Now that Iowa is done with its caucuses, get ready for the first primary of the season. No, not New Hampshire. Wyoming.
On Saturday, Jan. 5, Republicans in Dick Cheney's home state will hold their own renegade primary. It is a huge risk for the state G.O.P. They moved up the primary date without the blessing of Republican National Committee and will lose half their convention delegates for violating the rules. But there may be a big payoff: Wyoming could further confirm front-runner status for Mike Huckabee and give him momentum into the Jan. 8 primary in New Hampshire or provide Mitt Romney with his first, if minor, stop of what might be a Huckabee steamroller.
Wyoming's Republican leaders, emboldened by a tradition of stubborn independence and weary of obscurity, are pressing ahead in spite of the national party's objections. After the state central committee voted in August to go early, Tom Sansonetti, organizer of the county-level conventions, said it was worth it: "There was a solid consensus by everybody that the price of playing in the nomination process was worth the loss of the delegates." Abiding by Republican National Committee rules and holding the county conventions later, Sansonetti said, would "doom the Wyoming Republican Party to being a non-player, with no visits, no phone calls, no direct mail, by the national candidates."
So far, however, the move has had rather tepid results. Just three candidates showed up for Wyoming's G.O.P. presidential forums in September: Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback (who has since dropped out), California Rep. Duncan Hunter and Fred Thompson. Later visits to the state have been made by Mitt Romney, Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee. Rudy Giuliani and John McCain have been no-shows.
Romney's organization has been the most visible, busily mobilizing campaign supporters among Wyoming's Mormons, who make up about 10% of the state's population. Precinct delegates headed for the Jan. 5 nominating conventions have also received mailings from Paul and Thompson.
The problem, however, is that Wyoming may declare for no clear favorite of its own on Jan. 5. Jan Larimer, Wyoming's national-level state committeewoman, who will lose her own 2008 convention seat under the RNC penalty, says, "It would be nice if we had a winner. I have no sense of any favorite so far. I think we're going to have a very mixed bag. I think we're going to have quite a few undecided, those not bound to support any one candidate." The 12 delegates who will be chosen on Saturday each have to represent a candidate. However, because the campaigns have been so inactive in Wyoming, it is possible that some delegates will be designated without being committed to a candidate at all. And if a majority of these are picked, Wyoming will end up being... undecided.
She says Wyoming's maverick experiment is fraught with uncertainty, unlike Iowa and New Hampshire. "They have their system honed," she says. "It's taken them decades to get that way. For our folks in Wyoming, this is the first time in choosing our delegates early and it has been a real learning curve for us. We have a lot of folks not paying attention. They need to understand that they're in the forefront of this and people are going to be watching."
It's also not clear what issues, if any, will stir Wyoming's G.O.P. primary votes. At the G.O.P. presidential forum in Casper, candidate proclamations of gun-owner rights drew standing ovations, and loud applause rewarded statements urging continued development and use of fossil fuels a big issue for a state booming with coal mining, oil and natural-gas drilling. Larimer says immigration is a major issue in the state, surpassing the Iraq war. "People want to close the borders," she says. But retired Wyoming U.S. Senator Alan K. Simpson believes that, though "immigration has been a federal failure of will, [it is] not an issue for a President but for Congress. Show me a one-issue guy and I will stay away from him."
Simpson also noted that Wyoming voters have an independent streak. "I don't know why we get stereotyped as a solid Republican state," he said, listing all the Democratic governors in recent years. Still, the state's congressional delegation has been exclusively Republican for the past 30 years (Dick Cheney was elected to the House in 1978) and a Democratic presidential candidate hasn't carried the state since 1964.
Will Wyoming Republicans regret their experiment? "I think the jury is still out," says Larimer, who contends that the risk will prove worthwhile only "if we pick a winner on Jan. 5. If it comes out undecided," she adds, "that would not be a good thing for our process."
Wyoming's Democrats, by the way, are not making waves; they have scheduled their primary for March 8.