October 16, 2008

Energy-Rich Wyoming Friendly for GOP

By William M. Welch

MIDWEST, Wyo. -- When delegates to the Republican National Convention broke into chants of "drill, baby, drill," they could have found no more receptive audience than here in Wyoming's oil patch, where workers have been doing just that for 100 years.

"I was cheering right along with them," says oil service worker Tyson DeVeny, 26.

Like most of his colleagues, DeVeny says he will vote for Republican John McCain for president over Democrat Barack Obama, in large part because the Republican ticket is viewed as friendlier to the oil business.

"Being in the oil and gas industry, it pretty much makes my decision," says Zeb Lyon, 29, a hand at the big Salt Creek oil field here.

"This is our life: oil and gas and guns," says Curt Chapman, 36, a third-generation oil worker who says he doesn't know anyone who will vote for Obama.

With a population smaller than that of Washington, D.C., and three electoral votes, Wyoming is hardly a battleground in this presidential election. One of the reddest of states, it is a major energy producer and the home state of Vice President Cheney.

Yet 45 miles away in Casper, Wyoming's largest city and one of its most Republican areas, there are some who are disappointed with the Bush administration and unenthusiastic about McCain.

"McCain will win, but it will be a lot closer than people think," says Phil Roberts, history professor at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. "My suspicion is a lot of Wyoming Republicans will sit it out. There's not a lot of enthusiasm for voting for McCain."

Roberts says he sees Wyoming Republicans as mostly business-oriented rather than driven by ideology, social issues or other reasons. He calls them Romney-style Republicans, referring to former presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Emily King, a curriculum administrator with the Natrona County schools, reflects that view. A life-long Republican, she voted twice for President Bush but says she regrets it.

"I am totally fed up with the Republicans right now," she says, taking a morning break at a Casper coffee shop. She cites her opposition to the war in Iraq and bewilderment at the financial crisis and Bush's proposals to deal with it.

"I'm really worried about the Republicans' ability to maintain calm," King says. "They're in control and have been for the last eight years, and they have to bear responsibility."

However, she did not say she would vote for Obama. She says she won't pick a candidate until she steps into the voting booth.

Bush won Wyoming overwhelmingly twice, getting 69% of the vote in 2004. The state hasn't voted for a Democrat for president since 1964. Republicans outnumber Democrats in registration 2-1. Polls show McCain with a double-digit lead.

What's more, Wyoming's economy is doing well. Wyoming has oil, natural gas and coal as its financial engine, and the state's cycles often run in opposition to the rest of the country, Roberts says. Wyoming is buoyed by high energy prices that keep unemployment low and produce healthy revenue for a state with no income tax and a low sales tax. Perhaps that is why McCain's campaign has little visible presence in the state.

"I haven't talked to a lot of people who are voting for Obama," says Larry Kirby, cutting hair at the Rialto barber shop in Casper.

Obama has a storefront headquarters in Casper, where volunteers run a small phone bank operation, mostly calling potential voters in Colorado and Montana.

"It can be awfully lonely to be a Wyoming Democrat," says Zach Schneider, 32, an eighth-grade English teacher.

Wyoming was good to Obama during his primary season contest with Hillary Rodham Clinton. He handily won Wyoming's Democratic caucuses in March.

"I thought he was wonderful," says Savannah Conrad, 24, a waitress at Johnny J's, a Casper dinner Obama visited. A mother with a second child on the way, Conrad says she and her husband are enthusiastic about Obama and are most interested in affordable health care.

"He wants change, which I think is awesome," Conrad says. "I think McCain just wants to dig us in deeper than we are now."

Out in the oil fields, the view is different. Taking a lunch break at Whiners, the only restaurant in Midwest, oil workers voice unease about Obama.

Chapman, whose grandfather came to the oil fields during the Great Depression, says he could never vote for Obama.

"I don't mind saying that I wouldn't want to see a black president," Chapman says.

His co-worker, Jocko Ward, 32, says, "Race doesn't bother me a bit."

Josh Swan, 25, a mechanic with an oil service company, raises no such objections either.

"I'm not thrilled with McCain," he says, but he's happy McCain selected Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate and will vote for them.

"When I hear her talk, it's like I hear my family talking," he says. (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>