Known to some as “Wyoming’s Physician,” newly appointed Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) comes to Capitol Hill with a reputation among Republicans for being a talented legislator and consummate politician who is prepared to excel in his new position.
Barrasso, selected Friday to replace the late Sen. Craig Thomas (R), finished a close second in the 1996 Republican primary to now-Sen. Mike Enzi and has had his sights set on Washington, D.C., ever since. The 54-year-old orthopedic surgeon and divorced father of two has less than 18 months to get his sea legs, as he must win a November 2008 special election if he wants to serve out the remaining four years of Thomas’ term.
“He’s probably the most focused individual I’ve ever known,” said Wyoming Republican Tom Lockhart, a retired utility company executive. “He’s excellent across the board.”
Barrasso, until Friday a state Senator and one of three finalists to survive last week’s vote by the 71-member state GOP central committed, was appointed to replace Thomas by Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D).
The governor picked Barrasso over former state Treasurer Cynthia Lummis (R) and Tom Sansonetti, a former state GOP chairman and ex-Justice Department attorney who once served as Thomas’ chief of staff. Under state law, Freudenthal was required to pick a candidate recommended by the state GOP to fill the Thomas vacancy.
In the Wyoming Senate, where he was elected to a pair of four-year terms and served nearly five years, Barrasso was chairman of the Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Committee, and he specialized in crafting health care legislation.
His constituent-services operation was referred to as first-rate.
Barrasso is described as a “legislator at heart” who collaborated well with his fellow Senators, as well as Members of the Wyoming House of Representatives. His temperament, said state GOP Chairman Fred Parady, is aggressive but thoughtful — his demeanor slightly formal but compassionate.
“He’s bright, articulate and deeply knowledgeable on health care,” Parady said. “He’s incredibly energetic.”
Barrasso could not be reached for comment on Friday, but according to the résumé he submitted to the state GOP as part of the application process for seeking Thomas’ seat, he described himself in a manner akin to a conventionally conservative Republican — on both fiscal and social issues.
He touted his A rating from the National Rifle Association and emphasized his votes against gay marriage, for prayer in schools and to “protect the sanctity of life.”
“I believe in limited government, lower taxes, less spending, traditional family values, local control and a strong national defense,” Barrasso wrote.
Wyoming Senate President John Schiffer (R) said Barrasso accurately reflects the state’s GOP primary voters, although Schiffer added that Barrasso is a little bit to the right of Equality State voters as a whole.
“But again, this is a very conservative state, so I think John will do OK,” Schiffer said.
Despite overwhelmingly electing the Democrat Freudenthal to a second term in 2006, Wyoming remains staunchly Republican, with the advantage for GOP candidates usually magnified in presidential election cycles.
Republicans control the Legislature, and Thomas cruised to a third term last year. It is in this atmosphere that Barrasso will be presumably standing for election, as he said in his application to replace Thomas that he intended if selected to run for the remaining four years of the late Senator’s term.
Enzi is running for a third term and not expected to face much competition, but a few potentially formidable Democrats are eyeing a run at Thomas’ seat now that it is essentially open. State Republican leaders are likely to rally behind Barrasso’s bid to finish Thomas’ term, though there remains the possibility that some of the runners-up in the selection process last week could choose to run against him in a GOP primary.
But Wyoming Republicans Friday argued that Barrasso is primed to win what would only be his second statewide race — and first since 1996. They praise his political skills, and note that he has journeyed to every county in Wyoming, whether for his work as a physician or on behalf of the Republican Party.
Lockhart said Barrasso has improved as a politician since his Senate primary loss to Enzi — and he quickly worked to mend fences by serving as Enzi’s finance chairman in the ensuing general election. Republicans also note that he has statewide name recognition thanks to his newspaper columns and frequent television appearances that relate to his medical practice.
“In Wyoming, politics is retail, and John is a consummate retail politician,” Parady added. “John is good at it because he likes it.”