Wyoming Sen. Thomas Dies; Race to Replace Him Is On

Wyoming Republican Sen. Craig Thomas died tonight (Monday, June 4) at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Cause of death has not been released, but he had been receiving treatment for acute myeloid leukemia.

I covered Thomas when I worked at the Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune in the 1990s. Thomas was a fairly typical Wyoming Republican, which is to say he was a moderate within that state’s meaning of the word. Wyoming’s political spectrum runs the gamut from A to B, and a conservative with a reputation as a moderate there would be raving right-winger in, say, Oregon. Former Wyoming Congressman Dick Cheney is exhibit A in this phenomenon.

Although I seldom agreed with Thomas, I liked him quite a bit. Whenever I mentioned this to my progressive and environmental movement friends, they would grimace, giving me that “you-can’t-be-serious” look. But Craig  was always approachable, always willing to talk and, unusual for a politician, he actually seemed to listen to what you had to say. He wasn’t a brilliant politician, but he wasn’t a servile one, either.Craig and I once had an argument in the newsroom when I pointed out to the fiscally conservative senator that the Bush I administration had actually proposed a budget larger than the ones the Democrats had offered. He demurred, said I was wrong. Neither of us had any data at hand to support our argument. So it degenerated into the “Did not”-“Did, too” sort of discussion you used to have with your little sister. Not the sort of thing you usually do with a U.S. senator and live to tell about.

Thomas’s death will have no immediate impact on the balance of the Senate. Under Wyoming law, the central committee of the party of the deceased or deposed Senator — in this case, the Republicans — forwards three names to the Governor — in this case again, a Democrat, Dave Freudenthal — who selects one of them.  The selected person than fills the vacancy until the next general election, as opposed to the rest of the term.

So that means that the seat could potentially be up for grabs in 2008.

According to sources close to the politics of the situation, the Republican Central Committee is dominated by the right wing of the party, which in Wyoming is very right indeed. And while there are several well-known and capable Republican moderates available, it’s unlikely that any of their names will be forwarded to the governor.

The three front runners are long-time names in state Republican politics: State Sen. John Barrasso, a Casper orthopedic surgeon; Eli Bebout, a Riverton businessman with energy interests, who lost the governor’s race to Freudenthal in 2002; and current Wyoming Rep. Barbara Cubin. If those three are in fact the nominees, it’s likely that Barrasso would get the nod.

But there are several other proven candidates with more moderate track records who would be excellent choices. State Senate President John Schiffer, a Kaycee rancher (where Butch Cassidy used to hole up) is a “moderate to progressive guy who would have support from the middle of the party. But the question is: Does the radical right wing have control? That’s probably the case,” one source says. Other moderates long prominent in state politics who are proven votegetters are State Treasurer Joe Meyer, elected to statewide office four times; and Wyoming Secretary of State Max Maxfield, elected to statewide office three different times.

Dark horses include U.S. Attorney Matt Mead, the grandson of former U.S. Sen. Cliff Hansen; and Colin Simpson, Majority Floor Leader in the Wyoming House and son of former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson.

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