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Sen. Leland Christensen, R-Alta, right, visits with Senate President Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, during the 64th Wyoming Legislature’s general session Jan. 12, 2017, at the Jonah Business Center. Blaine McCartney/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – It’s officially a contest to become Wyoming’s next secretary of state as Republican Leland Christensen of Alta announced Friday he will enter the race.

As he drove across the state to join his colleagues in the Wyoming Legislature for the 2018 budget session, which convenes Monday, Christensen pulled off in Pinedale for an interview with the Wyoming Tribune Eagle to discuss his campaign.

Christensen is a member of the state Senate in his second term. But he will not seek re-election to that office because, after the session ends in March, he will shift his focus to the secretary of state campaign.

“I’m going to take care of business in the Legislature, then I’m going to come back out and go right into a statewide campaign,” Christensen said.

Secretary of State Ed Murray announced Friday he would resign the office immediately. In 2017, Murray also expressed interest in campaigning to be Wyoming’s next governor, but that all changed after two different women accused him of sexual misconduct decades ago. He firmly denied the first accusation and said he couldn’t recall the second.

Murray said Friday the accusations were the reason for his decision to resign. Deputy Secretary of State Karen Wheeler will serve in the interim until Gov. Matt Mead appoints someone to complete Murray’s term.

Many Wyomingites will remember Christensen as a frontrunner in the 2016 Republican primary to replace Cheyenne’s Cynthia Lummis in the U.S. House of Representatives. Christensen was one of two candidates from the Wyoming Legislature challenging now-U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney. In a jam-packed primary with eight candidates – a ninth dropped out of the race before the primary vote, but still received hundreds of votes – Christensen received the second-most votes at 19,330 to Cheney’s 35,043.

So while it’s the second consecutive election cycle Christensen’s name will appear on a ballot as a statewide candidate, he said it’s not ambition for higher office driving his decision.

“Literally, until the news came out that this seat was going to be open and uncontested, and the phone started ringing, I was very much enjoying being a state senator and serving on the Judiciary Committee and Transportation Committee,” he said. “But the support, the requests from across the state, really got us thinking. I spent some time with my wife talking about what it would entail for another statewide campaign. It was inspiring two years ago spending month after month going across this state and realizing we can really do this.”

With his elected office experience, work as a law enforcement officer and businessman, and his 2016 statewide campaign, Christensen said he thinks he has the qualifications that voters expect out of a candidate for the office.

“As a county commissioner, I spent a lot of time working with county clerks around the state, getting to know them, and working with county officials as a legislator,” he said. “I think that background is going to be a real advantage in providing great service and building strong relationships.”

He didn’t say what would distinguish his approach to the secretary of state’s office, but Christensen said he would strive to ensure a few critical things: He wants to make sure the state is business-friendly, attracting and retaining industry, and he wants to make sure elections and recordkeeping are in check. Generally, Christensen said he wants to use the office to make sure Wyoming prospers.

“I think our future is bright,” he said. “I think with focus and attention, we’re going to remain a business-friendly state, both for the people who are here and being able to welcome in new business and get opportunities for the next generation to either come back or remain in Wyoming.”

Christensen was clear he would be focused on the challenges of the upcoming budget session before he puts his energy into a secretary of state campaign. Lawmakers are preparing to tackle an estimated $800 million to $900 million structural deficit for the two-year budget cycle, and there’s no clear consensus on now how they’ll achieve the constitutionally required balanced budget.

“We’ll come out of this session with a good, balanced budget,” Christensen said. “There are still big questions as to how we work through funding for schools and education. But the key to success on that one is that no one gives up. We’ll keep chipping away at it, and we’ll get that taken care of, too.”

Christensen’s announcement came the day after Rep. James Byrd of Cheyenne said he would run for secretary of state as a Democrat. The timing of his announcement, Christensen said, was not related to Byrd’s announcement. Byrd, one of only 12 Democrats in the Legislature, is also leaving his legislative seat vacant.

Joel Funk is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s state government reporter. He can be reached at jfunk@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3124. Follow him on Twitter at @jmacfunk.

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