Skip to comments.'Our best opportunity'(Wyoming's early GOP delegate selection)
Posted on 09/27/2007 6:26:52 PM PDT by 2ndDivisionVet
CHEYENNE -- Getting the national media spotlight to shine on Wyoming politics is a little like getting sunlight to the floor of the rainforest.
But the state GOP has chopped away some of the old growth lately by joining a handful of states jockeying for early presidential caucuses and primaries.
Wyoming's early county conventions has also attracted an unprecedented four presidential candidates to forums this weekend in Casper and Riverton, including former Tennessee senator and "Law and Order" TV star Fred Thompson.
The early conventions were the brainchild of Tom Sansonetti, the longtime GOP activist, former Justice Department official and attorney with Holland and Hart in Cheyenne.
Sansonetti, also a former Republican National Committee rule chairman, first tinkered with the presidential nomination process a decade ago, when he and his committee crafted an overhaul of the primary system. That effort came up short.
But now Sansonetti insists the time has come to fix the system -- and he says Wyoming Republicans can play a key role, while getting a rare chance to help pick their presidential nominee.
This is our best opportunity to get this done, Sansonetti said in an interview this week at his office in Cheyenne.
Sansonetti first pitched the idea of early county conventions to the Wyoming Republican Central Committee back in February. The committee voted unanimously to set the conventions on the same day as the New Hampshire primary. If New Hampshire moved, Wyoming moved.
The committee later agreed to Jan. 5 conventions, about the earliest date possible without edging into 2007, which is illegal under state law.
Our intention wasn't necessarily to go first, Sansonetti said. The intention was to get Wyoming's Republican committeemen and committeewomen some attention from the candidates.
Darlene Vaughan, a committeewoman from Lander, said Sansonetti's pitch to accelerate the schedule opened some eyes within the party. It got state Republicans fired up about the role they might play in the 2008 election, she said.
We may never have a chance like this again where we are the very first one, Vaughan said.
Wyoming loses out
When it comes to presidential politics, Wyoming usually gets left out in the cold.
A handful of states including New Hampshire and Iowa play a major role because they choose nominees well ahead of most other states. The politicians go there, and national news media follow.
Wyoming Republicans, because of their late conventions and the small state population, have played virtually no role at all.
State delegates attend the national convention, but it's mostly a chance to party with comrades from around the nation; by then the nominee has long been chosen.
Republican presidential candidates do occasionally visit the state -- Ronald Reagan in 1984 and George W. Bush in 2000, for example -- but only after they are assured their party's nomination.
Despite the repeated snubs, state Republicans argue that Wyoming is a far more accurate barometer of GOP presidential candidates than more liberal Eastern states such as New Hampshire.
Plenty of candidates become president without winning in New Hampshire, Sansonetti pointed out, but no Republican becomes president without winning in Wyoming.
It's been that way for 80 years, he said.
Sansonetti also said Wyoming is a great place to hold an early caucus. It offers a place to rebound from a poor performance in New Hampshire, or to build momentum if one does well.
And because only about 1,000 party members decide who the state nominates, candidates can campaign directly by picking up the phone.
They wouldn't have to buy TV, Sansonetti said. They wouldn't have to buy radio.
Wyoming doesn't have caucuses or primaries. Instead, the state's Democratic and Republican parties select some of their delegates at county conventions and the rest at statewide conventions.
After choosing 12 delegates in the county convention, the state GOP will select 16 more at-large delegates at a statewide convention May 30 in Rock Springs.
The national GOP has threatened to take away half of the state party's delegates to the national convention if the party goes through with its plan. That's a small price to pay for finally having an impact on the national process, Sansonetti said.
We are pushing the envelope as Wyoming Republicans, state party Treasurer Bruce Brown said Wednesday.
GOP having an impact
Most political analysts don't seem to be taking Wyoming's bid to be at the front of the primary pack too seriously.
University of Wyoming political scientist Jim King said he's doubtful the strategy will have a major impact.
He noted that almost none of the candidates attending Saturday's forums in Casper and Riverton are front-runners.
The other confirmed participants are Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., and Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan.
King said that when the chips are down, candidates are going to be where the national news reporters are, and that's likely still New Hampshire.
What's happening is the lower-tier candidates are using this (forum) as an opportunity to get some attention that they don't get when the other candidates are there, King said. And Thompson is making a late entry, so any splash is going to be to his benefit.
Sansonetti and other Republicans are more optimistic, and there are signs momentum might be building.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's campaign paid $10,000 for a list of state committee members' names and phone numbers, and Thompson's campaign has ordered a copy, Sansonetti said.
I wouldn't be surprised if (Arizona Sen. John) McCain and (former New York City Mayor) Rudy Giuliani get one too, because it's a simple a way to contact folks, and they produce delegates that count just as much as the ones in New Hampshire, Sansonetti said.
Central committee member Bill Cubin of Casper said he has been contacted by campaign workers for Romney, Giuliani and Hunter.
They called me and asked lots of questions about Wyoming, about issues important specifically to Wyoming and what the lay of the land is, what the Republicans in Natrona County are thinking -- and they always ask for my support, said Cubin, who also got a free ticket to Romney's $1,000-a-plate Aug. 22 fundraiser in Jackson.
Dave Marcum, political scientist at Laramie County Community College, said the presence of four Republican presidential candidates at Saturday's forums is notable. So are the mentions the party has been scoring in the national news media.
When is the last time you saw one candidate come to Wyoming, particularly this early in the campaign? Marcum said. I think in that sense, what the Republicans have done has been significant.
By moving up its conventions, Wyoming also is showing how broken the national nomination system really is, Sansonetti said.
There must be something wrong, he argues, when a tiny state like Wyoming can jump to the forefront and make early states like New Hampshire nervous.
Experience a factor
Sansonetti saw an opportunity to fix the problem back when he was chairman of the RNC Rules Committee in 2000.
That's when his committee crafted the "Delaware plan," which would have allowed all states to have a say in choosing their party's nominee by dividing state primaries into four groups.
The plan was killed at the party's Philadelphia convention that year by another political strategist -- Karl Rove -- who didn't want a floor fight on the first day of the convention, Sansonetti told Congressional Quarterly Magazine.
That's what disturbed the Bush campaign people who had scripted the convention, Sansonetti said. They didn't want the Monday morning session when they opened the gavel to turn into a food fight.
Sansonetti insists that with no incumbent running for president next year, the time is right to force the Delaware plan, or some other remedy, to the floor at the 2008 convention in Minnesota.
Otherwise, if we wait, there is going to be an incumbent again, and whoever that is is not going to want to change things for (the) 2012 (election), he said.
Sansonetti predicted that if the solution doesn't come in 2008, Congress might step in and legislate a primary system for both parties.
I think dissatisfied Republicans and dissatisfied Democrats alike will go to their congressmen and senators and say, 'Let's just pass federal legislation; screw the parties,' Sansonetti said.
In the shorter term, Sansonetti predicted that the trickle of candidates into Wyoming will increase, and that the state will continue to garner attention from the national media.
Hey, last Wednesday, I was in a restaurant watching TV during the lunch hour, and Wyoming was the feature on Fox News, Sansonetti said. CNN Inside Politics featured Wyoming last week.
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