Opinion: Gov. Mark Gordon may be the biggest winner of Cheney’s race

By Kerry Drake, WyoFile

Could Rep. Liz Cheney unwittingly help Gov. Mark Gordon keep his job?

Wyoming Republican Party officials are so gung-ho to replace the three-term congresswoman with a party-first lackey that they appear to have forgotten Gordon, their previous political target.

Cheney already has at least eight primary opponents for the 2022 primary and her arch-nemesis, former President Donald Trump, is actively interviewing even more. Trump wants to pummel her at the polls for voting to impeach him in January, and the would-be kingmaker is leaving no stone unturned in his search for a winner.

By contrast, only one challenger, a perennial candidate who garnered 3% of the vote when he ran against Gordon in 2018, has officially entered the gubernatorial contest. Unless some of Cheney’s potential rivals decide to drop out and take on the governor instead, Gordon may skate through without any serious competition.

That’s amazing, considering all the attention the GOP has given to “correcting” what happened in 2018, when Gordon won the primary with only one-third of the vote. He cruised to victory in the general election but has never been embraced by the party’s extremists — a subset that includes most of its leaders — as a “true conservative.”

The two candidates more to their liking, Foster Friess and Harriet Hageman, split the right-wing vote in 2018, capturing 47% between them. That paved the way for Gordon, the pragmatic former state treasurer, to win.

Party leadership could have admitted the five other candidates in the race failed to persuade voters they were the right person for the job. Instead, they blamed Democrats who changed parties to vote for Gordon in the primary.

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That narrative ruled the day, even though it was a specious argument. Gordon defeated Friess by more than 9,000 votes, while it’s estimated that fewer than 5,300 Democrats changed parties to vote in the Republican primary.

Gov. Mark Gordon speaks during the Aug. 12, 2021 dedication ceremony for the Path of Honor Wind River Veterans Memorial. (Kirk Rasmussen/WyoFile)

Even before Gordon was sworn in as the state’s chief executive, Sen. Bo Biteman (R-Ranchester) pre-filed a bill to ban “crossover voting” after May 1, the first day anyone can officially file for office.

Biteman’s bill was the top priority of the Wyoming Republican Party for the 2019 legislative session. Friess’ followers tried to ram it through the Legislature and were nearly successful.

How much did GOP leaders want the measure to pass? Ranking below it were such time-honored Republican favorites as no tax increases, no medical marijuana and no LGBTQ anti-discrimination laws. Now that’s saying something!

Biteman’s bill died in the Senate Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee by a 3-2 vote. That should have ended the discussion. But in a rare move by Senate leadership, Biteman was allowed to reintroduce a nearly identical measure that was turned over to the friendlier Senate Agriculture Committee.

Senate Ag is often assigned bills that can’t pass another committee. Sure enough, it approved the zombie bill 5-0, and the full Senate passed the measure, 20-10.

But ultimately, the House Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee didn’t even take a vote, killing it for the session.

Bizarrely, the situation was reversed in 2020 when the House approved a bill to end party affiliation changes in the final two weeks before Primary Election Day. The Senate Corporations panel declined to hear that one, which Biteman also co-sponsored.

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After they failed legislatively to keep pesky Democrats from becoming Republicans for a day, I joined many political observers who fully expected party leaders to focus their efforts on ousting Gordon in favor of a “real conservative.”

But it hasn’t happened. Instead, Cheney’s vote to impeach Donald Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection has diverted the party’s ire in a state where the former president won nearly 70% of the votes.

State Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne) was the first to announce he’d take on Cheney in the 2022 primary, and state Rep. Chuck Gray (R-Casper) followed, along with Cheyenne attorney Darin Smith and five lesser-known candidates.

The state GOP voted to censure Cheney and demanded she appear before the executive committee to apologize. She rightfully ignored them.

More recently, several GOP county committees, including Fremont, Park and Carbon, ridiculously voted to no longer recognize Cheney as their representative in Congress.

Rex Rammell, a veterinarian who has lost numerous bids in Wyoming and Idaho as a Republican or Constitution Party candidate for the U.S. House, U.S. Senate, governor and state legislature, is the lone wolf to officially announce he will oppose Gordon. Heck, even the governor hasn’t said he will run for re-election, although he most assuredly will. Rammell poses absolutely no threat to Gordon.

Wealthy businessman and philanthropist Friess — who won Trump’s inconsequential endorsement in 2018 — was potentially one of Gordon’s chief competitors for next year’s nomination. When Friess died in May, it should have opened the door to other serious contenders.

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Hageman’s strong third-place showing against Gordon makes her a likely challenger, and she still might be. But she has reportedly been lobbied to enter the contest to oust Cheney by Trump himself.

It would be a strange political decision, because Hageman worked on Cheney’s brief bid to unseat Sen. Mike Enzi in 2014 and later contributed to her congressional campaigns. But how could she turn it down if she’s assured of Trump’s endorsement? She’s already lost to Gordon once, and must know that beating him would be an uphill battle.

Trump has made it clear he wants one and only one candidate to run against Cheney, so that the large field doesn’t split the vote and hand her the nomination. That person stands to benefit from Trump’s considerable support, even though his endorsement hardly means Cheney is history. She has a huge fundraising advantage and the power of incumbency.

I simply don’t see a lot of the congressional contenders admitting defeat and peeling away from the pack to run for governor. That, of course, greatly works in Gordon’s favor. He is not the vulnerable officeholder that state party leaders thought they could easily beat before Cheney upended Wyoming politics.

Trump has also interviewed Biteman, an ambitious hardcore conservative cast in his mold. Biteman hasn’t announced his intentions, but he hasn’t been able to accomplish much in the Wyoming Senate, where he is a leading voice in an extreme-right coalition that doesn’t get many of its major bills passed. Like his crossover voting bill, he often gets mired in lost causes.

I am leery of even mentioning Biteman as a candidate for higher office. I well remember when former Casper Star-Tribune columnist Hugh Jackson suggested that Barbara Cubin, who also had a fairly lackluster state legislative career, was a possible replacement for Rep. Craig Thomas when he moved on to the Senate.

Jackson meant it as a joke. I don’t know if his backhanded encouragement had any role in Cubin deciding to run, but she won and served as Wyoming’s representative in D.C. for the next 14 years.

So, let me be crystal clear: I don’t want to see Biteman, whom I disagree with on just about every issue, either in Congress or living at the governor’s mansion. Since he’s shown a willingness to carry the water for his party’s leaders, he’d probably do it again.

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In a year when hardly anyone but Gordon really wants the job, it may be the ticket Biteman is looking to punch.

 

 

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.