Friday, July 31, 2009

Exploring the Enzi-Baucus connection

Let's harken back to those halcyon days of last fall. Poor ol' Laramie Democrat Chris Rothfuss was running against Republican Mike Enzi for one of Wyoming's Senate seats. Nick Carter of Gillette had already declared that he was running against John Barrasso, M.D., for the state's other Senate seat. Barrasso had been appointed by Wyoming Gov. Dave Fruedenthal to fill the remainder of Craig Thomas's term. Thomas died in office from a particularly virulent form of leukemia.

Carter, in a talk to the Laramie County Democrats in Cheyenne last summer, said that his decision to run against Barrasso was an easy one. If he had run against former Gillette mayor and family friend Mike Enzi, Nick's family would have disowned him. Those are his words.

Politics is very personal in Wyoming. Nick's family and Mike's family grew up together. Nick is a Democrat -- an abberation in the coal-and-gas-mining county of Campbell, the city of Gillette. You'd think that he would have union support but this is right-to-work state. The unions have no clout in the Powder River Basin. Workers come from throughout the West to work in the open-pit mines or the sprawling gas fields. They make great wages to take home to Montana and the Dakotas and Texas. They don't want to hear about no stinkin' unions. They may not be Republicans, but they have strong Libertarian leanings. They sure as hell aren't aligning with Obama-lovin', gun-bannin', homosexual-leanin' Democrats.

All three Wyoming Democrats running for national offices in 2008 were pounded into the dirt by Republicans. Gary Trauner rounded up only a third of the popular vote against Republican Cynthia Lummis. In 2006, Trauner came within 1,000 votes of beating House incumbent Republican Barbara Cubin. In 2006, Trauner was ahead until votes from the rural Republican northern part of the state were counted. Republicans voted for Trauner in 2006 because he wasn't Cubin. Even diehard Repubs couldn't tolerate Cubin's foolishness and the fact that she'd missed most of her House votes in the previous year.

But Cubin retired and was no longer a factor in 2008. Repubs have a 2-to-1 lead over Dems in voter registration. The votes split along party lines and that spelled doom for Dems. Only when the Repubs cross over to the dark side do Dems win. Gov. Freudenthal showed that with two big wins in gubernatorial races.

Lots of Wyomingites like Mike Enzi. A pragmatic man who occasionally wanders into wingnuttia, as he did with the Terry Schiavo case in 2004, allying himself with Bill Frist who diagnosed Schiavo's case by watching a short film from the hospital. Enzi's staff returns phone calls. He attends book festivals and the state fair. He has a health care plan that is based on his bottom-line principles. Conservative, yes, but respected by many Dems, including this one.

He and Baucus aren't that different. Enzi a practical and sensible (most of the time) Republican. Baucus of Montana a Democrat with the libertarian leanings needed to capture conservative Montana voters.

The Rocky Mountain West is a different place. Most states are liberalizing, including Montana and Wyoming. That really only applies to the urban centers, such as Cheyenne, Laramie and Casper in Wyoming and the usual places in Montana: Missoula, Billings, and Bozeman.

But the rural West is a tough nut, with more in common with rural Mississippi and rural Pennsylvania than with Denver or even Cheyenne. As long as Govs and Congressional hopefuls need those voters, you'll find an eclectic crop of leaders. Baucus, for instance. And Enzi.

I understand the confusion voiced by bloggers in other states. Here's one take from Brian Beutler on Talking Points Memo DC:

If it was up to reformers, Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY) probably wouldn't be anywhere near the heart of health care negotiations. But unfortunately for them, he's right in the middle of the action.

If after the Democrats' historic election in November, I had suggested that one of the Senate's most conservative Republicans would stand a chance of hijacking President Obama's health care proposal, you might have waved off the threat, and rightly so. But thanks to Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus--who has insisted on passing a consensus bill at the expense of a number of liberal goals--that's basically what's happening.

Read the rest of "Has A Conservative Republican From Wyoming Taken Over The Health Care Debate In The Senate?" at It sums up the frustration felt by liberal Democrats over the health care hold-up.

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