Like a lot of you, I'm feeling depressed in the runup to the November 6 elections. The relentless attack ads demonizing every candidate around the West, and our further fragmentation into hostile camps -- six political parties qualified for Wyoming's ballot alone, a new record for that state, for instance -- I'm beginning to think that any spirit of moderation in our politics has been blown to smithereens.
But if I squint and peer through the smoke and flames, I see a few signs that extremism might be on the wane and moderation might be staging a comeback.
One is an ad in my hometown newspaper, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle:
What makes this ad noteworthy? These eight prominent Montana Republicans are endorsing a Democrat.
John Vincent is running for re-election to the Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities and helps set energy policy, and these Republicans are shunning their own party's candidate, Roger Koopman, who's trying to win the PSC seat Vincent has occupied for the last four years. Policy differences figure into it -- Koopman backs coal-fired power plants, while Vincent prefers wind power -- but so do the candidates' temperaments. Vincent has reached across party lines frequently to ally with moderate Republicans, in a career that includes 16 years in the Legislature and 10 years in local political offices. Koopman, who served a few years in the Legislature, is a confrontational hard-liner who's tried to purge moderates out of his own party. (Koopman also has considered using state law to mandate that public schools teach students that evolution is just a theory.) The Republicans coming forward in the ad see Koopman as an unproductive extremist, and they're calling for truly bipartisan solutions to our energy problems.
It might be wishful thinking to call it a trend, but there are other hopeful signs.
In Utah, a Republican legislator, Kraig Powell, recently announced he's drafting a bill calling for a study on the impacts of climate change, especially wildfires -- bucking his party's position that climate change is nothing to worry about. "That’s a discussion we need to have in the Legislature," Powell told The Salt Lake Tribune. Another prominent Utah Republican, former Gov. Jon Huntsman Sr., has endorsed Jim Matheson, the state's sole Democrat in Congress, who's running for re-election against a Tea Partyer, Mia Love. Center Forward, a nonpartisan group backing "centrist" candidates around the country, has spent more than $700,000 on TV ads for Matheson, and the conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce has spent more than $200,000 on pro-Matheson ads, shunning the Tea Partyer.
Colorado Rep. Scott Tipton, a conservative Republican running for re-election, with a history of anti-green stands, recently joined his state's Democratic senators in persuading President Obama to designate a new national monument.
Other Republicans like Rob McKenna, running for the Washington governorship, and Brian Bilbray, a California congressman running for re-election, are touting their concern for the environment. They're not perfectly green, but they do reject their party's disdain for environmental regulations and science.
A new effort to encourage bipartisan environmentalism -- with a patriotic name, the American Eagle Compact -- has been launched by the National Audubon Society and ConservAmerica (formerly Republicans for Environmental Protection). "There are plenty of Republicans who believe in responsible energy legislation and reducing carbon," David Yarnold, Audubon's president, told The New York Times recently. "We know there are plenty of Republicans who, if they weren’t so intimidated by the hard right, would be at the table more often, and we know that there are Democrats who if they weren’t so afraid of being hammered and labeled as tree-huggers would be more willing to compromise." Rob Sisson, the Republican president of ConservAmerica, told the Times, "We have close relationships with maybe 50 or 60 Republicans on the Hill. They all ... understand the enormous ramifications and risks (climate change poses) to our nation and to national security. ... There are a lot of conversations in conservative circles right now about the evidence that man, particularly with a lot of burning fossil fuels, is the primary driver of what we are seeing."
Steve Arnquist, head of the Arizona League of Conservation Voters, told me recently that his state will “have at least three more conservation-minded senators" in the Legislature when votes are tallied in November. That would make conservationists only a larger minority, but it would help pull the often extremist Arizona Legislature a few inches toward the center. In another difficult policy realm, Arizona's leading anti-immigration flame-thrower, state legislator Russell Pearce, was recalled last year, when voters in his Republican-leaning district chose a somewhat moderate Republican instead. When Pearce tried to make a comeback in the Republican primary a few months ago, another somewhat moderate Republican beat him.
Better admit, though, that the Republicans for Environmental Protection group changed its name last March partly because it's gotten so difficult to find Republican politicians standing up for protecting the environment. As ConservAmerica's Sisson tells the Times, greenish Republicans in Congress still worry that if they stand up for action of climate change, they'll anger rightwingers who would knock them off in Republican primaries, so they remain "quiet" on the issue, asking environmentalists privately: "Would you rather have me here or have me lose to someone who comes from an entirely different place?"
Extremism is not dead, of course. Far from it. In Idaho, eight moderate Republicans are abandoning their seats in the House of Representatives because, as Idaho Statesman columnist Dan Popkey reported earlier this year, they're tired of "banging their heads" against hard-line rightwingers who run the Idaho House. Republican state Rep. Carlos Bilbao told Popkey, "There’s no doubt in my mind that the moderates are out of business in this state. They've pretty much all given up."
In Montana, even as some moderate Republican leaders come out against a hard-line uncompromising Republican in the Public Service Commission race, the temperament trends the opposite way at the top of the ballot. Until this election season, Montana has been held up as the model for growing moderation in the Interior West, as conservative Democrats wrested the governorship, a U.S. Senate seat and other statewide offices from anti-green Republicans since 2004. Our current governor, Democrat Brian Schweitzer, even recruited a moderate Republican, John Bohlinger, to be lieutenant governor. But now polls indicate that hard-line Republicans could stage a comeback in Montana on November 6, taking the governorship, the state's sole U.S. House seat and a U.S. Senate seat.
Did I mention, I'm depressed?
If you spot outbreaks of moderation in our politics and have time to tell us about it, please comment here, because many of us are starving for good news these days.
Anyway, for more on the upcoming elections around the West, check the new issue of the High Country News magazine -- either the hard copy magazine now being mailed to print subscribers or the magazine stories that go live on this website October 29 -- as well as other continuing coverage on this website.
And PS: Since a record six political parties qualified for the Wyoming ballot, one of the parties -- called Americans Elect -- decided not to nominate candidates, even though more than 3,700 Wyoming voters signed a petition to qualify that party. So the Wyoming ballot actually lists candidates from five parties: the Democrats, the Republicans, the Libertarian Party, the Constitution Party, and the Country Party.
Ray Ring is an HCN senior editor, based in Bozeman, Montana.