One needn't go far to hear how the gun-slingin' and moose-eatin' vice presidential pick of John McCain is going to snowmobile to victory this November on the backs of rural Western voters. She is a member of the National Rifle Association, grew up in the West and likes to fish and hunt. So, a lot of pundits think that us rural Westerners can't resist the idea that maybe someone just like us will be in the White House. And that's just what McCain needs to pick up pluralities in battleground states like Montana, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico.
In spite of McCain's jump in the Western polls, however, it's not yet safe to say that the Palin effect will hold. In fact, many Republicans in these parts may ultimately vote against Palin.
It helps to understand that the myth of the West as a conservative stronghold is just that -- a myth. Over the decades we've gone from blue, to red, to blue and back again. FDR and Truman swept most of the region; but so did Eisenhower. Reagan dominated the West; but so did Clinton. Our historical voting record is distinguished more by our moderation than by party affiliation or ideology.
That moderation started eroding sometime in the 1980s, when a hard-line, evangelical strain seeped into the region's GOP. The Christian right organization, Focus on the Family, set up camp in Colorado in 1991, for example; a year later, the state's voters fell for an anti-gay ballot measure. And as these conservative transplants reshaped the state's GOP to fit their Christian ideologies, many moderates were turned off.
When George W. Bush took office, the fissure in the party grew into a chasm. W. likes to govern from the gut, with the help of God. In contrast, party old-timers value personal liberty and Western landscapes more than religion. As such, many Western Republicans have felt battered by their own party in recent years. The drilling boom has soiled their backyards and ranches, along with their favorite hunting and fishing spots. The Patriot Act rubbed Westerners the wrong way because it eroded civil liberties. And the evangelical Christian tendency to use government to force its ideology on others is an assault on the Western ideal of governmental non-interference. Even the Iraq War doesn't fly with all old-time Western Republicans, who tend towards isolationism (anti-war Republican Ron Paul beat McCain in caucuses and primaries in Nevada, Alaska and Montana).
In response, many Western conservatives have risen up in rebellion. Hunters and anglers and "Roosevelt" Republicans have joined forces with environmentalists to push the energy industry to operate more responsibly. According to a recent poll, 70 percent of hunters and anglers think the country is on the wrong track when it comes to meeting energy needs. Three-fourths of respondents agreed that "we have a moral responsibility to confront global warming," and about half said that conservation is as important as gun rights.
The rebellion's not limited to Colorado. Take Walt Gasson, a Republican and Wyoming native who recently said: "Not a week goes by now that I don't hear from someone in that redneck, red-state homeland of mine about some place that's lost -- a place to fish, a place to hunt, a place to camp -- that's been converted to an industrial zone."
It's into this beehive that Palin has stumbled. She may talk an independent streak, but she doesn't walk it. Instead, she seems cut from the same mold as W. Bush: She relies on prayer to get pipelines built that bolster her state's status as an energy colony; she has said humans have nothing to do with global warming; and she seems to have no qualms about mingling evangelical Christianity with politics, going so far as to imply that the Iraq War is a holy battle.
McCain may have once appealed to old-school Western Republicans. He was independent, a "straight-talker" who was willing to cross party lines -- a maverick, if you will. But he has slid to the right and away from the West, a slide that was confirmed -- not reversed -- by the Palin pick. Impulsiveness does not a maverick make.
If I'm right about one thing -- that Westerners think with their brains and not with their guns -- then they won't fall for this trick. After all, we've already been down this road – twice -- with our current vice president.
You can put lipstick on Dick Cheney, but if voters pick McCain and Palin, we're still going to have a drill-happy, gun-slingin', hard-liner, rural Western vice president with ties to the oil industry in the White House. And the results, I suspect, will be the same.
Jonathan Thompson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org) which he edits in Paonia, Colorado.