Although it may sound counterintuitive politically, Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D) is likely to select the strongest Republican available to him as a replacement to the late Sen. Craig Thomas (R) — at least partly to protect the sterling image he has cultivated with his state’s majority-GOP voters.
Wyoming law mandates that Freudenthal, a centrist, choose Thomas’ successor from among the three candidates selected this week by the state GOP. Although Freudenthal’s poor relationship with former state Treasurer Cynthia Lummis (R) might disqualify her, Democratic sources do not expect partisan politics to influence the governor’s decision — even though the person he names likely will seek the remaining four years of Thomas’ term in 2008.
“The bottom line with David is he will do what is in the best interest of himself,” said one Wyoming Democrat familiar with Freudenthal. “He has worked hard over the past five or six years to make sure that his Republican constituency is happy with him, to the detriment of Democrats in this state.”
Freudenthal has appointed several Republicans to positions in his cabinet and elsewhere in the state government, and he is described as rarely helpful — if not sometimes openly hostile — to Wyoming Democrats.
State Democratic Party spokesman Bill Luckett recalled a speech Freudenthal delivered to party activists in which he remembers the governor saying, “I’m probably as conservative as you’re all afraid I am.”
Accordingly, Freudenthal is not expected to consult with Democratic leaders in Washington, D.C., or party activists in Wyoming before rendering his selection. Multiple messages left with Freudenthal’s office had not been returned by press time on Wednesday.
In addition to Lummis, Freudenthal over the next few days can choose Thomas’ replacement from Tom Sansonetti — the late Senator’s one-time chief of staff and a former state Republican Party chairman who was most recently a D.C.-based Justice Department attorney — and state Sen. John Barrasso (R), who is a respected physician.
On Wednesday, Freudenthal did not demand, but invited the three candidates to essentially interview for the job. In a letter he sent to them that was publicized by the governor’s office, Freudenthal said he was available Wednesday and today in Cheyenne, the state capital, adding that he was particularly interested in discussing “federal fiscal and monetary policy.”
Freudenthal’s letter included a list of more than 40 topics he is interested in discussing with the candidates.
Barrasso, Lummis and Sansonetti all have extensive public service backgrounds and a long history of involvement in Republican politics. All three have the kind of professional, political and government experience that suggests they could make a capable Senator over the next 18 months.
But because state law for replacing a prematurely vacated Senate seat allows the successor to serve only until the next regularly scheduled general election, the focus on whom Freudenthal selects has been on the eventual pick’s political viability in a statewide election that could be competitive.
Republicans are confident that whomever Freudenthal picks will put the GOP in a solid position to retain the seat next year, though each brings to the table unique strengths.
Barrasso has been a leading advocate in Wyoming on health care issues and has worked with the governor on health care policy. However, they found themselves on opposite sides of the fence a few years ago on tort reform.
Lummis has two successful runs for state treasurer under her belt and her second term coincided with Freudenthal’s first. The two do not get along, but if the governor bases his decision on who is competent and well liked by Wyoming Republicans, Lummis — as a small-business owner and ex-state legislator whose political career began when she was in her early 20s — appears to be a solid choice.
Sansonetti, who some knowledgeable Democrats believe could have the inside track to Freudenthal’s selection, has served three stints in Washington, D.C., as an executive branch attorney. And he was almost chosen as a replacement Senator 18 years ago when Thomas narrowly beat him out for the job in a selection process handled by the state GOP that was similar to this week’s proceedings.
One question in such a heavily Republican state is whether the interim Senator would face a competitive GOP primary challenge in 2008, as several of the applicants who lost out in the state GOP selection process this week are politically ambitious.
Wyoming GOP Chairman Fred Parady said Wednesday that none of the three candidates is politically weak. They have personal charisma, are politically astute, can raise money and have a command of the issues, he said.
“All three of these candidates have the ability to carry the state in 2008,” Parady said.
Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), who is up for re-election next year, is considered a safe bet for a third term.
With Thomas’ seat unexpectedly open, however, a few Democrats who could make solid candidates see a potential opportunity and are now considering running. Among them is Internet entrepreneur Gary Trauner, who came within a hair last year of defeating Rep. Barbara Cubin (R) in a bid for Wyoming’s statewide at-large House seat.
Other possibly formidable Democrats looking to run for Thomas’ seat include state Sen. Mike Massie; 2002 gubernatorial primary candidate Paul Hickey; and former state Rep. Patrick Hacker, a specialist in Wyoming school funding issues who played a prominent role in overhauling the state’s school-finance system.
Freudenthal’s two consecutive victories notwithstanding, Republicans are a majority in Wyoming and tend to win statewide races there. The GOP expects that advantage to be magnified in a presidential cycle, but Democrats are optimistic that they can snag Thomas’ seat.
“You’re going to have a new person — a person who has not been elected to that seat before, a person with less experience in the Senate than any other incumbent, so it’s an opportunity for us,” Luckett said.