Wyoming's New Senator

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Eight days after 31 Wyoming Republicans filed their names to fill the state's vacant Senate seat, an orthopedic surgeon and former rodeo physician has emerged as the newest U.S. Senator. Gov. Dave Freudenthal announced earlier today that Dr. John Barrasso will assume the Senate seat of the late Senator Craig Thomas, who died of leukemia on June 4.

A controversial state statute required the governor, a Democrat, to appoint a member of Thomas' party, a Republican. The roster of Republican hopefuls, pulled together by Wyoming's G.O.P., included the son of former U.S. Senator Alan Simpson and a grandson of former U.S. Senator Cliff Hansen. In the delicate balance of the U.S. Senate, Freudenthal's decision means there will continue to be 49 Republicans and 49 Democrats, with two independents caucusing with the Democrats.

Dr. Barrasso, who writes the newspaper column "Keeping Wyoming Healthy" and is a familiar voice for health advice on statewide TV, distributed apples and oranges at a day-long forum in Casper on June 19 where the state central committee whittled the field from 31 to three. He was joined as a finalist for the Senate seat by former State Treasurer Cynthia Lummis and Cheyenne attorney Tom Sansonetti. The governor also invited each to meet with him privately to discuss the central concerns of Wyoming voters.

Gov. Freudenthal's decision was not expected until early next week. He met with the three candidates on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons before his announcement early Friday, saying, "While I don't intend to indulge the speculation on why I made this decision, I will say that I hope I made the right choice." Barrasso, 54, will serve as Senator until a special election in November 2008.

There had been some speculation that Freudenthal would pick the weakest from the field, thus giving his party, the Democrats, an advantage in 2008. But initial reaction to Barrasso's selection has been positive from conservatives. Bill Sniffin a widely-syndicated Wyoming newspaper columnist praised Barrasso's appointment, noting that the new Senator presented himself as "very, very pro-life." Sniffin added, "He's one of those rare people — it's not going to be long before he'll become very prominent on the national scene."

Barrasso ran for the Senate in 1996, losing in the primary to U.S. Senator Mike Enzi. He managed to keep a high profile through his public health advocacy. Bill Luckett, communications director of the Wyoming Democratic Party, noted that Wyoming will be the only state in the country in 2008 with two U.S. Senate seats on the ballot and that the Senate appointee may be vulnerable in the lead-up to the vote, essentially because of his conservative pedigree. Says Luckett: "There would probably be a better than normal chance that Barrasso faces a primary challenge just because the process by which he got his position was limited to members of the Republican Central Committee, whose members are probably substantially to the right of your average Republican voter. The fact is, he's never won a statewide election. He is, in a sense, somewhat of a rookie and by virtue of that likely to be a target." Nevertheless, says Luckett, "I think we need to give Senator Barrasso some time to get settled into the U.S. Senate and spend some time there and show the people of Wyoming what he's all about before we start making any judgments."

The statute compelling Gov. Freudenthal to select a member of Thomas' own party has received national attention. The Washington Post wrote that the "notion of party consistency makes eminent sense. In states that do not have such restrictions, governors sometimes choose replacements from their own party rather than from the party of the previous Senator." Notably, in 2002, after Democratic Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash, Independent Party Gov. Jesse Ventura replaced him with fellow Independent Party member, Dean Barkley.