A fractured party

The Republican Party, struggling with infighting and lacking a coherent vision may find new life -- or self-destruction -- in the West's green politics

 

The old brick Bonneville County Courthouse, in Idaho Falls, Idaho, seems like a good place for a Republican Party love-in. After all, the Grand Old Party has a tighter grip on Idaho than on any other state. Republicans hold Idaho's seats in the U.S. Congress, the governorship and all other statewide offices, and 75 percent of the state Legislature. Visitors at the courthouse walk beneath a blazing, Statue-of-Libertyesque torch sculpted on a stone panel above the front door -- representing, perhaps, the Republicans' traditional conservative emphasis on personal freedom.

But when the local Republican hierarchy holds a meeting in a wood-paneled room inside the courthouse one evening in April, there's discernable tension among party members.

About 40 influential Republicans, including precinct bosses, fill the wooden benches. A woman stands and begins with a prayer, "Our Father in heaven, we bow our heads at the beginning of this Central Committee meeting ... please bless us that it will be handled with kindness and civility ... we pray for these things in the name of Jesus Christ."

After the collective "amen," speakers give updates on party business, one of them warning that Idaho must be kept out of the clutches of Democrat Barack Obama -- "the left-wing messiah." Then Republican candidates for various offices give speeches, describing their positions on hot-button issues, such as taxes and abortion. When a woman running for the Legislature says she's for abortion rights, the crowd kind of gasps quietly.

They relegate the most controversial candidate, Rex Rammell, to last. Undeterred, Rammell strides to the podium. He's a longtime Republican gadfly who makes his living as a farm veterinarian and is known for operating controversial elk farms, where he sold $5,000 canned hunts. He looks sharp, in gray hair and studious glasses, a silvery dress shirt and a burgundy-pattern necktie. "I'll be brief," Rammell begins, acknowledging the spirit of the opening prayer. "A lot of people in the Republican Party now consider me to be the anti-Christ."

That's only a bit over-the-top. Rammell is an anti-Republican Republican involved in a tangled race for an open seat in the U.S. Senate. Three-term Sen. Larry Craig is vacating the seat, amid charges that he solicited sex in a Minneapolis airport men's room. Idaho's top Republicans are trying to ease past that mess by anointing another of their own, Lt. Gov. Jim Risch, to take Craig's place. Rammell aims to sabotage all that. He's running for the Senate seat as an independent in the general election.

Rammell urges the crowd to ignore the "party elites" behind Risch. He says he's a better champion of Republican values. "I'm trying to help the conservative movement," he vows.

The conservative movement's relationship with another political force -- environmentalism -- also figures into the race. Risch and other Republican leaders support two compromise wilderness bills that Rammell opposes, for instance. Moreover, back in 2006, Risch made a bunch of green or semi-green moves filling in as Idaho's governor, when then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne was appointed secretary of Interior. Risch signed a law banning new coal-fired power plants, improved a deal for managing Idaho's 9 million acres of roadless national forest, and rejected the Bush administration's plan to increase mercury emissions in Idaho. And most famously, Risch followed the wishes of biologists and hunting groups, by ordering wildlife agents to execute dozens of domestic elk that escaped from Rammell's farm, to forestall the spread of disease to wild elk.

Risch's actions were far too green, and some were unconstitutional, Rammell says. Rammell fought elk farm regulations for many years, and says Risch drove him out of business. "I didn't like Jim Risch before he killed my elk," Rammell tells the crowd. "On public-land issues, he is more like (a Democrat) than I am."

A woman in the audience scolds Rammell for bashing a fellow Republican. But someone else says, let him do his thing.

Rammell is doing his thing big-time. He's poured more than $100,000 of his own money into his campaign, and is prepared to spend more. A Mormon, he predicts he'll win the votes of fellow Mormons -- a huge factor in Idaho. He's even charged, in the statewide daily paper, the Idaho Statesman, that Risch is a Catholic "panderer" out to steal Mormon votes.

Rammell says he can beat Risch. But he's open about a possibility that many Republicans fear: He might siphon away enough votes from Risch for the Democratic candidate, Larry LaRocco, to win the Senate seat.

Rammell warns the crowd, "I'm going to force the Republican (voters) to choose" -- either rally around him for his pure conservative principles, in enough numbers for him to beat Risch, or lose to the Democrat. As Rammell says, "I am an expression of the problems of the Republican Party."

That much is undeniable. The GOP has many Rex Rammells -- the hard-liners -- battling fellow Republicans who are at least somewhat moderate. They face off at the grassroots level from Montana to California, and up to the very top of the party's ticket, where John McCain -- another Western Republican who is not a purist -- needs the votes of a mix of right-wingers, moderates in both parties and independents to win the presidency.

The Republican divide goes much deeper than the internal warfare the Democrats suffered during their presidential primary. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton agree on most issues. Their competition was largely a matter of political style and ego.

In contrast, the Republicans struggle to figure out: What will their party stand for in the future, as they grope for success in a political climate that's generally turned against them? The West will provide some answers. And our region will once again influence the nation with our brand of the bloodiest sport: environmental politics.

The West played a key role in the formation of today's version of the Republican Party, and it will be equally important in deciding the party's future identity. And the environment is always one of the West's core issues, because the region is a treasure chest of natural resources, ranging from spectacular scenery and wilderness to coalbeds.

The environmental movement's grassroots surge in the 1960s and 1970s, from which the bulk of the federal environmental laws sprouted, was felt most powerfully in the West. State governments -- such as Oregon, Montana and California -- passed even tougher environmental laws during that era than the federal government did. Colorado voters, worried about environmental impacts, rejected the chance to host the 1976 Winter Olympics -- the only time any state has snubbed the games.

Then, as the new environmental laws began to take effect on federal and private lands, restricting livestock grazing and logging and other development, many Westerners began to resent it. Voters reacted with another regional trait -- libertarianism -- in the Sagebrush Rebellion beginning in the late 1970s, when, in mostly symbolic actions, many Western legislatures claimed authority over federal land. At the same time, libertarian think tanks and lawfirms sprouted throughout the West.

The Sagebrush Rebellion's top politician, former California Gov. Ronald Reagan, ran as a Rebel and got elected president in 1980. The Reaganites remade the Republican Party with a "fusion" strategy, melding the West's libertarians with the Southern-based Christian right and moderate Republicans everywhere who felt disenfranchised. They pushed one big policy idea: Government stinks, especially liberal government, which was often allied with environmentalists. That idea has had tremendous impact. Republicans in the White House, Congress and state governments have deregulated many industries since 1980 and made round after round of tax cuts, trying to limit government at all levels.

The League of Conservation Voters, based in Washington, D.C., rates members of Congress on their positions on environmental legislation. The ratings show that, during the late 1980s and 1990s, Republicans gained dominance in the West with anti-green candidates. Western Republican candidates who earned abysmal LCV ratings -- often as low as zero -- took at least three Senate seats and six House seats from Democrats who had high LCV ratings. The winning candidates owed some thanks to Democratic President Bill Clinton, who was then pushing his own round of federal environmental regulations.

But the Republicans' fusion, and their anti-regulation ideas, are under tremendous stress now. In a growing number of places in the West since 2000, voters have reacted to the oil and gas rush in the Rockies, and to other threats posed by development, population growth and climate change, by taking on a greenish hue. Democrats with high LCV ratings have taken three Senate seats and four House seats from anti-green Republicans (including the most powerful anti-green in Congress, Rep. Richard Pombo, in 2006). Greenish Democratic candidates have also won the governor's offices in seven of the 11 Western states, and helped the Dems gain control of the Colorado Legislature and one chamber of the Montana Legislature.

Many of those Democrats were elected with significant support from moderate Republican and independent voters who had become disgusted by the hard-line Republican stands. That's how Democratic legislators in Colorado came to represent at least six predominantly Republican districts, says Colorado State University political science professor John Straayer. "The most vocal, aggressive, hard-core, right-leaning elements took control of the Republican Party," Straayer says, "and that helps explain their minority status in Colorado now."

The Republican slippage, which includes losing control of Congress in 2006, has many causes. Various corruption scandals plague the party. And the Bush administration's approval ratings have plummeted thanks to what many see as incompetence on everything from Iraq to Hurricane Katrina to the economy and energy.

Many Republican leaders, pundits and other politicos say the party needs new ideas to get back on track. "The Bush years have become the great crisis of conservatism," says Allan Lichtman, a political historian at American University in Washington, D.C., and the author of a new book, White Protestant Nation: The Rise of the American Conservative Movement. In an interview, he says the party used to have more high-profile moderates -- including Idaho Sen. William Borah, who led the Republicans' progressive wing in the 1930s, and Oregon Sen. Bob Packwood, who held office from 1968 to 1995 and supported abortion rights, gun regulations and civil-rights laws. Once the party shifted to the right, many moderates got forced out. Now, Lichtman says, "The conservative movement is about to change (again). I don't know where it's going -- it's too soon to tell."

Another new book questioning today's Republican Party, Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again, comes from the guts of the party itself. The author, David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, says the public began shifting to the left in the 1990s, and now, "the country is changing, in ways deeply inhospitable to the Republican Party." The changes include an increasingly diverse population, racially and culturally, with fewer churchgoers. And Frum acknowledges that many of today's biggest problems -- the health-insurance crisis, climate change, and the economic squeeze on everyone who isn't rich -- require actions by competent government.

Frum understands the role of environmental politics and says Republicans should embrace conservation now, with policies that encourage energy efficiency and a carbon-emission tax on oil and coal -- with "every dime ... rebated back to the American people in the form of tax reductions to working parents and cuts on productive investments."

A growing number of the West's Republican office-holders, responding to their constituents, are already becoming greener. The Republican governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, is a leader in trying to address climate change, taking dramatic actions to limit the use of fossil fuels while aggressively boosting clean energy. Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. has also taken steps, albeit small ones, against climate change. Some Western Republicans in the House and Senate have begun to buck their party's leaders on environmental legislation. They include California's Rep. Mary Bono Mack of Palm Springs, whose League of Conservation Voters ratings have edged upward in the last three years, from 13 to 17 to 30, and Oregon's Sen. Gordon Smith, who voted with environmentalists 73 percent of the time in 2007 -- more than twice his average during the previous 10 years.

Washington's Rep. Dave Reichert, a Republican elected in 2004 by suburban Seattle voters, supported environmentalists' positions 85 percent of the time in 2007, twice as often as his previous record; he's proving to be far greener than many Democrats. Reichert has backed a couple of local wilderness bills, as well as national renewable energy requirements, tough reform of mining laws, and repeal of oil-industry subsidies. His Web site proclaims, "For too long Republicans have rejected environmentalism."

"In his first term, I think Reichert just followed the leadership of the party (reflexively opposing environmentalists)," says Jim DiPeso, policy director for Republicans for Environmental Protection, a national group based in Albuquerque, N.M. But in Reichert's second term, DiPeso says, "he's been doing his own thinking, and he understands his district better" -- it includes tech companies whose employees like outdoor recreation and wilderness. "Reichert also sees the unfavorable dynamics for Republicans in general. That's all caused him to move in a green direction," says DiPeso, who lives in the Seattle area. "Reichert has gotten crossways with some very powerful Republicans in Congress on environmental issues, and he's taken (green) stands anyway. He's walked the talk."

The Republican shift is more nuanced than is apparent in the LCV ratings. In Idaho's all-Republican delegation, both Sen. Mike Crapo and Rep. Mike Simpson have low LCV ratings, but for several years they've pushed the compromise-laden wilderness bills that Risch also supports, which would protect more than 800,000 acres of federal land. Wyoming surgeon John Barrasso, who was appointed last year to fill the Senate seat of the late Craig Thomas, has voted for oil-industry subsidies and against tougher fuel-efficiency standards on cars -- showing his roots in a major fossil-fuel-producing state. But Barrasso has also defied the Petroleum Association of Wyoming by pushing a bill to protect more than a million acres of the Wyoming Range from gas drilling. That bill is also supported by Wyoming's other Republican senator, Mike Enzi, who also has low LCV ratings.

Over the last half-decade some Republicans in the state legislatures of Wyoming, Colorado, Montana and New Mexico have pushed back against the oil and gas rush. They've worked with environmentalists to pass "split-estate" laws, giving landowners more power to negotiate with drillers who own mineral rights. And some Colorado legislators broke from the party's ranks to work with Democrats to pass a landmark 2007 law reforming the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission -- the state's chronically pro-industry regulator of drilling -- to force more attention to wildlife and other environmental concerns.

"We've lost in the West for the same reason we've lost nationally -- our ideas, our agenda, our vision are in full atrophy," says Josh Penry, a first-term Republican Colorado state senator, who represents areas of furious drilling on the Western Slope, where neighborhoods as well as wildlife feel the impacts. "We (Republicans) need to lead, with public policy solutions on relevant issues," Penry says.

Penry is conservative on many social and fiscal issues (he opposes abortion, for instance) but he's also brokered several deals with Democrats, including law that calls for more environmental protections where the drillers operate. While he doesn't want to impose risky financial burdens on the industry in a recession, philosophically he accepts the need for somewhat tougher regulations than the state has had until now. "The oil and gas industry is good for this state," he says. "We just need to figure out how to do it responsibly."

Stands like those show the increasing influence of hunters and anglers in the Republican Party. Many sportsmen and sportswomen are Republicans, and they worry that development of the West threatens the best hunting and fishing habitat. Recently they've helped form groups such as Sportsmen for the Wyoming Range and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, which work to protect habitat through ad campaigns, Web sites, lobbying and lawsuits. Chris Wood, a Trout Unlimited vice president in Washington, D.C., who's active in Western issues and supports green-leaning candidates in both parties, says, "There is a connection between the rise of more moderate Republican leaders and the rise of hunting and angling communities as a strong voice for conservation and habitat."

Thousands of the West's evangelicals, who've been in the Republican camp on social issues, also call for the greenward shift. They believe it's time to vote for preserving God's creation -- the planet's full community of species and ecosystems.

The West still has plenty of anti-green Republicans. They include the majority of both the Arizona and Utah legislatures, some congressmen representing libertarian-leaning districts in California, and the subset of Republican legislators who insist that no action should be taken on climate change because all of that science is a leftwing conspiracy. Some Montana Republicans have formed a new group, the Western Tradition Partnership, devoted to stopping "radical environmentalists." In May, they sent a letter to 5,000 business people, complaining that "the anti-development/anti-growth crowd controls the governor's mansion" and the state Senate, as well as many county and city governments. Their enemies include moderate Republican officials who are trying to pass land-use planning regulations.

The struggles between the anti-greens and other Republicans come to the foreground in an election year like this most notably during the primaries and caucuses. Take Arizona, where the party is divided over a race for the Arizona Corporation Commission, the state body that regulates utilities. In 2006, the commissioners -- all Republicans -- voted 4-to-1 to impose notable solar power requirements: Most Arizona utilities must get 15 percent of their energy from renewables by 2025, and one third of that (5 percent) must come from rooftop photovoltaic systems. "No state has a solar rooftop carve-out that is so ambitious," says Kris Mayes, one of the commissioners who voted for it. Consumers will pay a small surcharge -- $1.35 per month on average -- and utilities will use that money to offer incentives to people who install rooftop solar.

"We just finished the implementation plans, and the utilities will have to go from doing hundreds of solar rooftops to doing tens of thousands," Mayes says. It'll be good for the environment and it'll encourage developers of solar generating stations and manufacturers of solar equipment to locate in Arizona, she adds.

Three of the five Arizona Corporation Commission seats are up for grabs this year. Of the eight Republican candidates running in the Sept. 2 primary for those seats, at least three are libertarians who vow to undo the renewable energy requirements. Other Republican candidates like the regulations. "I think it's political suicide for them to (oppose the regulations)," says Mayes, whose term isn't up for re-election this year. "The vast majority of Arizonans, in both political parties, support doing more renewable energy." Despite that public sentiment, the anti-solar candidates might end up winning, because many voters ignore primaries, in effect ceding that round to the hard-liners. If the hard-liners do win, Mayes says, "it wouldn't be good for Arizona, and wouldn't be good for the Republican Party." At the same time, that Republican infighting could help Democratic candidates win commission seats.

Among the important Republican primaries this year, one in Wyoming stands out. Barbara Cubin has represented Wyoming in Congress since 1995. Cubin has been an all-around right-winger, earning a "zero" rating from the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and abortion-rights groups. She's also taken anti-environmentalist stands whenever possible. But after nearly losing the seat to a green Democratic challenger, Gary Trauner, in 2006, she's decided not to run for re-election.

Four Republican candidates will compete in the Aug. 19 primary to represent the party against the Democratic candidate -- most likely Trauner -- in the November general election. One of the Republicans fits the theme of change: Mark Gordon.

Politically, Gordon is at home in several cultures -- ranching, Republicanism, and the environmental movement. (He prefers the less controversial term "conservation movement.") His family's roots and wealth originated back East, but he grew up on his father's cattle ranch near Kaycee. At age 51, he's out on the range in all weather running his own ranch plus other spreads, and he's helped several young ranchers get started. He was elected by Sierra Club members to serve on that group's national board of directors in the late 1980s and early 1990s, briefly served on the board of directors of High Country News, and has held seats on the boards of The Nature Conservancy's Wyoming chapter and other nonprofits. He has a history of donating to Republican candidates, but at times he's also donated to Democratic candidates, as well as to the Sierra Club political action committee.

"I've been a registered Republican since I was 18 years old," Gordon says. "I've always believed in limited government and the individual ... that means both opportunity and responsibility. I believe in the U.S. Constitution," including its "checks and balances -- a strong two-party system." He's supported the Sierra Club occasionally, he says, "because I also believe very strongly in conservation -- another core principle of the Republican Party," dating back to President Theodore Roosevelt's backing for early national parks and forests.

"The Republican Party has gotten off the track" recently, and so has the Sierra Club, Gordon says: The party has largely abandoned conservation, while the Sierra Club has turned against Republican ranchers like him. Ranchers using intensive grazing management -- the "holistic" approach -- can be good stewards of public as well as private lands, he says. The modern Sierra Club "is more ideological -- not talking about management (of grazing), but talking about getting cows off public lands. ... There's been an incredible retrenchment on both sides."

Gordon is low-key, soft-spoken, not a career politician, not an insider. He says he's "developing positions on issues I think are critical for the West," and some of his moderation can be heard in his tone of voice -- he doesn't hurl insults and denounce enemies. He wants to reduce the angry rhetoric. "Now it's all about destroying the opposition. It's not about a healthy dialogue. It's not in the interests of the country."

Gordon is no green-torch liberal. He hasn't taken specific positions on the natural gas rush and how it might be managed better in Wyoming. He has old friends in the industry, and says he's for "thoughtful, responsible" drilling. Nevertheless, some of the right-wing opposition seeks to bring him down by publicizing his links to the Sierra Club and donations to Democrats. One flier charges that he's "more at home with the liberal Hollywood crowd than at home on the range with Wyoming Republicans!"

Gordon has already put about $300,000 of his own money into his campaign, traveling around the state introducing himself, and running TV ads portraying his ranching background. He's reportedly willing to put up nearly $1 million total, and his backers -- including some in oil and gas -- have already donated about $100,000. Those are big numbers in Wyoming.

Such races have ironic aspects. With his promises to be more "thoughtful" on environmental and energy issues, Gordon would arguably have the best chance of winning the general election against Trauner, because the Democrat would no longer have a monopoly on the green politics. The Republicans need every angle they can muster to hold the seat. Trauner lost by only 1,000 votes when he faced Cubin in 2006, and he looks more formidable this year: His campaign war chest already tops $600,000, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign has him on its "Red-to-Blue campaign," raising money for him nationwide.

The Wyoming race also includes an official Libertarian Party candidate, who will siphon off a few votes from the Republican Party. Wyoming's hard-line Republicans are not surrendering. Instead, they're digging in, particularly on the environment. At the party's state convention in May, they inserted several blatantly anti-green positions into the party's platform, even opposing a popular wild and scenic river bill that both of Wyoming's Republican senators support. Wyoming's statewide daily, the Casper Star-Tribune, says in an editorial, "Rank-and-file Republicans in Wyoming need to ask themselves why their party (fights) against legislation that would benefit so many interests in this state."

Psychologically, the Republicans were emboldened by their juggernaut run of successes, and then stunned by the recent sudden losses. They're shooting off in all directions trying to get back on track, and looking for people within their own party to blame. They battle each other over a slew of issues -- even whether to abolish the federal income tax and the Federal Reserve system, the basis for dollars. (Some Western Republicans have overcome moderates to put those demands in state party platforms.)

Their lack of unity puts a lot more races in play. Environment-minded voters have the most influence when elections are decided by close margins, and that's the kind of era we're in now. "People cast their votes thinking about many different things" -- including the economy and the war -- "but this year they're also going to be thinking about the environment, particularly climate change and the flip side, energy. It's finally hit home. There is a growing awareness that we're in trouble," says John Osborn, a Spokane physician who's a Sierra Club representative. "People are correctly facing up to the diagnosis. It's a very difficult diagnosis and has consequences far into the future."

Even amid the worry about economic recession and energy prices, green issues will probably figure into Republicans losing a Senate seat in New Mexico (the oil and gas rush), a House seat in northern Arizona (uranium mining proposed near the Grand Canyon), and maybe a House and/or a Senate seat in Colorado (the oil and gas rush) in the November election -- because the party's candidates are simply not responsive to those concerns.

The Republican Party has the same dilemma at the top. John McCain locked up the Republican presidential primary largely because he appeals to moderate voters, and McCain's signature issue is climate change: He's been the most prominent Republican calling for action on the biggest environmental issue. Martha Marks, head of Republicans for Environmental Protection, says, "We look at McCain as an agent that could help do wh

at we've been trying to do for a long time -- begin to turn the Republican Party around on conservation issues."

Yet in McCain's 25 years in the Senate and House of Representatives, he's voted for environmentalists' positions only 24 percent of the time, according to the League of Conservation Voters (far less than Obama's 86 percent rating, which is based on only a few years in the Senate). That's why the Sierra Club and some other environmental groups oppose McCain in the presidential race. And in the weeks since McCain secured the nomination, he's made noticeable moves to appeal to Republican hard-liners -- calling for more offshore drilling, and tax cuts on gasoline sales, for instance. Such moves turn off moderate voters, and undermine his stance on climate change.

And many hard-liners still won't accept McCain -- McCain's own mother says they'll only vote for him while "holding their nose." Libertarians, who have their strongest camps in the West, are threatening to disrupt McCain's celebration at the Republicans' national convention in September, frustrated that their Republican candidate -- Ron Paul -- didn't win the nomination. They're also threatening to either shift their votes to the Libertarian Party's obscure presidential candidate, Bob Barr, or boycott the November election altogether.

In Idaho, during the Republicans' state convention in June, the Paul backers joined with Christian social conservatives to overthrow the state party chairman, Kirk Sullivan, even though his leadership helped the party gain its lock on Idaho politics. They think Sullivan is too moderate, and so they've installed a more hard-line chairman. The alliance seems temporary, though -- the two camps really don't go together, because one is all about personal freedom and the other believes in restricting personal freedom.

Rex Rammell is raising his rebellious profile by driving around Idaho in his campaign headquarters, a Moby Dick RV painted with his picture and slogans. He attacks Risch on many issues and runs TV ads portraying the Republican leadership in Congress as a butt-picking monkey. After his speech at the Idaho Falls Republican Central Committee meeting, he slips on a stylish black leather jacket and circulates through the crowd, doing person-to-person politics, which he's pretty good at. Many in the crowd shake his hand. "Good luck to you," one man offers.

Risch, the Republican politician that 47-year-old Rammell wants to vanquish, is 70. Risch was a fire-breathing hard-liner decades ago in his early years in the Idaho Legislature, but gradually he changed. During his stint as governor in 2006, he helped persuade Idaho voters to reject a libertarian ballot measure that would've stalled land-use planning in the state. His college degree in forestry helped him sort out the conflicting interests on roadless forests, to reach a compromise that some environmentalists like and some don't.

How fractured does it get? Risch beat seven other Republicans running in the primary for the open Senate seat. In the general election, Risch will have to beat not only Rammell and Democrat LaRocco -- a political veteran who won an Idaho House seat in the early 1990s -- but also two other candidates: Kent Marmon, who was a Republican but just defected formally to the Libertarian Party, and a guy running as an independent who changed his name to "Pro-Life" to siphon off anti-abortion votes.

If Risch wins the seat, no doubt he'll look after the interests of Idaho's farm irrigators, who compete with salmon for river water, and of ranchers fighting hard-line environmentalists over public land. He'll represent the mega-dairies and the nuclear industry that's headquartered in Idaho Falls. But his record indicates that he'll also listen to many other people, including environmentalists, and do his best to look for common ground. Chances are, he'll be far more moderate than his predecessor, Larry Craig, ever was.

"Larry Craig built a career on maintaining the status quo," says Rick Johnson, head of the state's biggest environmental group, the Idaho Conservation League. "Jim Risch still represents the (traditional) interests, but he is definitely looking forward," taking into account Idaho's changing electorate, which includes both newcomers and old-timers who want more effort put into protecting wilderness and the air and water quality. "He's pragmatic," says Republican state Sen. Brad Little, another former High Country News board member, who is helping to run Risch's campaign. "There are some things he won't compromise on, but he knows gridlock is not conducive to quality of life for his constituents."

Rammell and Marmon "are playing the spoilers" -- if they siphon off "5,000 Republican votes here, and 5,000 votes there, it could add up to real numbers" and throw the race to the Democrat, Little says. "It motivates us to work harder" for Risch's campaign.

"Excellent job tonight," a woman in the Idaho Falls crowd tells Rammell as she shakes his hand. Rammell points to another man, and says that through his own work as a veterinarian, "I saved his prize horse." There are other signs that Rammell has support around southeast Idaho. Prosecutors dragged him into two trials in local courtrooms, on minor criminal charges stemming from interactions with state wildlife agents who killed his escaped elk, and in both cases, the juries -- composed of local voters -- quickly found him not guilty. Rammell sums up the spirit of many of today's Republican-versus-Republican battles, when he says, "There's going to be bombs going off" in the final lap for the Senate seat. "When the smoke clears," he predicts, "I'll be the only one standing."

Ray Ring is HCN senior editor.