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If this year's political fury was fueled by the bad economy, then folks in the Navajo Nation's Hardrock Chapter should be angrier than most. More than half of the people on this wind-battered patch of Arizona, south of Black Mesa, live in poverty. Many of the modest homes lack adequate plumbing or electricity, even the ones right next to the coal plants' long-distance high-voltage power lines, which sag elegantly between huge towers that resemble skeletons of Ye'iitsoh, the Big Giant from the Navajo creation story.
Nevertheless, civility reigned at a forum here for Navajo presidential candidates, a few weeks before the election. There were no Tea Party flare-ups, no placards denouncing anyone as a socialist or dead Nazi dictator. No one questioned whether either candidate was, in fact, a Navajo.
The Navajo presidential candidates -- Lynda Lovejoy, a New Mexico state senator, and incumbent Navajo Vice President Ben Shelly -- stuck to issues: the pros and cons of coal, renewable energy, alcohol problems and copyright laws. (The Native American art and jewelry market is rife with fakes.) It was a refreshing departure from the ugliness that has infused recent U.S. politics.
But meanwhile, over in Window Rock -- the tribal capital -- all hell was breaking loose. The Navajo Supreme Court, enforcing a voter-approved ballot measure, had ordered that the tribal council be reduced from 88 delegates to 24, so the entire legislative branch was also up for grabs. Shortly before the election, 77 of the delegates, along with Shelly, were charged with crimes ranging from forgery to fraud, mostly involving the alleged misuse of tribal money. The Navajo Supreme Court disbarred the tribal council's attorney for giving his client advice that the court didn't like. And Lovejoy filed ethics complaints against Shelly for accepting $10,000 from the United Mine Workers of America.
In other words, even Navajo politics weren't immune to the nationwide turmoil. Yet there was definitely a Western character to the tribe's elections. Lovejoy hoped to make history as the first woman to lead the Navajo Nation, and her running mate, Earl Tulley, hoped to be the first environmentalist on the winning ticket. (He co-founded an activist group called Dine CARE in 1988.) But it was Shelly who ended up making history: He became the first Navajo elected tribal president while under criminal indictment.
On election night, a man named Thomas Begay wandered around Shelly's noticeably subdued campaign headquarters. When the Navajo Times asked him what he thought, his answer echoed voters across the West: "This has been a very weird election."
Indeed. If there was a takeaway from this year's elections, it's that the Western electorate is in a state of flux, still trying to define itself. We're Republican majorities in many places, and then we're not, and then we are again. We're moderate, except when we're extreme, or don't give a damn. We are, well, just a little bit weird out here. High Country News took a closer look at the weirdness, and here are a few of the major trends, or anti-trends, if you will, that we noticed.
The West: A region apart
As Election Day loomed, much of the nation's attention turned westward, to the key Senate races in Nevada, Washington and Colorado. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's seat in Nevada was especially coveted; a Reid defeat would have dealt a symbolic -- and literal -- blow to Democrats nationwide, and his opponent, Sharron Angle, had become a major proxy of the Tea Party/Sarah Palin revolution. Right after her unexpected victory in the Republican primary, Angle appeared too extreme for the electorate, and early polls reflected that perception. But gobs of money poured into the state -- Angle had a multimillion-dollar late fund-raising surge -- and the voters were bombarded with attack ads on behalf of both candidates. As the race tightened, the state's biggest newspaper, the right-wing Las Vegas Review-Journal, hammered relentlessly on Reid, including a final anti-Reid editorial on Election Day -- a last-minute barrage that many newspaper editors would have avoided.
In spite of Vegas' glitter, however, Nevadans, like many Westerners, are pragmatic folks: A majority went for Reid -- surprising many national pundits. Reid is no rock star, but he is the son of a Nevada hardrock miner and fought some rounds in actual boxing rings. He has a record of getting things done for Nevadans, including his successful opposition to storing nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain (which pleased environmentalists) as well as his repeated blocking of mining reforms (which pleased almost everyone else; Nevada is the top gold-producing state). His broad appeal showed in endorsements from the Sierra Club, many state Republican leaders and even the Nevada Mining Association, in stark contrast to his more polarizing opponent.
Reid's victory -- along with the narrow wins of Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet in Colorado and Patty Murray in Washington, and Reps. Raúl Grijalva and Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona -- was more than a bright spot for his beleaguered party. It proved once again that Westerners often value results over ideology and think -- and act -- independently of national trends and the predictions of polls and pundits.
That independence is also evident in the West's lukewarm reception of Tea Party candidates. Sarah Palin endorsed a total of 18 candidates in primaries and the general election in 12 Western states including Alaska; only five had prevailed as this magazine went to the printer (Alaska's Senate race was still not decided). Even a few hard-right Republicans, such as Dino Rossi, who lost to Murray in Washington, and Scott Tipton, who upset Democratic Rep. John Salazar in Colorado, seemed to shy away from the Tea Party's embrace.
In the Colorado governor's race, two candidates in the general election -- Republican Dan Maes and American Constitution Partier Tom Tancredo -- vied for the Tea Party label. Both lost handily to Democrat John Hickenlooper. Seems it isn't yet Tea time in much of the West.