Gizzi on Politics: June 18-22

After Thomas

As Wyoming prepared to mourn Sen. Craig Thomas (R.-Wyo.), who died two weeks ago at 74, the state’s unique succession process was quietly beginning.

Under an 11-year-old state law, when a Senate vacancy occurs, the governor must appoint a successor from the same party as the previous holder of the seat. The 71-member Republican state committee will meet June 15, and then, within 15 days, submit three names to Democratic Gov. Dave Freudenthal. He, in turn, has five days to choose the new senator from the Republican list. The appointee will serve until a special election is held in November 2008 to fill the then-remaining portion of the six-year term won by Thomas last fall.

Applications to the GOP State Central Committee consist of a two-page form, cover letter and resume. Pointing out that any Republican who meets the constitutional requirement may apply, State GOP Chairman Fred Parady told reporters: “Everybody gets their day in the sun.”

No one in Wyoming I spoke to takes very seriously the national media speculation that Second Lady Lynne Cheney would be one of the three Republicans. As one veteran Wyoming GOP operative told me, “We really haven’t seen much of the Cheneys since Dick left the Pentagon in ’93 and they moved to Texas.” GOP Rep. Barbara Cubin, the state’s lone House member, last week ruled herself out of consideration for the Senate appointment. Last year, Cubin (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 97%) barely eked out re-election to her at-large seat, winning a sixth term by just more than 1,000 votes. Sources told me that the three Republicans likely to be recommended to the governor are State Sen. John Barrasso of Casper, an orthopedic surgeon, State House Majority Leader Colin Simpson of Cody, son of former Sen. (1978-96) Alan Simpson and grandson of late Sen. (1962-66) Milward Simpson, and finally, former Assistant U.S. Atty. Gen. for the Environment Tom Sansonetti of Cheyenne, a past Republican national committeeman and top aide to Thomas in his House days.

Like his father, Simpson is considered a moderate, while Barrasso is considered more conservative. Sansonetti, who also served in the Reagan Administration, is regarded as the most conservative of the three. Another possibility for the list of prospective GOP appointees is Matt Meade, who just resigned last week as U.S. attorney for Wyoming. A strong conservative, Meade is the son of the late 1990 Republican gubernatorial nominee Mary Meade and grandson of onetime Gov. (1962-66) and Sen. (1966-78) Clifford Hansen.

Although he first must name a Republican, Democrat Freudenthal could still run in the special election next year. Aside from the two-term governor, there are few heavyweight Democrats on the Wyoming scene, and unless Freudenthal runs in ’08, the Republican he names to the seat is likely to hold it. One of the few Democratic names being bandied about for ’08 is that of attorney Gary Trauner, who lost the nip-and-tuck statewide House race to Cubin last year.

Virginia Reel

Some political grudges were fought out last week in Virginia, where both parties picked candidates for all 140 seats in the state senate and House of Delegates.

The most closely watched contest in the state was in the 27th District in Northern Virginia, where veteran Republican State Sen. Russell Potts stepped down. In contrast to Potts — who took decidedly liberal stands on cultural and spending issues and ran for governor as an Independent in ’05 — Republican candidates Mark Tate and Jill Holtzman Vogel both ran as strong conservatives. Three weeks before the balloting, however, a grand jury indicted former Middleburg Town Councilman Tate on charges of perjury on his campaign finance statements. Tate denounced Vogel heatedly and accused Vogel, a Washington, D.C., election lawyer, of being behind the indictments, which came down in Loudon County (where the prosecutor is a supporter of Vogel’s candidacy). Vogel won handily 65% to 35%.

Conservative anti-tax groups launched GOP renomination challenges to Senate Majority Leader Walter Stosch (Henrico), Sen. Marty Williams (Newport News) and Sen. Emmett W. Hanger (Augusta). All three Republicans supported efforts by Democratic Gov. (1999-2003) Mark Warner and his Democratic successor, present Gov. Tim Kaine, to raise taxes for transportation improvement.

The conservative Club for Growth, for example, launched direct-mail attacks on Stosch for his vote for the Warner-Kaine tax hikes. But Stosch, by spending almost $1 million compared with conservative opponent Joseph Blackburn’s $250,000, was able to eke out a 262-vote victory. 

Hanger won renomination in his Shenandoah Valley district with 53% of the vote against conservative businessman Scott Sayre, who attacked the incumbent both for his tax votes and for supporting legislation to let illegal immigrants pay in-state tuition at state colleges. Moderate Williams, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, was defeated by challenger Trish Stall 54% to 46% after attacking her for voicing support for “ending government involvement in education.”

Another key moderate loser was Sen. J. Brandon Bell of Roanoke, who lost narrowly (51% to 49%) to Ralph K. Smith.

In the most intensely fought nomination battle among Democrats, veteran State Sen. Benjamin J. Lambert lost 58% to 42% to State Delegate A. Donald McEachin. Both are African-Americans. Last year, Lambert stunned fellow Democrats when he crossed party lines to support Republican Sen. George Allen in his unsuccessful bid for re-election against Democrat Jim Webb.  McEachin hit that hard, received a strong endorsement from Sen. Webb, and distributed leaflets showing Lambert, Allen, and George W. Bush campaigning together.

Ehrlich Coming Back?

The only governor in the nation to lose re-election last fall was very much in evidence at the Republicans’ post-presidential debate “spin room” in Manchester, N. H., two weeks ago.

Former Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich, narrowly unseated last fall by Democrat Martin O’Malley, was on hand at St. Anselm’s College in Goffstown as a visiting pitchman for Rudy Giuliani. Along with Giuliani pollster Ed Goeas and former Rep. Susan Molinari (R.-N.Y.), the 49-year-old Ehrlich told swarms of reporters how well he thought their man Giuliani did in the debate.

For Ehrlich, this marked his first political appearance since his narrow (52.7% to 46.2%) defeat at the hands of then-Baltimore Mayor O’Malley. Since leaving Annapolis, the onetime Princeton football player and congressman (1994-2002) has joined the law firm of Womble, Carlyle, Sandridge & Rice and also hosts a Saturday morning AM radio program with wife Kendel.

The obvious question is: When will the first Republican governor of Maryland since Spiro Agnew nearly four decades before make a comeback?

“Right now, Kendel and I are busy with the radio show and enjoying ourselves,” Ehrlich told me, adding that his work with the law firm also keeps him very occupied.  When I noted that many pundits and pols credited his defeat not so much to anything he did or didn’t do in office but to the national Democratic tide, Ehrlich said, “I have heard that, and we are taking a look at just what happened to us.” As to a rematch with O’Malley in 2010 or a run for the Senate if incumbent Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski steps down that year, Ehrlich told me, “Those are both things I would certainly consider.”

Wife Kendel Ehrlich was a bit more direct. In March of this year, she told the Washington Post: “If I have anything to do with it, public service is not over yet for Bob Ehrlich.”  n