CASPER — Wyoming’s six Republican gubernatorial candidates ended Wednesday night’s Casper debate with fireworks, but they largely found common ground on boilerplate conservative issues.
The debate was the third meeting of the candidates vying to replace Gov. Matt Mead, a series of contests that have grown increasingly contentious as the hopefuls have attempted to separate themselves from their counterparts.
That trend continued at the Casper College debate, as Harriet Hageman, a conservative natural resources attorney, used her closing remarks to hit Jackson businessman Foster Friess’ big spending, state Treasurer Mark Gordon’s donations to national Democratic candidates and Cheyenne businessman Sam Galeotos’ history in the energy sector.
Hageman, who bashed her fellow candidates at the end of a debate last month, referred to Friess as a “part-time Jackson jet-setter.’ She warned against electing Friess and said that “Wyoming is not for sale.”
“If he’s successful at doing that,” Hageman said of Friess, “we will never again have a true, grassroots Wyomingite elected to high office in this state.”
She brought up donations Gordon made to former senator and Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. Gordon, standing two places away from Hageman on the stage, shook his head and leaned over his lectern to look at his opponent, who has repeatedly challenged him from the right. On rebuttal, he listed Republican candidates he’s donated to and said his donation to Kerry was prompted by the Bush administration’s spending.
Hageman’s remarks drew applause, with scattered boos.
Friess, who has preached kindness and caring as the driving force of his campaign, didn’t respond but talked briefly with Hageman as the candidates left the stage. Galeotos attempted to respond, but moderator Roy Cohee, a former state lawmaker, apparently did not see his raised hand.
But generally, the six candidates — including Bill Dahlin, a Sheridan businessman, and rancher and former doctor Taylor Haynes — refrained from taking shots at each other. Dahlin made a reference to buying votes, which Friess took as a personal attack.
Friess said he was “upset” but that he still loved the Sheridan-based businessman. Friess defended his success, saying he was “glad he was successful” and that he was “the American Dream.”
There was also general agreement on most of the night’s topics. All of the candidates said they were anti-abortion, though Gordon said he believed in exceptions in the case of rape, incest or if the mother’s life were at risk. That drew some grumbles from the packed crowd.
Throughout the night, Hageman spoke rapidly and typically hit several points for each question, sticking to her emphasis on deregulation and loyalty to “legacy industries,” like minerals. Haynes was similarly pointed, attacking how the state is currently run. Gordon, one of the race’s front runners, stuck closer to policy-heavy responses, as is his style.
The candidates said they supported dual-language immersion programs, like those in place at two Casper-area schools, though they all said it should be a local discussion. All said they supported keeping the elderly in their own homes more, rather than sending them to long-term care facilities. State officials have said that as the state grows older and more retirees rely on Medicaid, the costs to the system will explode.
With the exception of Haynes — who’s staked much of his campaign on seizing public lands — none of the candidates said they supported the state taking control of federally managed lands. All also said the state shouldn’t support the Game and Fish Department with money from the state’s general fund.
Hageman called for better control on the wolf populations, and Haynes said wolves should be treated like coyotes — meaning, generally, they could be shot. Both remarks drew applause.
Haynes is facing a battle to stay in the race. Questions about the self-proclaimed constitutionalist’s Wyoming residency arose in recent weeks, and a judge is set to hear arguments next week on whether Haynes is eligible to run and serve as governor. Secretary of State Ed Buchanan previously determined Haynes is ineligible.
Still, there was disagreement in some areas: Moderator Bob Beck, of Wyoming Public Media, asked the candidates — all of whom say they will curb public spending — what specifically they would reduce. Haynes said he would kill ENDOW, Mead’s economic diversification program, immediately. Dahlin agreed. Gordon said he would take a look at capital spending, Hageman blasted the use of consultants and Galeotos said he would look at the Legislature’s efficiency study.
Friess repeated a frequent criticism, that the state’s “checkbook” wasn’t open to the public. Without that transparency, he said, it’s not clear what’s in the budget.
On education spending, Hageman called for more education cuts and said the state’s schools have been relatively unscathed. The state’s schools have been reduced by as much as $100 million in recent years, including the most recent legislative session. In Casper alone, those cuts — coupled with dropping enrollment — have led to the closure of five schools and the elimination of dozens of vacant jobs.
Galeotos and Gordon both said he believed there were efficiencies within the educational system that could be achieved. Haynes said the system didn’t work and needed to deliver “a better product.” The criticism is common among some cuts-minded officials, though educators and some lawmakers argue that the state’s elementary and middle school scores are among the best in the nation.
The debate frequently turned to health care, a daunting issue for Wyoming on two fronts: Medicaid spending and the cost of care for Wyomingites. None of the candidates voiced support for Medicaid expansion — a position Mead took up to no avail in recent years — and Hageman came out strongly against it.
Moderator Dallas Bower, the Star-Tribune’s opinion editor, asked Dahlin about the lack of prenatal care available to expectant mothers in Wyoming. Dahlin hit a frequent answer: telehealth, which is a growing topic for providing health care generally to more far-flung areas of the state and country.
Haynes said that while care is important, he suspected the problem was partially attributable to mothers “shirking” their “personal responsibility.” A recent report showed that nearly a third of Natrona County mothers did not receive adequate care, which health officials attribute to a low number of OB-GYNs, both here and across Wyoming, and underfunding of public health programs.
Both Gordon and Hageman noted the lack of providers and said the state needed to bring more in; the problem — a lack of specialists — extends beyond OB-GYNs in the state, officials have said.
Whichever of these six candidates wins the primary on Aug. 21 will be one step closer to inheriting a Wyoming that’s creeping out of a 2015 bust that left the state — and its school system in particular — in a significant hole. While the outlook has improved of late, there’s still much to be done: The K-12 education funding is still lacking a long-term fix, while the problems posed by the state’s aging population will not go away anytime soon.
Whether — and how — to diversify the state’s economy inevitably leads to a discussion about changing the tax structure here to ensure that diversification actually pays off.
The candidates all shied away from talking too much about taxes, as they all said they were against raising any revenues. Galeotos said the state must get its own spending under control before it started taxing more. Gordon said he supported charging for internet sales and was interested in a flat tax “across everything.”