8) The needy are hot.
Ballot measures to raise the state minimum wage passed by wide margins everywhere they were attempted in the West: Arizona, Colorado, Montana and Nevada. (California, Washington and Oregon have already set higher minimums.)
Also in this election, voters in California and New Mexico OK’d measures to get their states more involved in funding affordable housing projects. New Mexicans approved state funding for senior facilities. And 78 percent of Oregon voters approved Measure 44, which lets people without health insurance get cheaper prescription drugs through a prescription program for state workers.
More than a million Oregonians — including 116,000 children, seniors and people with mental illnesses — don’t have insurance for medications, says Sarah Stephan, a spokeswoman for the Measure 44 campaign. Under Measure 44, people will be able to save as much as 60 percent on the cost of medications through the large-group purchasing power of the state program. "We have the ability to negotiate directly with pharmaceutical manufacturers and big pharmacies on the prices of more than 9,000 drugs, and it doesn’t cost the taxpayer a single penny," she says. The Oregon program is a contrast to the Medicare drug coverage recently passed by the Republican Congress, which forbids Medicare from negotiating lower prices. "Oregon’s solution," Stephan avers, "is what the federal government should’ve done a long time ago."
Even in Utah, there are movements to raise the minimum wage and expand Medicaid coverage for low-income people. In fact, polls show most Utahans want Medicare to pay for eyeglasses and dental work.
9) Money doesn’t always win, but it’s nice to have.
Oregon Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski was outspent, 2-to-1, in his try for re-election but still crushed his Republican challenger, Ron Saxton.
In Montana, ousted incumbent Burns outspent Tester by nearly 2-to-1.
In Arizona, incumbent Hayworth also outspent his vanquisher, Mitchell, by a large margin.
Cigarette corporations and their allies burned way more money than their opponents as they tried to defeat anti-smoking measures in Arizona and Nevada. The corporations lost.
Still, in most campaigns, either the richest war chest won, or the winner had about the same amount as the loser. And the price of winning or being competitive often set new records.
Consider Hollywood producer and real estate heir Steven Bing. He put about $50 million of his own money into a ballot measure that sought to impose a new tax on California oil companies; proceeds from the tax would’ve funded alternative energy development. Other entrepreneurs, including the founders of Google, chipped in enough to bring the total campaign budget to nearly $57 million. But they provoked corporate giants: Oil companies poured in $90 million, and eventually about 55 percent of the voters decided to reject the measure. It was the most expensive ballot-measure war ever in California (and probably anywhere else on the planet).
In a similar vein, tobacco companies fought off an anti-smoking measure in California by outspending health-care advocates, $60 million to $14 million. The archconservative national Club for Growth dispatched more than $1 million for attack ads used in Bill Sali’s winning campaign in Idaho; the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee sent more than half a million and national anti-abortion groups gave $64,000, according to Sali’s opponents. Thanks to the money from outside Idaho, they say, Sali ran the priciest congressional campaign in the state’s history.
10) Western voters may be better at "the vision thing" than their national leaders.
Closest to the ground where the effects are noticed, voters continued a trend by agreeing to new local taxes to buy open space, parks, streamside habitat and trails in communities across the political and cultural spectrum (so long as local economies were healthy).
Conservation measures passed in metro Portland and Salt Lake City, in suburban Seattle, in Democratic Missoula County and Republican Ravalli County in Montana, and in many other Western locales.
"Westerners have awakened to the fact that we are environmentalists," says Pat Williams, a Democratic congressman in Montana from 1979 to 1997 and now a senior fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Missoula. "That’s one of the things that has begun to turn the West politically."
When it comes to environmental issues, Williams says, many of the Westerners in Congress need to catch up with the people who sent them there. If or when voters make it absolutely clear the environment is a priority that their national leaders absolutely need to address, the West will have finally settled on a part of the cohesive political identity that will bring it lasting national clout.
Ray Ring is Northern Rockies editor for High Country News.
Ray Ring offers a state-by-state summary of some of the more intriguing election results across the West.