WyoFile.com - "Chris Rothfuss: The Perfect Candidate You Never Heard Of"
Sitting down for coffee at Laramie's Turtle Rock Café, Chris Rothfuss looks like any of the number of graduate students who frequent the spot across from the west end of the University of Wyoming campus. Polite and professional, Rothfuss actually has a lot more experience and a few more years under his belt than appearances suggest.
Whether you've heard it or not, Rothfuss is the Wyoming Democratic Party's nominee for the seat currently occupied by two-term Republican Senator Mike Enzi.
Chances are that most Wyoming voters know very little about Rothfuss, rightly or wrongly viewing the 35-year-old Casperite as another in a long list of the Democrats' sacrificial lambs, whose names appear on the ballot opposite an established incumbent Republican. The unfortunate thing is that this guy really deserves a look, but if history and the realities of modern campaign finances are any indication, he probably won't get it.
"It is frustrating at times," he said. "I get the feeling if people actually got a chance to compare us - to look at his record and my positions - I'd do well in November. My problem is that I can't talk to 200,000 voters face-to-face, now can I?"
Nor can he reach them via radio, newspaper and television commercials. With a campaign war chest barely over $13,000, Rothfuss doesn't have the option of mounting the sort well-financed campaign necessary to challenge a generally well-liked and well-financed incumbent, who's already raised in excess of $1.7 million. Instead, Rothfuss finds himself travelling around the state in the family car, hoping to reach as many voters as he can before the November election.
Rothfuss' is one of those stories that Wyoming politicians who talk about the need to keep young talent in the state would do well to cite as a hopeful example. A 1990 graduate of Natrona County High School, Rothfuss came to the University of Wyoming as an honor student and member of the debate team. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in International Studies and then pursued a master's in Chemical Engineering. After a few years' work in the oil fields of Alaska, California and Venezuela, Rothfuss returned to school, earning a PhD in Chemical Engineering at the University of Washington.
He was later offered a Science and Technology Diplomacy Fellowship through the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 2003 and began a three-year stint with the U.S. State Department, a member of negotiating teams hammering out international treaties on a host of technological issues including nanotechnology and the future peaceful uses of outer space.
Upon leaving the State Department in 2006, Rothfuss came home to Wyoming and has served as an instructor in UW's Political Science and International Studies department as well as the university's honors program.
His teaching load is as diverse as his background. For the political science department, Rothfuss has taught a course on diplomacy and negotiations. In the honors program he's offered a course entitled "The Future of Nanotechnology."
Now Rothfuss has put his teaching career on hold and is now putting his energy into trying to unseat Enzi. Rothfuss admits he's facing an uphill battle.
Two weeks ago, Rothfuss loaded up the family car and drove to Riverton, hoping to take advantage of a rare opportunity to gain some exposure in the candidates' debate hosted by Wyoming Public Television. Unfortunately, his primary opponent, perennial candidate Al Hamburg, didn't make the trip and organizers decided that with one candidate at the rostrum it wouldn't amount to much of a debate, so they cancelled the last half-hour of the scheduled two-hour program.
"I would have liked to have had the chance," said Rothfuss.
So his schedule includes visiting to as many political gatherings as he can, even those as small as the recent candidates forum hosted by the Campbell County League of Women's Voters in Gillette.
Turn-out was painfully small, with only 28 present, most of whom showed up in hopes seeing sparks fly in the hotly contested race for GOP nomination for U.S. House. Rothfuss was the last act on the playbill and by the time he reached the podium his chance to give one-minute answers to three questions, the "crowd" had dwindled to just 11.
For those who stuck it out, Rothfuss made an impression.
"His answer on CO2 sequestration was very detailed and informative," said a Republican voter who declined to be named. "We all agree that on that issue, he would be a plus for Wyoming. He's a sharp kid."
Could that translate to a vote in this, one of the reddest counties in one of the country's reddest states?
"Probably not," came the response, "but he did get my attention."
Rothfuss said it's that kind of response that keeps him optimistic.
"I'm not the sort to go off on some sort of futile effort," Rothfuss said. "I'm putting everything I can into the race because I think it's important to get the message out that we have a chance to make a change this year ... and that extends even to a state where one party has been seen as unassailable."
Rothfuss dismisses suggestions that his political prospects might have been enhanced had he "started at the bottom" and first won local or state office.
"Why not a few years in the legislature and then run?" he asks. "I'll tell you why. That's part of the problem with the system. The Wyoming Legislature and the U.S. Congress are both institutions that should be largely made up of citizens; citizens with the background and expertise able to take on the problems we're facing as a state and as a country. Otherwise you leave the big decisions - on issues like health care, spending and energy - to people who, by the time they reach Congress, are little more than professional politicians, more adept at raising campaign funds than they are at solving problems."
Here Rothfuss takes one of his few direct shots at his Republican opponent.
"Look at Mike Enzi, for example," he suggests. "He's one of the few members of Congress who, in addition to a long career as a politician, have a background in accounting. What does he do with that? Well, he's positioned as the ranking member of a key committee on health care. That means he's charged with bringing some fiscal sense to our ballooning Medicare costs and yet he votes to support a Medicare 'reform' bill that eliminates the government's ability to make bulk drug purchases on behalf of recipients and suddenly a bill that should have reduced costs ends up costing taxpayers more money and putting those dollars in the pockets of pharmacy companies who make campaign contributions and hire lobbyists. Who does that help? Certainly not the taxpayer."
Rothfuss said his service in the Senate would take advantage of his own set of unique skills: energy and diplomacy.
"My specialty is in the energy field," said Rothfuss. "That's a background and strength I would like to take to Washington. I think it would serve us all well to have some expertise in Congress."
The U.S., he said, has to come to terms with what dependence on foreign sources of energy is doing to the country's security and long-term financial health.
"We have to develop domestic sources of energy," he said. "That includes an emphasis on efficiency, alternatives - including nuclear - and an enhancement of the power grid and storage capacity. It also means that we have to develop ways to use domestic oil and coal reserves in a way that doesn't ignore our duty as stewards of the environment."
Toward that end, Rothfuss wants to develop a 50-year national energy policy to replace the "haphazard" approach the country has used, with a goal of eliminating dependence on foreign oil within 10 years.
"With planning, we can do that," he said. "The economic and security implications are staggering and disastrous if we simply continue to ignore the problem."
Rothfuss characterizes himself as a political moderate, whose values would probably be in keeping with those "of the Republican party of 30 and 40 years ago."
"I believe in individual rights, small government and fiscal responsibility," he said. "I grew up admiring people like Al Simpson but look at the reality. If you're honestly fiscally responsible, believe in government staying out of people's lives and even believe in an intelligent approach to security and international relations, you aren't a modern Republican. I'm a Democrat by default, but I'm a Wyoming Democrat. I think that my positions and values are probably more closely aligned with Wyoming voters than, say, those of the leadership of the Republican Party. Unfortunately, the people we've been sending to Washington don't seem to be taking their cues from the people back home.
"I just wish I could get that message out there," he adds.
It's a formidable task, but Rothfuss manages to put his progress in an optimistic light.
"If you look at the campaign reports, I'm only a couple thousand dollars short of Senator Enzi's fundraising efforts when it comes to individual contributions from Wyoming," he said with a smile. "If we were on a level playing field, I think I could out-campaign him. Now if you can just ignore those out-of-state dollars and PAC contributions, we'd have an even fight."
Rothfuss said his best shot would be to debate the incumbent face-to-face. The former UW debater says he'd "have a shot if I could call him on the issues and make him defend his own record."
He may have that chance as the general election approaches. If it happens, that debate may be well worth watching.