The West comes closer to speaking with a regional voice

 

Recent developments have given new impetus to the idea of a coordinated Rocky Mountain West presidential primary in 2008.

Utah Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman has asked that state's Legislature to set aside $850,000 to enable Utah to hold an early presidential preference primary. Meanwhile, a special commission of the Democratic National Committee has recommended changes in that party's rules that could let one state from our region hold a caucus before the New Hampshire primary, and possibly allow several other states to cluster primaries or caucuses soon after New Hampshire.

When it was last floated in the 2000 election cycle, the idea of a regional primary attracted only three states. But a lot has happened since then, and the feel of this effort is entirely different from the previous one.

One difference is simply that many more Westerners are now aware of the possibility of a regional primary. That awareness is enhanced by a steady growth in the number and variety of regional institutions and communication channels. Regional war horses like High Country News have been supplemented by on-line regional news services like the New West Network and Headwaters News. Colorado College's "State of the Rockies Report Card" will contain a section on the regional primary idea in its next issue, while the University of Utah's Center for Public Policy and Administration is planning a fall 2006 conference on the regional primary.

As a regional primary becomes more of a possibility, personal, partisan and parochial motivations show up on both sides of the debate. Two Western governors who are providing leadership to create a regional primary — Jon Huntsman, R-Utah, and Bill Richardson, D-N.M. — each have fairly transparent motivations. If Richardson runs for president, an early Western primary would very likely give him a boost, while Huntsman's enthusiasm is widely seen against the background of Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's expected strength in Mormon country. Huntsman reveals an even more parochial interest when he speaks of the boost a regional primary might give to Utah's economy.

Those who oppose or question a regional primary often express equally narrow interests. The chair of the Arizona Republican Party, for example, says that Arizona has attracted national attention by scheduling its primary early, and he's afraid that advantage will be lost if other Western states move to the same date. Across the aisle, some Western Democrats are lukewarm about a regional primary because they would prefer to keep national Democrats as far away from the region as possible, on the not-unreasonable grounds that they tend to hurt more than help local Democrats.

Such special-interest concerns are unavoidable in something as intensely political as a regional primary. But unless real regional concerns are also at work, a regional primary would hardly be worth the effort. Now, broader interests do seem very much in play.

There is a growing awareness across the West that it's really as a region that we're growing, as a region that our economy is being transformed, and it's increasingly as a region, not simply state by state, that we have the opportunity to secure our competitive advantage in the global economy.

To do that, the West needs a stronger and clearer voice in national councils. Education, for example, is too important to our regional economy for us to allow the enactment of any more half-baked No Child Left Behind Acts. Public lands, energy development, immigration, housing and transportation — all of these issues deeply affect the fortunes of the emerging West and cry out for us to develop an effective regional voice.

A regional primary is only one mechanism for achieving that regional leverage. At some point, the region needs to recall that the Senate is where we have always had real power. A bipartisan Rocky Mountain Senate caucus would be a natural and welcome outgrowth of the deepening of regional consciousness.

Meanwhile, the spotlight is on the presidential nomination process, and the West has an opportunity here that should not be missed. At a minimum, we should be discussing whether a coordinated regional primary or caucus is a good idea; if so, what form it should take; and finally, which issues the West wants presidential candidates to address.

The more discussion we can generate online, at meetings, and on the region's opinion pages, the more likely we are to choose our course wisely and to make a difference in the long run.

Daniel Kemmis, a senior fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West, is the author of This Sovereign Land: A New Vision for Governing the West. He lives in Missoula, Montana.