Election Day surprises in the schizophrenic West

The Interior West goes for Bush while the Coast goes to Kerry, but on the ground, it’s more complicated than ‘red’ vs. ‘blue’

 

Take a look at the ubiquitous election map dividing the nation into "red states" that leaned toward George W. Bush and "blue states" that leaned toward John Kerry, and you might think that the Interior West is all Republicans. Aside from the West’s three coastal states, the region is a sea of red. It’s enough to send Democrats and many environmentalists reaching for a stiff drink.

To some degree, the map is accurate. Idaho, for example, kept its title as the most Republican state in the nation, with the GOP holding 80 percent of the state Legislature. Utah gave Bush his highest victory margin of any state — he won 71 percent of the vote over Kerry’s 27 percent — and elected a new Republican governor. Republicans now hold 77 of the 104 seats in Utah’s state Legislature and four of its five seats in Congress. Wyoming, too, voted overwhelmingly for Bush, and Democrats lost some of the little ground they held in the Legislature, which is now 77 percent Republican.

But a closer look at the 2004 election results shows that the West is anything but monolithic. The red and the blue are artifacts of the Electoral College, which gives all of a state’s electoral votes to the presidential candidate who gets the most votes there — even if that candidate wins by a hair, as it appears Bush did in New Mexico.

In fact, Democrats made some surprising strides in the Interior West, while conservation initiatives fared well. Meanwhile, Oregon and Washington, which both went to Kerry, saw some startling defeats for green-leaning candidates and ballot measures. The mix of election results on the ground has newspapers from Washington to Colorado claiming that purple might be a more appropriate color — and, we might add, perhaps a swirl of green.

Behind the red curtain

The most dramatic contrast between the presidential race and the local ones came in Montana. Bush won 60 percent of the vote in Montana, and the state’s only member of the U.S. House, Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg, coasted to victory as well. But on the state and county levels, Democrats and environmentalists nearly swept the table.

Montana elected its first Democratic governor since 1988, sending Brian Schweitzer to replace Republican Judy Martz, a self-described "lapdog of industry." Schweitzer, who ran with a Republican lieutenant governor, is a progressive rancher who talks about alternative energy sources such as ethanol in a state that is poised for an oil and gas boom. Democrats also picked up seats in the state House and won control of the Senate.

Montanans trounced an effort to overturn a 1998 citizens’ initiative that banned open-pit cyanide leach mining. A Colorado-based gold mining company, Canyon Resources Corp., poured nearly $3 million into TV ads and other propaganda supporting I-147. Nonetheless, 58 percent of voters opposed the measure — more than supported the original ban six years ago. Canyon Resources vowed to continue its campaign for a gold mine in the headwaters of the Blackfoot River near Lincoln, using something other than cyanide to extract the gold from the ore. But investors were skeptical: The company’s stock crashed nearly 53 percent the day after the election.

Montana voters also re-elected state Supreme Court Judge Jim Nelson, known for his eloquent defense of the state’s Constitution, which guarantees citizens a "clean and healthful environment," and they showed a green streak at the county level, too. In Gallatin County, voters overwhelmingly supported a $10 million open-space bond to buy conservation easements on agricultural land. In a commissioner’s race in staunchly conservative Flathead County, voters rejected a wise-use darling who promised a revolt against the Forest Service, in favor of a Democrat who supports land-use planning.

And in rural Rosebud County, residents launched, by an 80-to-20 margin, strict new rules for natural gas drillers. To gain approval for a new wastewater pond, operators will have to write a conservation plan, plus put down a $4,500 application fee and a reclamation bond that will pay for cleanup if the company goes out of business. The measure was pushed by the rancher-conservationists of the Northern Plains Resource Council.

Rosebud County rancher Clint McRae, chair of the local Rosebud Protective Association, says farmers and ranchers looked farther south to the Powder River Basin, where coalbed methane drillers are polluting streams and rivers (HCN, 11/5/01). "We saw what was happening in Wyoming, and we had a chance to do something about it," he says.

The Dems fare well

Colorado, too, leaned green in this election. Voters approved Amendment 37, which requires energy companies to generate 10 percent of the state’s electricity from solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, small-scale hydro or hydrogen fuel cells by 2015. It passed by a margin of 53 percent to 47 percent, despite warnings from utility companies that the changes could cost millions. On the county level, Colorado voters agreed to pony up a quarter of a billion dollars in extra sales and property taxes for open space and parks.

Colorado also saw the most dramatic Democratic victories in the Interior West. Potato farmer John Salazar edged out Republican Greg Walcher for the House seat currently held by Republican Scott McInnis. As director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, Walcher subjected biologists’ work to strict review from agency higher-ups. During the campaign, he tried to damage Salazar’s reputation by connecting him to environmentalists. He lost, in part due to his support for a 2002 dam-building initiative that was seen as an effort by Front Range cities to siphon off water from the largely rural Western Slope.

In a highly publicized race for the U.S. Senate, John Salazar’s younger brother, state Attorney General Ken Salazar, defeated Republican Pete Coors for the seat held by Democrat-turned-Republican Ben Nighthorse Campbell. Salazar won despite numerous visits to Colorado from George W. Bush and his associates, who stumped for Coors, the chairman of Coors Brewing Co. Salazar’s campaign slogan: "Fighting for Colorado’s land, water and people."

Democrat Mark Udall cruised to re-election in the U.S. House, representing Boulder and the surrounding area (HCN, 10/11/04: The First Family of Western Conservation). And in the state Legislature, Democrats, previously in the minority, walked away with a three-seat lead. That’s sure to make life tough for Republican Gov. Bill Owens, who endorsed both losing congressional candidates and opposed the clean-energy initiative.

Democrats had some success elsewhere in the Interior West, as well. Nevada Sen. Harry Reid won a third term in the U.S. Senate, and is positioned to take over as minority leader from defeated South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle. Mark Udall’s cousin, Tom Udall, will represent Santa Fe and much of northern New Mexico for another two years. Democrat Raúl Grijalva won more than 60 percent of the vote to claim Arizona’s 7th Congressional District, which covers much of Tucson and southwestern Arizona. And while Democratic candidate Scott Matheson Jr. lost the race for Utah’s governor, his brother, Jim Matheson, won a second term in the U.S. House — despite the fact that Republican state legislators had redrawn the boundaries of his district in 2002 to make it more rural and more Republican.

All of this happened in so-called "red" states.

The greens sing the blues

The "blue states" of the Pacific Northwest, meanwhile, didn’t live up to their reputations as strongholds for Democrats and environmentalists.

Not that the blues and the greens didn’t have their successes. In Washington, Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray easily defeated her Republican opponent, George Nethercutt. Nicknamed the "Giant Killer" for his defeat of former Speaker of the House Tom Foley in 1994, Nethercutt was personally recruited by George W. Bush and heavily funded by the national Republican Party. Washingtonians also voted for a second time to push ahead with a plan to build a monorail through Seattle. And by a 2-to-1 margin, they barred the federal government from shipping more nuclear waste to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation — a rule that may or may not hold up in court.

On the other hand, Republican Doug Sutherland won a second term as Washington’s state lands commissioner, regulating the timber industry and overseeing millions of acres of state land. Sutherland, backed by the industry, beat out Democratic state legislator Mike Cooper, who campaigned against increasing the timber harvest and had strong support from environmentalists. In a race for Washington’s 8th Congressional District, Republican Dave Reichert, sheriff for suburban King County, narrowly defeated Democrat and radio talk show host Dave Ross, maintaining a Republican foothold in largely Democratic western Washington.

The biggest shock, however, came in Oregon. There, Democratic U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden smoked his challenger, Klamath County rancher Al King, and Democratic Rep. David Wu easily won another term in the U.S. House. Democrats also won control of the state Senate for the first time in a decade, and gained ground in the state House, buoying Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski.

But on the same day, Oregon voters soundly defeated a measure that would have mandated conservation on the Tillamook and Clatsop state forests. Measure 34 would have designated half of the forests as reserves, to be managed for fish and wildlife habitat and clean water. Opponents, led by timber companies, dumped $2.5 million into defeating the measure (supporters spent about $400,000), arguing that the land should be managed through an involved public process, not the ballot box.

Oregonians also delivered a devastating blow to the state’s 30-year-old land-use laws. Measure 37, which was championed by property-rights activists and funded by timber companies, passed with 60 percent of the vote. It will require state and local governments to compensate landowners for any loss of property value that results from the laws, or just to waive the laws entirely. Simply evaluating landowners’ claims is expected to cost more than $300 million a year. Compensation could run into the billions.

Most governments simply don’t have the money, so they’ll likely waive the land-use rules that have hemmed in urban sprawl and protected farms and forests, says Bob Clay, president of the Oregon Chapter of the American Planning Association and a chief planner for Portland. "There’s a lot of chaos," he says. "We’re trying not to panic."

Across the great divide

In this soup of red, blue, purple and green, there is at least one nugget of political wisdom: Political success in the West rests on grassroots support from both urban and rural areas.

In Oregon, some planners had been warning for years that the land-use laws were losing their support outside of the Willamette Valley, home of Portland and some of the state’s most fertile farmland, says Bob Clay. His group commissioned a 2001 report that called for an aggressive public education campaign and some revisions to the rules. The report met a chilly reception from many planners and environmentalists, however (HCN, 11/25/02).

That year, a Republican-Democrat team in the Legislature brought together the opposing factions in an attempt to sort out some of the issues, but property-rights activists walked away from the talks. In 2003, Clay’s group tried to push a bill through the state House that would have taken the land-use rules on the road, where citizens would have a chance to learn about them and suggest improvements. The bill died for lack of funding.

Even last-ditch efforts to educate the public about the sweeping impacts of Measure 37 failed, says Clay. While the state’s major newspapers came out in opposition to the measure, along with many mayors and county commissioners, "that message did not penetrate to the average voter," he says.

Oregon legislators have vowed to make the measure more bearable. If they fail, the state may watch its model land-use laws topple like a house of cards.

In Colorado, in contrast, the Salazar brothers, centrists who come from a ranching family in the San Luis Valley, were able to bridge the urban-rural divide. Longtime Colorado political commentator Ed Quillen says rural voters swung the races for both Salazars. "In Colorado, the Democratic Party for some years was the urban feminist party, and that doesn’t play well with rural voters," he says. "You run some guys with dirt under their fingernails and that helps."

Building support across that divide requires hard work, says Pat Williams, who represented Montana for nine terms in the U.S. House. The success Democrats and environmentalists saw in Montana this Nov. 2 "reflect determined work by the Democratic ground troops for 10 years," he says.

But what is one to make of the disconnect between local and national politics? Montana, like the rest of the Interior West, handed Bush its electoral votes. Rosebud County, which passed the tough new rules for gas drillers, voted 55 percent for Bush, whose administration has pushed for more energy development and weaker environmental rules.

Quillen says it's hard to ignore the very local threat of gas development or a Wal-Mart, but that on the national level, Republicans have used a "cultural populism" to win votes. "It’s always good to run against the elites," he says, and Republicans have convinced voters that the elites are their left-leaning neighbors, "who listen to (National Public Radio’s) Morning Edition," rather than the corporate leaders who currently hold sway in the White House.

The Democrats have failed to beat back this perception, he adds: "In the (Democratic) primaries, Howard Dean said, ‘We’ve gotta reach those guys with Confederate flags in their pickups.’ Every other national Democrat denounced him."

Nonetheless, says Williams, the success of Democrats and environmental issues on Nov. 2 should send a message to national Republicans and President Bush: "Take a look at the West before you act with hubris and move too far to the right."

The author is editor of High Country News. HCN interns Deanna Belch and Lissa James contributed to this report.