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The Anatomy of a Failed Campaign

November 17, 2002

by Christopher G. Adamo

With the 2002 mid-term elections apparently serving as a referendum on President Bush, and with Republicans across the land reaping the benefits of his popularity, victory for the Republican gubernatorial candidate in a GOP dominated state like Wyoming might have been presumed to be a "given." But such was not the case for Republican candidate Eli Bebout who lost on Tuesday to his Democratic challenger, Dave Freudenthal.

The manner in which the Bebout campaign managed to alienate its base should serve as a lesson to Wyoming’s Republican leadership (as well as to Republican policy makers in every state). Sadly, if recent history is any indication, this painful lesson will not be learned. Prior to the administration of Jim Geringer, the outgoing two-term Governor, Wyoming went for two decades with Democrats holding the position of chief executive.

Perhaps Eli Bebout would have made a good governor for Wyoming. At this point, it is not likely that anyone will ever know. What is known however is that the leadership of the Wyoming GOP presumed the state’s politics to be all about them. And it was to Mr. Bebout’s misfortune that they were able to totally define him as a candidate. From the time he left the Democrat Party in the early 1990’s, Bebout was placed "front and center" in Republican politics, to the total bewilderment of the rank and file Wyoming Republicans. Clearly, he was being predestined for major office, but not as a result of a groundswell of "grassroots" support. Rather, power brokers at the heart of the Wyoming GOP had simply decided it would be so. And the "peasantry" was expected to follow.

However, certain unforeseen events made for "potholes" on Bebout’s road to the Governor’s mansion, but it was the reaction of the Bebout campaign, along with that of the party "machinery" who sought his coronation, that eventually doomed his bid to be governor. Ray Hunkins, a political outsider and conservative of sterling reputation, decided to run against him in the primary. While Hunkins’ appeal was directed towards the inherent conservatism of Wyoming’s common folk, Bebout’s emphasis was on his connections within the state’s political circles. The most dominant Bebout ad of the primary season explained "forty nine members of the state legislature endorse Eli Bebout for Governor."

As the day of the primary election approached, the Hunkins campaign continued to gain momentum to the point that, with one week left before the August primary, the race had become virtually a dead heat. In response to the large number of undecided voters, the Bebout campaign resorted, once again, to "insider" strategizing. Rather than deal, head on, with the issues that Hunkins was calling into question, the Bebout camp engaged former Senator Alan Simpson in a vicious attack ad campaign. Though Simpson was successful in the short term, based on the sheer force of his nastiness, the ploy began to sour in the stomachs of the Wyoming people in the immediate aftermath of the primary.

So, although the sordid tactic propelled Bebout to a primary victory, cynicism among voters festered. When, in the final days before the November elections, the Bebout campaign attempted another brutal assault against Democratic opponent Dave Freudenthal, the pattern of dirty politics was too much for Wyomingites to bear, and the effort backfired, ultimately costing Bebout the Governorship.

As for Governor-elect Freudenthal, he appears to be misreading the election as a referendum on himself. Though Wyoming overlooked his being a Clinton appointee (largely due to the fact that the state’s Republican party has, when convenient, endorsed Clinton appointees of dubious reputation...), his election did not constitute a mandate for liberalism in the Cowboy State. Apparently oblivious to this, Freudenthal has stated that, among other things, he intends to "take Wyoming back from the special interests, and make it a place which puts people first." Worse than being merely liberal diatribe, his statement constitutes an unmistakable reference to Bill Clinton’s 1992 treatise "Putting People First."

If this is a true indication of his governing philosophy, it will ultimately make him as venerated among Wyomingites as, say, Sarah Brady. Unless Freudenthal comes to grips with the reality of his situation and governs as the conservative he often claimed to be during the campaign, he will set the stage for an inevitable ouster in 2006. That is unless the Wyoming GOP refuses to learn by its mistakes and proceeds to ramrod another candidate chosen by the arrogant elitists who control it.


Christopher G. Adamo is a freelance writer who lives in southeastern Wyoming with his wife and sons. He has been involved in grassroots political activity for many years. Chris was the editor of the Wyoming Christian from 1994 to 1996, and his columns can also been seen at

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For more of Christopher's articles, visit his archives.

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