Wyoming Experiments With the Prisoner’s Dilemma

Wyoming politicians will engage in an interesting game of  “prisoner’s dilemma” over the next two weeks — one with important national implications — as they maneuver to replace recently deceased Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.).Thomas was re-elected to a third six-year term in 2006. But Wyoming’s rules for replacing him mean that an election for the seat will be held in the 2008 election cycle, rather than in 2012. Under those rules, the state’s governor, Democrat Dave Freudenthal, selects a replacement from a list of three submitted to him by the state Republican Central Committee.

But Freudenthal himself may have one eye on that Senate seat. So while the Republicans will want the strongest possible candidate to retain the seat in the 2008 general election, it would be to Freudenthal’s advantage to appoint the weakest possible opponent.

State political observers say the central committee is dominated by the radical and religious right. But they would be unable to rally three candidates who are proven statewide votegetters. The standard-bearer for that wing of the party is incumbent Rep. Barbara Cubin who came into office in the Republican sweep of 1994. But her margin of victory in re-election campaigns has been declining. In 2006, she defeated political novice Democrat Gary Trauner by only 1,000 votes out of 186,000 cast.

So state Republicans may be forced to choose between rewarding a long-term loyalist who isn’t electable or a newcomer who can win in 2006 but who might not hew to the ultra-conservative line.

One dark horse in the race to replace Thomas got a little lighter as U.S. Attorney Matthew Mead stepped down today, “apparently to clear the way for him to be considered a replacement for Sen. Craig Thomas, who died on Monday,” according to an NBC News report by Pete Williams. Mead was one of the U.S. attorneys on the recent Bush administration “hit list” for possible dismissal.

Other names that have emerged as potential replacements are former U.S. Interior Department Assistant Attorney General Tom Sansonetti, State  House Majority Leader Colin Simpson, and Vice Presidential spouse Lynne Cheney.