WASHINGTON – Wyoming Republicans have just 15 days to choose possible replacements for the late Sen. Craig Thomas, a decision that could have an impact on the balance of power in the Senate in 2009.
No Democrat has represented the state in the Senate since 1977. But Thomas' immediate successor will set in motion Democratic efforts to stage an upset next year, when voters will elect a permanent replacement for the senator. The vacancy gives Republicans one more seat to defend as they attempt to reclaim their Senate majority.
Thomas died Monday night after suffering for months from leukemia. Lawmakers in Washington and Wyoming spent much of Tuesday eulogizing Thomas, who is survived by his wife, Susan, and four children. A public service is scheduled Saturday in Casper, Wyo., with burial set for Sunday in Cody, Wyo.
Several of his Senate colleagues praised him Tuesday in emotional speeches from the Senate floor. Wyoming's other senator, Republican Mike Enzi, said Thomas lived as he died, "with his spurs on."
Democratic Gov. Dave Freudenthal officially notified the GOP of Thomas' death on Tuesday, and state Republicans now have just over two weeks to convene and choose three nominees. Once Freudenthal receives those names, he has five days to choose one.
The new senator will serve until the next general election, in 2008, when a special election will be held to determine who completes Thomas' term, which runs through 2012.
One candidate who does not want to be considered for the seat is the state's only member of the House, Republican Rep. Barbara Cubin. "She was elected to serve Wyoming in the House and that's where she will remain," said her spokeswoman, Alison McGuire.
So far, the only person to express interest is Randall Luthi, a former Wyoming House speaker who is now deputy director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "It would be an honor, an absolute honor, to try to replace him," Luthi said.
Another possible contender, Colin Simpson, a state representative and son of former Sen. Alan Simpson, declined to say whether he was interested, as did Wyoming Secretary of State Max Maxfield, who also said he found it "absolutely appalling" that someone called him trying to drum up support for a candidate he didn't name.
"I'm not even going to give it a thought until the appropriate time," Maxfield said.
Newly elected state GOP Chairman Fred Parady said he wants the process to be "exhaustive and fair" and that national Republicans weren't pressuring him.
"It's a Wyoming decision. We're going to keep it that way," Parady said.
Democrats and Republicans each have 49 members in the 100-member Senate. Two independents vote and organize with Democrats, giving them the slim majority they presently hold. Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., has been recovering from major illness and has not participated in Senate activities in months.
Thomas, a low-key conservative who often focused on energy and public lands issues, was hospitalized with pneumonia just before the 2006 election. He won with 70 percent of the vote, monitoring the election from his hospital bed. Just after the election, he announced he had leukemia.