GovernorDave Freudenthal (D)
SenatorsMichael Enzi (R)
John Barrasso (R)
RepresentativeRep. Cynthia Lummis (R)
Wyoming is “the land of the cowboy,” as the WPA Guide said more than 60 years ago. “Its mountains, plains, and valleys are essentially livestock country. A cowboy astride a bucking bronco greets the visitor from enameled license plates, from newspapers, magazines and painted signs.” The cowboy is still on the license plates, and Wyoming remains the most western of states in spirit—largely unsettled, the least populous state, a thin veneer of civilization stretched over a forbidding and beautiful land. But it is more than the land of the cowboy now. It is the land of the oil and gas worker, of the coal mine operator, and of the tourism operator.
Today, Wyoming’s economy depends not on cowboys and cattle but on mining and minerals. The state boomed with oil prospectors during the energy price surge of the 1970s, but was hit hard by steep drops in oil prices in the early 1980s and again in the late 1990s. As oil exploration slumped, the production of other minerals surged. The 1970 Clean Air Act put a premium on Wyoming’s low-sulfur coal, and it is now the No. 1 coal state, producing one-third of the nation’s coal, more than West Virginia and Kentucky combined. In the Powder River Basin 30-story high machines blast away the topsoil and scoop out coal. It is then hauled away by 65 trains a day by the Burlington Northern and Union Pacific. Wyoming is also the nation’s seventh-largest oil producer and its second largest natural gas producer. It is also the top producer of the mineral bentonite, which is used in oil drilling and cosmetics, and it has the world’s largest reserve of trona, which is used in making glass and baking soda. Much of the natural gas is coal-bed methane, mixed with water next to coal seams. Only in 1989 did engineers figure out how to separate the natural gas from the water. Now 200-foot drilling rigs are sinking wells as deep as 25,000 feet, and production has jumped enormously since 2000. These are capital-intensive industries that produce relatively few jobs for highly educated young people. But they have a major impact in this small state, and nearly 10% of its jobs are in mining, the highest percentage in the nation, compared to only 4% in manufacturing, one of the lowest percentages in the nation. Everything seems to be coming together for Wyoming: high oil and gas prices, continued demand for coal, rising beef prices, rapidly rising revenues from tourists. The American Legislative Exchange Council rated Wyoming as the No. 3 state for economic performance in 2009.
Wyoming’s second industry is tourism. Yellowstone National Park continues to draw millions of people, and Jackson Hole, just to the south of the park, has become one of America’s elite resort areas year-round. The Jackson Hole airport is the state’s busiest and the only one that accommodates jets. There has been growth as well in the scenic and pastoral country on the eastern slope of the Big Horn Mountains around Buffalo and Sheridan. The third industry is agriculture. Wyoming is second in the nation in wool production and third in sheep inventory. It also produces hay, sugar beets, barley, pinto beans and beef cattle. This mix of tourism and agriculture sometimes leads to a cultural clash. The movie Brokeback Mountain, about gay sheep herders, premiered in Jackson Hole in December 2005, but played to mostly empty houses in the rest of the state. The juxtaposition of civilization and wilderness also raises some difficult policy issues. For years, the state has run feeding grounds for elk near Jackson Hole, and the herd has grown to tens of thousands. Environmental groups, worried about the spread of chronic wasting disease, want the feeding stopped, though thousands of elk induced over generations to depend on the feeding grounds will die. Local ranchers want it continued, to keep the elk away from their cattle, especially in winter. The grizzly bear, once endangered and protected in Yellowstone park, have now increased in number and have been removed from the endangered list. Environmental groups filed suit to prevent the delisting of the grizzly bear, but Democratic Gov. Dave Freudenthal, responding to ranchers worried about livestock, said the issue should be fought out not in federal court but in the states most affected, including Wyoming. Meanwhile, as utilities try to buy easements to build electric transmission lines to deliver wind power to consumers in California and elsewhere, Wyoming ranchers are forming wind associations to assure that they will have some say in this development.
Reliance on high-tech mineral extraction and high-end tourism may seem a contradiction of Wyoming’s Old West heritage. But the state has always depended on new technology to tame age-old nature. After the open-range era, cattle ranches were made possible only by the barbed wire that could fence in roaming herds, and the steam locomotives that could carry cattle to markets in the East. This 19th century high technology was brought to Wyoming by large capitalist operators, some of them onetime Texas cowhands or second sons of English landed gentry, who started the first big operations after the Civil War. And of course, mining depends on intricate machinery and responsiveness to markets that reward innovation and penalize stasis. At the same time, Wyoming still is a kind of frontier. It was, until recently, one of the few states with more men than women, which was one reason that Wyoming, when it was still a territory in 1869, was the first to give women the vote. (The exception: New Jersey allowed women with property to vote between 1776 and 1807, but there weren’t many women with property.) Wyoming’s amazing landscape has long elicited national notice. It is home to the first national park, Yellowstone, which was established in 1872. It has the first national forest, designated in 1891 by President Benjamin Harrison, and the first national monument, Devils Tower, in 1906.
The settled part of Wyoming consists of medium-sized towns, which are the state’s largest cities, and settlements tucked among sheep and cattle ranches, and sugar beet and malting barley farms. It is a small state for sure, a single community really, where people remember who played what position, when and how well, and for what high school football team. (Former Republican Vice President Dick Cheney and Almanac founding co-author Grant Ujifusa remember playing against each other when they were in high school in Natrona and Washakie counties.) The locals set the tone of life in Wyoming.
There was once a sharp economic and regional split reflected in its partisan politics. The big economic interests—cattle ranchers, organized in the Wyoming Stock Growers’ Association, and the Union Pacific Railroad management—favored the Republicans, as did the wildcatters, independent producers and oil company geologists. The main Democratic constituency was the Union Pacific Railroad workers who built the first transcontinental line across southern Wyoming in the 1860s. (Cheyenne was established because it was the midpoint between the UP’s operations in Omaha and Ogden, Utah.) The southern tier of counties, from Cheyenne through Laramie to Evanston, once voted Democratic. But now the Democrats are strongest in Teton County, the home of Jackson Hole, which voted nearly 2-to-1 for Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama in 2008, and in Albany County, home of Laramie and the University of Wyoming, the only other county Obama carried. All other counties gave Republican John McCain between 59% (Cheyenne’s Laramie County) and 81% (coal-mining Crook County) of their votes. Wyoming hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1970 or to the House since 1976, though it has had mostly Democratic governors over that time. How to explain that anomaly? In a small state with not much more than half a million people—the nation’s smallest population congressional district—Wyoming voters expect to talk person-to-person with their governors, senators and congressmen every so often. Personal campaigning is important, and it enabled Democrats Ed Herschler, Mike Sullivan and Dave Freudenthal to win six of the last eight races for governor. Party tends to trump personality when it comes to federal office.
2008 Presidential Vote
Wyoming is one of the least likely states in the nation to be seriously contested in presidential general elections. It is too Republican, too remote and has only three electoral votes. Candidates have seldom visited, except when Cheney visited his home in Jackson. This was Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush’s best state in 2000, when he carried it 69%-28%, and it was his second best state in 2004, when he carried it 69%-29%. It was Republican nominee John McCain’s No. 2 state in 2008; he won it with 65% of the vote. It was Democrat Barack Obama’s 50th; he got just 33% of the vote. This is a counterintuitive state in which Democrats tend to do better with the elite and Republicans with ordinary folks. Obama carried the richest county in the state, Jackson Hole’s Teton County, and he won Albany County, which includes Laramie and the University of Wyoming. McCain won the votes of just 53% of college graduates, but he won 78% of those who did not graduate from college.
Wyoming has typically held presidential caucuses in early March, with no significant impact on the presidential nominating process. In early 2007, Wyoming Republicans pledged to caucus on the same date as the New Hampshire Republican primary. With New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner holding his cards close until December (New Hampshire law gives him sole authority to set the date of its presidential primary), Wyoming Republicans blinked, and decided in August 2007 to hold their caucuses on January 5, which turned out to be two days after the Iowa caucuses and three days before the New Hampshire primary. The date was against party rules and cost the state half of its 28 delegates, but state party leaders evidently decided it was a minimal price to pay.
As in most other Republican caucus states, Mitt Romney’s well-organized campaign dominated here. Romney, his wife, Ann, and sons Josh and Craig campaigned in Wyoming. In county conventions, Romney won 13 delegates, to four for Fred Thompson, two for Duncan Hunter, one for McCain and four for “uncommitted.” (Each county got one delegate, except for Cheyenne’s Laramie County, which got two.) In retrospect, it was a high water mark for the Thompson and Hunter campaigns. Wyoming Republicans in characteristic fashion assembled early in the morning and made quick work of it. The Albany County chairwoman made sure that the caucus was over by 10 a.m. because she had a funeral to attend.
Wyoming Democrats held their caucuses on March 8, a date on which most observers thought the nomination would be determined. Not so. Obama’s brilliant February, with 11 straight primary and caucus wins, was followed by Hillary Rodham Clinton’s victories in Ohio and Texas on March 4. Obama, anticipating a prolonged campaign, opened a Cheyenne office in mid-February and ran television ads. The Clinton campaign, caught short-funded, sent in former President Bill Clinton and daughter Chelsea and ran radio spots. The Wyoming media wrote stories about state Democrats being energized, and Obama half filled the University of Wyoming’s Arena-Auditorium in Laramie. But Democratic Gov. Dave Freudenthal declined to support either candidate. And of the 59,000 registered Democrats, only 8,753 showed up at 23 county caucuses. Obama won 61%-38%, thanks in large part to big percentages in affluent Jackson Hole’s Teton County (80%) and in the University of Wyoming’s Albany County (74%). Clinton carried the Democrats’ historical base, the Union Pacific railroad worker counties of Carbon and Sweetwater that cover most of the southern half of the state. Comparison of these results with those in adjacent states that had a primary, such as South Dakota, or both primaries and caucuses, such as Nebraska and Idaho, suggests that an Obama-Clinton Wyoming primary would have been closer than the caucus results.