Wyoming Political Scene Still Unsettled

Posted June 26, 2007 at 6:35pm

In the aftermath of the selection last week of new Sen. John Barrasso, ambitious Wyoming Republicans are refusing to rule out challenging either him or Rep. Barbara Cubin in next year’s GOP primaries.

Some Republicans who unsuccessfully sought the Senate appointment after the recent death of Sen. Craig Thomas confirmed this week that they are considering a run for Wyoming’s at-large House seat, Barrasso’s Senate seat — or both. Barrasso already has revealed his intention to seek the final four years of Thomas’ term in a November 2008 special election.

“I haven’t ruled anything out yet,” said Matt Mead (R), the recently resigned U.S. attorney for Wyoming whose grandfather, Clifford Hansen, served the state as governor and Senator. Mead resigned just days after Thomas’ death so he could apply for the Senate vacancy.

State Rep. Colin Simpson (R), the Majority Floor Leader of the Wyoming House of Representatives and the son former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), also declined on Tuesday to rule out running for federal office in 2008, even if that means challenging Barrasso or Cubin in a primary.

On June 19, the Wyoming Republican Party Central Committee recommended three candidates to replace Thomas. Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D), in accordance with state law, appointed orthopedic surgeon and then-state Sen. Barrasso over former state Treasurer Cynthia Lummis (R) and one-time Thomas Chief of Staff Tom Sansonetti, a former state GOP chairman.

Mead and Simpson also were among the 30 applicants vying to replace Thomas, with Mead finishing in the top five in three rounds of voting by the 71-member state GOP Central Committee and Simpson finishing in the top 10. Mead and Simpson were both known to be considering a run for the House — even if that meant challenging Cubin in the GOP primary — before the Thomas seat opened up.

Lummis, meanwhile, said in an interview this week that she will not run against Cubin in a primary, citing her status as a sitting Republican officeholder. But Lummis did say she is contemplating a bid against Barrasso because she doesn’t view him as a traditional incumbent.

“That is an interim appointment, so that is a different circumstance,” she said.

Sansonetti said he does not differentiate. He sees Barrasso as the incumbent — and figuring the newly appointed Senator sticks to his pledge to seek the remainder of Thomas’ term next year, Sansonetti said he will not run for Senate in the primary.

Similarly, he has no interest in challenging Cubin in a primary — although he is considering a run for the House if the Congresswoman retires. Cubin said in a recent statement that she does not plan to announce whether she will seek an eighth term until early next year — as is her custom.

“It’s party over self,” Sansonetti said. “The Republican Party here in Wyoming does not need some huge primary, as we’re sometimes wont to do.”

Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) is up for a third term next year. No mainstream Wyoming Republican is planning to challenge him in the August 2008 primary, and he isn’t likely to have any trouble holding his seat against the eventual Democratic nominee.

Freudenthal, who is popular and was overwhelmingly re-elected to a second term in November, has spurned the efforts of Democratic leaders in Washington, D.C., to recruit him into the race. Beyond Freudenthal, the Democratic bench in the Republican-leaning state is generally thin, although there are a few potentially formidable candidates for the Senate and House.

Cubin last year defeated Internet entrepreneur Gary Trauner (D) by just 1 point, and some Republicans — worried that she remains vulnerable — are quietly hoping she retires in 2008 or loses in the GOP primary. Trauner is considering challenging Cubin again, although he also has been weighing a run for the newly filled Senate seat.

The prospect of running against Barrasso, who will have served in office for less than 18 months come Election Day 2008, is motivating other Democrats to examine a Senate bid, including state Sen. Mike Massie, 2002 gubernatorial candidate Paul Hickey and former state Rep. Patrick Hacker.

Lummis, Mead and Sansonetti all echoed each other in contending that the process for selecting Thomas’ successor had a positive impact on the state GOP, saying it had a unifying effect on a party that has had its share of internal squabbles of late. But Democrats believe it could provide them with an unexpected opportunity.

“The thing about Dr. Barrasso is, he’s never won a statewide election before. He’s gotten his job by virtue of a very internal Republican Party process,” said Bill Luckett, the chief spokesman for the Wyoming Democratic Party.

Thomas’ Senate seat opened up on June 4 when the three-term incumbent succumbed to leukemia. But long before that, Mead and Simpson already were examining a House bid and a possible primary challenge against Cubin.

Simpson said in an interview with Roll Call earlier this month that he informed Cubin of his intention to seek her post next year, regardless of whether she runs for re-election. Simpson was more coy on Tuesday, saying that everything is now “up in the air,” including his timing for figuring out what 2008 will entail for him.

“After the last couple of weeks, I’m kind of evaluating where I am,” he said.

Mead, however, was more clear. While he, too, is still figuring out what he wants to do next year, he said he expected to make a decision by the end of the summer. Mead said he would need sufficient time to reintroduce himself to the voters and GOP activists, as his six-year stint as a U.S. attorney that began in 2001 and ended only earlier this month required him to stay clear of politics.

Lummis said she wouldn’t know until late fall whether her business commitments would allow her to run for Senate.