About a decade ago, I was one of several observers of the Western political scene who latched on to a rather simple theory: With the demise of traditional industries, such as mining and logging, the West — the fastest growing and most beautiful region in the country — would soon attract scads of environmentally and socially progressive people. These newcomers would, in a matter of years, transform the region’s politics by electing like-minded politicians, mostly Democrats, thus breaking the Republican hegemony in the region.

At HCN, we anticipated this transformation every two years by running stories on Democratic hopefuls who looked as if they had a real chance to win a seat in Congress or the statehouse. Much to our chagrin, come election day they usually got trounced by conservative Republicans. That’s the problem with simple theories.

The complex reality is that most of those people moving West were really conservative retirees and workers from America’s decaying and racially diverse cities. And while the traditional industries may have been on their backs economically, they were far from dead politically.

Thus, we are left with a one-party region and the need for a better theory. Fortunately, the West is not short on theorists. Daniel Kemmis, who oversees the Center for the Rocky Mountain West at the University of Montana, believes that the problem Western Democrats face is strategic, not demographic. In this issue’s cover story, the former mayor of Missoula argues that Democrats in the West need to rethink their ties to national interest groups, including environmental organizations. And they need to excite voters with a practical, uniquely Western platform that includes economically revitalized cities, plenty of open space for recreation, and a working rural landscape.

Sounds like a great dream. But is it real? Well, if you gauge reality by whether anyone else has the same idea, then it’s real. Republicans are also seeking middle ground in the West, writes Utah Republican LaVarr Webb in an accompanying essay. Conservative Western voters have elected Democratic leaders in the past, and they will do so again, he says, if Republicans fail to push forward an agenda similar to what Kemmis outlines.

So the 2004 elections will once again be a test for the West. A few high-profile races, such as the battle for the Utah Governor’s office and the race for retiring U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell’s seat in Colorado, will get most of the ink. And the focus will, once again, be on whether Democrats can take advantage of shifting populations and reclaim some of the ground they lost in the 1990s.

But more important than which party wins is the exchange of ideas that accompanies a close race. Without that political dialogue, the issues that Westerners care about most — from energy development on the public lands and growth control to water supply and wildlife management — will never be effectively addressed. We all lose when that happens.