By Bill Sniffin
A porta-potty. In a rancher’s pasture? Really?
Possibly the biggest campaign idea helping lead to the biggest political upset in Wyoming history was hatched in the Mint Bar in Sheridan in late October, 1976.
John Jenkins, Byra Kite and a political consultant named Bob Goodman were trying to find a differentiating issue that would help their huge underdog candidate Malcolm Wallop surge ahead of U.S. Senate powerhouse Gale McGee.
Much like today, Wyoming citizens in those days were chafing over what they considered federal over-reach. The Cowboy State seemed to be a place full of good old boys (and gals) who just wanted to be left alone.
But a series of Democratic Congresses had instituted many onerous federal regulations that even annoyed folks way out here on the frontier. Sound familiar?
McGee was a Democratic stalwart who had served 18 years in the Senate and his whole campaign was based on all the “clout” he had accumulated during his time in Washington, D.C.
When Republican Wallop brought in Goodman to help his campaign, he was trailing McGee in the polls by a factor of 72 percent to 18 percent. National newspapers were calling McGee’s Senate seat “safe” which would help maintain the Democrats’ huge Senate lead of 62 Democrats versus just 38 Republicans. Much different than today.
In Wyoming, the Congressional delegation was 2:1 in favor of the Democrats with Sen. McGee and U. S. Rep. Teno Roncalio on one side and Republican Sen. Cliff Hansen on the other. Wyoming was a much different state politically 42 years ago than it is today.
McGee pretty much used his own staff to conduct his campaign. He did little polling and had no outside consultants. And why not? He was an overwhelming favorite.
So how could the Wallop campaign overcome such a deficit to win in November?
Four decades later, John Jenkins, a Buffalo rancher and owner of an oil company, recalls that campaign when Wallop hired him, Goodman and Kite. Goodman was advocating using extensive polling and something new – widespread TV advertising.
Wallop had lost in the Republican gubernatorial primary two years earlier and was in hot water with state GOP officials because of his perceived lukewarm support of the ultimate nominee Dick Jones. That 1974 Republican primary was arguably the most amazing primary in the state’s history. These were great candidates jousting hard with each other until conservative Jones emerged the winner.
Jones lost to Democrat Ed Herschler in the subsequent general election in a race still recalled and bemoaned by Republican state political leaders.
The Wallop campaign correctly tagged McGee, who was the chairman of the Senate Postal Committee, as a proponent of big, over-reaching federal government. McGee defended the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA), both of which were angering Wyoming folks who just wanted to be left alone.
McGee was also one of the biggest backers of the Vietnam War. As a young editor back in 1976, I recall chatting with McGee at a big Democrat rally in Hudson just before Election Day. McGee told me he was wrong. “In hindsight, it wasn’t wise for us to go there.” I was not able to publish that comment until after the election. Even patriotic folks in Wyoming had gotten bitterly tired of the war, which did not end until 1975.
As Wallop gained in the polls with general election day nearing, those three men gathered in the Mint Bar in Sheridan, as Jenkins recalls. They brainstormed what kind of message could they create which would best tell their story?
The final TV ad (and accompanying newspaper ads) showed a cowboy getting ready to go out to work on the range in the morning. Strapped to his pack animal is a porta-potty. The voice-over talked about how the feds can’t even let you “do your business” out in the field without their regulations interfering. It was an instant classic. Wyoming voters were captivated. The needle moved. A lot.
When the general election votes were tallied, it was not even close. Wallop won with 84,810 votes to McGee’s 70,558.
Rodger McDaniel has a new book out about McGee that details this campaign in much more detail. I am anxious to read The Man in the Arena: The Life and Times of U.S. Senator Gale McGee. It looks like a wonderful history of one of Wyoming’s great political characters. It will be available in September from University of Nebraska Press.