Wyoming Democrat wages lonely congressional fight
CASPER, Wyo. (AP) — Chris Henrichsen’s hopeful knocking on doors only disturbed the afternoon naps of dogs in a previously quiet Casper neighborhood. Then he finally hit pay dirt: Someone actually answered.
Standing behind a security door, the woman let Henrichsen blurt out a few words, then cut him off. “Running for Congress?” she said. “What party?”
Democrat, Henrichsen replied.
“Wrong house. I’m sorry,” she said, slamming the door.
There have been many days like this for the Henrichsen, a political unknown who has virtually no chance of stopping Republican U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis from keeping Republican Wyoming’s lone U.S. House seat.
Henrichsen, a large man with perpetually rumpled clothes, has logged 5,000 miles in his Suburban, sleeping occasionally in it, to meet with anyone in any corner of Wyoming willing to listen to him. He has no money for staff and travels the highways alone or with his wife and their three young children. But he won’t quit.
“I also know that if I stop doing anything today, stop talking to reporters, if I stop knocking on the doors that I can, it goes from slim to zero,” explained the 35-year-old Casper College political science instructor.
It’s not unheard of for Democrats to win in Wyoming: Three of the last five governors were Democrats. It is, however, difficult, with Republican voters outnumbering Democrats better than 3-to-1.
“I’ve been there. It’s a lonely place,” said Democrat Mike Sullivan, the governor from 1987 to 1995. “I know what it’s like when there’s just the two of you, or maybe even one of you, out on the trail.”
The task is even more challenging for Henrichsen, a political newcomer, against Lummis, a well-connected, former state treasurer and state legislator who holds the seat once held by former Vice President Dick Cheney.
In federal financial reports filed in August, Lummis, who’s seeking her third term and is state chair of Mitt Romney’s campaign, reported raising more than $500,000. Henrichsen was below the $5,000 level needed even to submit a report.
Henrichsen is hardly a typical Democrat. He’s a self-described “pro-life” candidate who opposes increased gun control in a state that is among the highest in per-capita gun ownership and where hunting is a proud tradition.
In the political vacuum that is Wyoming Democratic Party politics, Henrichsen faced no opposition in this summer’s primary election. He’s getting no money from the national or state parties. The national party has larger concerns, and the state party is in apparent free fall, increasingly unable to muster many candidates.
Henrichsen criticized the state party in August, saying it was content to raise money for out-of-state races while neglecting homegrown candidates. Since then, he’s tried to convince Wyoming voters that he won’t be beholden to Nancy Pelosi when he gets elected.
Henrichsen also said he’s received some Democrat backlash about his Mormon faith and his church’s opposition to same-sex marriage. “People don’t like it,” he said.
Robin Van Ausdall, executive director of the Wyoming Democratic Party, said the party is putting its efforts into state legislative races.
“He’s not out in the wilderness,” she insisted, noting that individual Democrats support him. Rather, she said, it’s tough for any Democratic candidate running down-ticket in a presidential election year in Wyoming. In 2008, John McCain defeated Barack Obama here by 65-33 percent.
Henrichsen said Democrats here suffer from popular suspicion that they are would-be gun-grabbers. Too many, he added, are liberal activists who have “gotten comfortable sort of being proud that they’re in the minority on those (social) issues, but they’re not the issues that are going to build connections with other people” in Wyoming.
If elected, Henrichsen said, he’ll work to reduce the deficit, hewing closely to the recommendations laid out by the commission headed by former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson and ex-White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles.
“Right now, we have an approach where one side says, ‘this is off the table,’ and the other side says ‘this is off the table,’ and there’s nothing left on the table,” Henrichsen said.
One recent evening, Henrichsen loaded his daughter Geneva, 7, into the family’s Suburban for a 300-mile roundtrip run from Casper to Laramie, home to the University of Wyoming and a Democratic oasis, to speak at a library.
About two dozen party faithful showed. They munched free cookies as Henrichsen told them there are so few Democrats on Wyoming ballots that he almost feels almost like he’s Obama’s state running mate.
Then, he went home.
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