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Mead vs. Hill

Mar 17, 2014 - By Steven R. Peck

The governor has the best cards, but the superintendent loves to confound expectations

By all indications, Wyoming is going to have a high-profile race for governor this summer. Only the advance of the calendar will tell us how competitive that race will be, but it is not an exaggeration to predict that by mid-August we might have seen one of the more compelling primary campaigns in memory.

On paper, that shouldn't be the case. As expected, first-term Gov. Matt Mead is running for re-election. He made the announcement Tuesday. No governor pleases everyone, but he has a very credible record to stand on from his first term. He also happens to be a well-off, white, Republican male.

In this state, as a political candidate, you really couldn't ask for much more than that resume. In fact, it might appear odd to an outside observer that anyone would even bother to challenge the governor in his party's own primary.

But he is getting a primary challenge, and there's a reason for it. In this case, the reason and the candidate are one and the same. Cindy Hill.

The presumption here is that readers interested in Wyoming gubernatorial politics have a basic familiarity with who Hill is and with the events that have transpired around her over the past year in Cheyenne.

One of those events is her candidacy for governor. She stated her intention to challenge Matt Mead in this year's Republican primary nearly a full year ago.

Many times in the intervening months, it would have been reasonable to project that she either would have no longer been in office or that she would have been discredited in the eyes of the public to an extent that running for governor would have seemed absurd.

However, neither of those things has happened. Perhaps improbably, Hill remains the state superintendent of public instruction, and despite considerable effort by her enemies, she appears to be astonishingly undamaged by the withering attacks against her. In fact, confoundingly, it could be argued that she may well have been strengthened by them.

The coming campaign will reveal how resilient she truly is, but here in March, just a few days after Gov. Mead announced his re-election plan, she has high name recognition, a core of fervent supporters, and she has a compelling personal story to tell Wyoming's voters.

Some will disagree with the spin she puts on her story -- certainly the governor will -- but it may well be the campaign's central story nonetheless.

But it's a hard climb. Check Wyoming's history. You'll see that the occasions in which an elected, incumbent majority party governor seeking re-election has been unseated in his party's primary election are non-existent. What Hill will try to do this year has never happened in Wyoming. The odds are long.

But what Mead and the establishment Republicans in Wyoming clearly remember is that what she did four years ago also was all but unprecedented. Having never held elective office before, she ran and defeated the six-year incumbent state superintendent, Jim McBride. He had been appointed once, elected after that, was also a Republican male in our Republican state -- and he was defeated, handily, in his own party's primary election by Hill.

Understandably, Mead did not talk about Hill when he made his announcement for re-election Tuesday. Nor was she discussed the day before when he sat for an interview with The Associated Press.

The primary election is still five months away, so there is some time before the intensity of the primary campaign strengthens. But the days in which Mead will be able to avoid talking about Hill are dwindling. In the months ahead, he will have no choice but to talk about her, because she will be standing next to him from town to town, insisting on it.

Whether Hill will have the tools to mount a credible campaign for governor -- the money, the command of the full range of issues, and a political legitimacy beyond her personal story of strife -- will become clear enough in the next 150 days.

But it is something close to incredible that she has emerged from the cauldron in the spring of 2014 with at least an opportunity to find out.

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