2) Moderates rule.
Enough Republicans and independents turned away from the GOP’s extremist candidates to elect not only Tester, but a flock of other moderate Western Democrats, including a new Colorado governor and four Democratic congressmen who took formerly Republican seats in Colorado, Arizona and California. Also, centrist governors in Wyoming (Democrat Dave Freudenthal), Arizona (Democrat Janet Napolitano) and California (Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger) won re-election, even though their parties are in the minority in those states; they received significant support from voters in the opposite party as well as from independents.
To confirm that the West has entered an era of moderation and reduced hard-line party loyalty, examine Arizona’s House District 5, a slice of metro Phoenix that includes Scottsdale and Tempe. Voter registration on Election Day showed 139,000 Republicans, 86,000 Democrats and 87,000 independents in the district. In the past four years, the only category to increase was independents (up 11,000, chiefly because of Republican shrinkage).
The district’s Republican six-term incumbent, J.D. Hayworth, a former sportscaster, had shown himself to be consistently at the far-right edge of the right wing. This year, for instance, Hayworth voted for bills to erect a fence along the Mexican border and grant no amnesty for undocumented immigrants in the U.S., to extend Bush tax cuts despite record deficits, to make it easier to develop wetlands and log roadless forests, to cut funding for student loans, to oppose stem-cell research and to grant new tax breaks for oil and gas drillers. Arizona’s statewide daily, The Arizona Republic, endorsed Hayworth in all his previous congressional races, but this time, the Republic rejected him as "an angry demagogue" and "a bomb-thrower." Hayworth garnered just 46 percent of the vote, losing to moderate Democrat Harry Mitchell, a state legislator and ex-mayor of Tempe who supports immigration amnesty and stem-cell research and is, according to Republic editorialists, a "consensus-builder."
The increasing role of independent voters is a national trend that plays out strongly in the West. Statewide in Arizona, the percentage of voters declaring themselves independent has doubled over the last decade, to more than 26 percent. Other Western states show similar increases in independents and in party-flipping in the voting booths.
3) Westerners shouldn’t get too optimistic about change.
Some extremist and/or scandal-tainted Republicans won in the West, including Arizona’s Rep. Rick Renzi, reportedly under federal investigation for questionable land deals, and Idaho’s new Rep. Bill Sali, famously summed up by a centrist Republican Idaho legislator in this way: "That idiot is an absolute idiot." The paleo-wing of the Western GOP is by no means going to disappear.
Meanwhile, the inherent drawbacks of moderation will soon become obvious. As the newly elected centrists do what comes naturally to them — make compromises and stake out middle ground — they will waffle and sometimes abandon ambitious goals. That tendency to walk both sides of the fence shows in the policies of Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a moderate Democrat elected in 2004. Schweitzer has taken stands to protect the state’s rivers from pollution, but in his desire to boost the economy in eastern Montana, he’s also pushed a slew of fossil-fuel developments. Many of those projects promise low emissions (even if they’re based on unproven technology), but some — including a conventional coal-fired power plant in Great Falls — make no such promises. It’s just a fact: The Great Falls plant will spew out global-warming gases and mercury.
Under Schweitzer’s influence, the Montana Board of Environmental Review just set a mercury-emission standard that allows increased burning of the dirtiest coal. And his Department of Environmental Quality supports the burning of millions of tires and tons of lead-smelter slag in one cement-plant kiln, raising the hackles of environmentalists and many physicians in the nearby university town of Bozeman.
Schweitzer’s good reputation "is undeserved," says Anne Hedges, program director of the Montana Environmental Information Center, a group that focuses on state policies. "He’s worse on coal development than any Republican predecessor we can remember."
Arguably, Schweitzer’s policies are just a reflection of the lack of an overriding mandate from Western voters on the region’s signature issues. Exit polls say the war in Iraq and Republican congressional scandals persuaded Western independents and party-flippers to go Democratic. According to those polls, the environment and immigration were second-tier concerns for many voters. And unlike the Western congressional leaders in the 1960s and ’70s — including Arizona’s Rep. Mo Udall and Montana’s Mike Mansfield, the Senate majority leader for most of those years — the leaders of the new Congress have very little in the way of a track record indicating they’ll be champions in making new environmental law. Until now, of course, Reid and Pelosi lacked the power to make such a record, with anti-environmentalist Republicans in charge of Congress for most of the time since 1994. That lack of power has also obscured exactly what priorities the two leaders will set out in the next two years.
The new Congress will likely begin by tackling national issues that aren’t sure to draw a presidential veto — increasing the federal minimum wage, for instance, or allowing Medicare to negotiate with drug companies for lower prices. A few Western issues, such as an energy bill that favors wind and solar over drilling and mining, may also come to the fore. But with the next congressional election — and the race for the presidency — only two years away, the Democrats will be careful not to press too hard on "liberal" issues and risk losing their thin majority.
Westerners are likely to see congressional investigations and hearings that dig into the executive branch’s environmental actions in the region. Those probes will seek to expose how Bush appointees have pressured agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to serve industry at the expense of wildlife and air and water quality.
"The federal environmental agencies have been under siege for five years. The ability of Congress to access information, or at least have a public fight over access to information, will make a difference," says Jeff Ruch, head of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a Washington, D.C.-based group that represents federal agency staffers. "But Congress is not known for its investigative acumen. It excels in jowl-shaking and piling on, reacting to facts that have been developed elsewhere. The agency staffers will now have a lifeline to Congress; they’ll have the sense that there is a forum, even if it is an illusory sense.
"But we expect the siege to continue."
And it will, as long as George Bush holds the White House and controls the executive agencies that deal with the environment.