, at-large House seat. Wyoming political operatives have said that he would not run against Enzi but was interested in taking another swing at Cubin.

In a telephone interview Tuesday, Trauner said it was too early to make any decisions about 2008. But he did not rule out running for the House or Thomas’ Senate seat, acknowledging that whether he runs for Senate in the newly opened slot depends at least in part on whom the Republicans and Freudenthal select to fill the vacancy.

“I still think we need change in the state and in the country, and I’m willing to do whatever it takes to make change happen,” Trauner said. “At this point, I’m going to wait and see what happens, and probably make [my] decision sooner rather than later.”

One Wyoming Democrat referred to the party’s bench as “thin” and was hard-pressed to come up with potentially formidable Senate candidates beyond Freudenthal and Trauner — let alone Democrats who might be interested in running.

On Capitol Hill, Thomas served on a handful of committees, including the powerful Finance panel. But it was unclear Tuesday who would take his coveted seat, although several key Senate sources said the two frontrunners for the post are Enzi and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Ensign (Nev.).

Both Ensign and Enzi are atop the Senate seniority structure, but under Senate rules, the decision to fill this particular opening rests not on hierarchy but with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Enzi obviously would be a sentimental favorite, while Ensign is viewed as a top contender given he agreed to take on the grueling NRSC job this cycle and was considered and passed over for a Finance slot previously.

With those moves pending, McConnell, Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and Enzi introduced a resolution that was scheduled for a full Senate vote Tuesday to honor Thomas’ service and offer the chamber’s condolences to his state and family. In it, the Senate “expressed profound sorrow” for the loss and remarked on Thomas’ life and career as one “marked by the best of Western values: hardworking, plain-speaking, common sense courtesy and integrity.”

On the political front, Wyoming Republican Party Chairman Fred Parady confirmed in a statement released Tuesday afternoon that the state GOP officially had been notified of the open Senate seat by the governor. Per state law, Wyoming Republicans now have 15 days to call a convention of the GOP’s 71-member state central committee and nominate three names for the Senate seat. From that list, Freudenthal is obligated within five days to choose a successor to Thomas.

Parady said the procedure for selecting the three nominees would be announced after Thomas’ funeral, the arrangements of which were still pending at press time on Tuesday.

“Our process to fill this statutory duty will be exhaustive and fair, and three outstanding Republican candidates will be forwarded to the governor,” Parady said in his statement. “Our goal is to provide Wyoming with the best possible United States Senator, which is who we have had.”

The speculation among some Wyoming political operatives is that Freudenthal will select the strongest candidate from among the three nominees submitted to him by the state GOP.

Though counterintuitive for a Democrat, those with knowledge of Wyoming politics explain that Freudenthal is not interested in running for Senate himself and add that appearing to play politics with Thomas’ successor might put a dent in the governor’s high approval ratings.

Among the names being mentioned as possible Thomas replacements are state Sen. John Barrasso, a physician who already has been positioning himself to run for Senate; state Sen. Colin Simpson, son of former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.); and U.S. Attorney Matt Mead, grandson of former governor and Sen. Cliff Hansen (R).

Parady, a former Speaker of the Wyoming House, also is said to be a possibility, but sources say his relationship with Freudenthal is dicey and therefore the governor would be unlikely to elevate him to the Senate if his name was included on the list of nominees. Sources say Mead and Simpson are both possibilities because they are said to have strong Republican credentials and get along well with Freudenthal.

The NRSC and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee both declined to comment Tuesday. Thomas’ death leaves the NRSC with one more seat to defend in a cycle that finds the committee having to now protect 22 seats, compared with just 12 for the Democrats.

If the DSCC continues with its considerable fundraising advantage over the NRSC deep into next cycle, it’s possible that Senate Democrats could spend some of that extra money in Wyoming, where advertising is inexpensive and one spot could hurt both Republican Senate candidates as well as the GOP House nominee.

The DSCC raised $4.6 million in April to close the month with $12.1 million in cash on hand and $5.5 million in debt; the NRSC raised just $2.1 million during the same period to close April with $3.4 million on hand and zero debt. Thomas’ campaign committee banked $561,468 at the end of the first quarter, all of which is eligible to be transferred to the NRSC.

Thomas died after a seven-month battle with acute myeloid leukemia. He received his diagnosis in November, just as he handily secured a third six-year term in the Senate by a whopping 70 percent of the vote.

As news of Thomas’ death rattled the Capitol on Tuesday morning, Senators quickly worked to reorganize the day’s events and make time to pay tribute to their late colleague on the Senate floor. A small bouquet of flowers and a simple black drape was placed across Thomas’ desk in the far right corner of the chamber to mark the loss.

Republicans and Democrats alike remembered the Wyoming Senator as an icon of the American West, who was part cowboy and part public servant whose life and career were marked by his love of family, state and country. Almost universally, Senators spoke of Thomas as a strong legislator who was quiet fighter, a straight shooter and a hard worker who never allowed his struggle with cancer to slow him down.

“By his devotion to family, country, constituents and friends, Craig Lyle Thomas showed us what it means to be an American,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. “He embodied the best ideals of a Wyoming cowboy — and made the Senate, and those who had the privilege of knowing him, far better for it.”

Reid, following McConnell’s tribute, called for a moment of silence in the Senate at 10:13 a.m., saying that it is times like the loss of a colleague that “we do realize we are a family, a very small family of just 100 — 99 today.”

Enzi was perhaps the most emotional Senator during Tuesday’s memorials on the floor, choking back tears as he spoke of the loss of his longtime ally whose life was “a living portrait of the American West.”

“He saw a world from the saddle of his horse and from under the brim of his cowboy hat,” Enzi said. “He was proud of Wyoming and Wyoming was proud to be represented by him. Craig was my senior Senator, he was my confidant, a mentor, but most of all, he was a very good friend.”

Many colleagues believed that Thomas — long a fighter for rural, energy and agricultural interests — was headed into a remission for his blood cancer. Following chemotherapy treatments in November, December and earlier this year, he had returned to a regular schedule of votes and committee hearings and had been introducing legislation.

But the week before the Memorial Day recess, routine blood tests revealed abnormalities that prompted doctors to immediately hospitalize Thomas at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., for additional treatment. Doctors, through the family, announced Monday afternoon that they were having difficulty controlling the cancer and infection related to the disease had occurred.

Thomas was first elected to the House in 1989 to succeed the seat vacated by then-Rep. Dick Cheney (R-Wyo.), who left Congress to serve as Defense secretary.

Louis Jacobson contributed to this report.