Thursday, September 30, 2010

Who does Gov. Dave want to succeed him?

This week, Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D-Wyo.) held a presser with Leslie Petersen, the former chairwoman of the state Democratic Party and Democratic candidate for Wyoming governor.

Freudenthal did not endorse Petersen. He said she is experienced and qualified, but Freudenthal had previously promised not to endorse a candidate.

I participated in a conversation with some political folks during and after the event. Everyone involved thought Freudenthal’s non-endorsement was a snub at Petersen. Some argued it was a de facto nod for Matt Mead, the Republican candidate for governor. I disagree.

(Disclosure: I was Gov. Freudenthal’s press secretary from November 2009 – March 2010. That said, I didn’t meet the Governor until shortly before he hired me, and I haven’t had much in the way of contact with his staff since I departed earlier this year. I have no insider information.)

I think Gov. Dave was, in fact, endorsing Petersen, although he didn’t say he was doing so, for several reasons.

First of all, it gives him an opportunity to stick his finger in the eye of the national Democratic party, with which he has never held a great deal of friendship. It also allows him some cover: as Petersen is a significant underdog in the race, if she still loses it will be difficult to say Freudenthal failed to exercise influence, because he will be able to say he didn’t try.

Second, well, I’m still talking about it, aren’t I? Making the political observers of the state sit back and scratch their heads keeps us talking about it. This goal seems mostly to have failed, as the chattering classes seem secure in their conclusion this was a stealth endorsement of Mead.

A few words on Matt Mead, who I do not know. While a Republican, many in the state are arguing he is insufficiently orthodox, although serious infighting among the party elite seems limited. Nevertheless, a write-in candidacy launched by Dr. Taylor Haynes threatens to split the GOP vote, as Haynes is considerably more conservative. (Haynes fell just short of appearing on the ballot after he failed to submit enough petition signatures several weeks ago.)

Mead is similar to Freudenthal. They are both moderates, both former U.S. Attorneys in Wyoming. (Mead succeeded Freudenthal in the USA’s office.) Mead has shown some of Freudenthal’s willingness to buck his national party. So it is feasible that Freudenthal would prefer Mead, I’ll grant that.

But I think everyone who sees Freudnethal’s failure to endorse Petersen as a stealth endorsement of Mead is missing the point. Several of them have argued that Freudenthal’s opinion of the Democratic Party might keep him from endorsing a Democratic candidate. I would argue that is correct… but, assuming that to be true, the governor would have endorsed Mead if that’s where his heart was.

Freudenthal also made a few remarks at the presser, which we chattering folks have mostly interpreted to be pro-Mead. Again, I think if Gov. Dave wanted to endorse Mead, he wouldn’t have hesitated to do so.
Instead, he stood with Petersen, even if he didn’t call it an endorsement.

A good deal of attention was deflected by one off-tone statement: “This isn't North Korea,” he said. “I'm not going to pick my successor.” More than a few people remarked this was arrogant. I agree, although I suspect the governor was also making a sly joke that he realizes his endorsement might move the election outcome a point or two, but not much more than that.

At any rate, I don’t think Freudenthal’s non-endorsement-endorsement of Petersen was meant to be a poke in her eye. The governor has never shown any anxiety about telling it as he sees it: if he wants Mead to win, he would say so.

Further, I suspect most people will fail to appreciate that Freudenthal didn’t endorse Petersen. Instead, they’ll hear he said the race is one of “money (Mead) versus experience (Petersen)” and that Petersen “is quite prepared.”

I asked a friend in Thermopolis – Gov. Dave’s hometown – to read a story about the press conference in the Tribune Eagle. I didn’t tell her my thoughts, but asked her to read the story and tell me hers. While a savvy media consumer, she hadn’t even been aware of the press conference or heard any reportage of it. Once she read the story, she said she thought Freudenthal was offering an endorsement-not-in-name-only.

With just over four weeks to election day, I would guess Mead’s chances are about 75%, although they may be as low as 60-65% if Dr. Haynes write-in campaign makes inroads. Whatever Gov. Dave’s intent, I doubt his press conference moved the sticks more than a point or two. If he wanted to help (or hurt) Petersen, he would have endorsed closer to the election, as people are paying closer attention.
And I’m sure Freudenthal knows that, too.

No comments: