Election roundup: What happened in the West

A rundown of the West’s political shifts and ballot measures.


Big-ticket issues — from marijuana legalization to healthcare, carbon taxes to minimum wage — and key House and Senate races took center stage on Western state ballots this election. The region didn’t purple as much as HCN predicted and Republicans gained control of the Senate and House. But other critical shifts in state laws, local elections, and voter turnout also occurred on Election Day.

The Senate

There are now four women of color in the Senate – three of them were elected on Tuesday in Nevada, California and Illinois in historic wins for women and minorities. California Attorney General Kamala Harris D-Calif., who identifies as black and Indian American, beat Democrat Loretta Sanchez, who is Latina. Harris is the first Indian American elected to the Senate and the first black female senator to represent California. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., who is Latina, won the seat of retiring Harry Reid by beating Republican Rep. Joe Heck. Cortez Masto is the first Hispanic woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate.

Republican Sen. John McCain retained his seat in Arizona, defeating Ann Kirkpatrick. And in Utah, Republican Sen. Mike Lee defeated Misty Snow, the state’s first transgender candidate.

Kamala Harris, the first black female senator elected since 1993, on the campaign trail in California.
Kamala Harris for US Senate


Denise Juneau, D-Mont., who hoped to be the first Native American woman in Congress, lost the race against Republican incumbent Ryan Zinke. Democrat Tom O’Halleran took over Ann Kirkpatrick’s seat in Arizona’s First Congressional District, defeating Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu. In Colorado, Democrats hoped to turn Rep. Mike Coffman’s seat blue with increased Hispanic turnout in Congressional District 6, but that didn’t happen: Coffman beat Democrat Morgan Carroll. Misty Plowright, a transgender candidate, lost to Republican incumbent Doug Lamborn in Colorado’s fifth congressional district. In Utah, Republican Rep. Mia Love, will serve a second term.

State and local elections

After a 24-year reign, Joe Arpaio lost the bid for his seventh term as sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona. Arpaio was infamous for his hard-line stance on immigration, and his loss was a sign of the demographic shift in Arizona, which had a higher turnout of Latino voters than in previous elections.

For the first time in decades, the GOP gained control of the Montana Land Board by securing four of five seats. The board generates education funding for leasing land for uses like farming, oil and gas, ranching and timber harvest, and also manages access for recreation, hunting and fishing.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock was re-elected for a second term, securing the Democratic hold on the seat. Kate Brown, Oregon’s first openly LGBT governor, won her seat. She was the incumbent – Brown stepped in when Gov. John Kitzhaber resigned in February 2015 over allegations of the role his fiancée played in his administration—but she was running for election for the first time.

Ballot measures

In October, HCN covered the major voter-driven ballot measures this election. Here’s how they played out at the polls:

Marijuana legalization

This election, five states voted on recreational marijuana use, and four voted on medical use. Arizona was the only one to strike down recreational marijuana, by a thin margin – 52 to 48 percent. California, Nevada, Massachusetts, and Maine all passed recreational use, joining four other states and D.C., where it’s been legalized (Colorado and Washington were the first in 2012). Montana, North Dakota, Florida and Arkansas all approved medical marijuana use, which means 28 states and D.C. have legalized it. 

Minimum Wage

Arizona, Colorado and Washington all had minimum wage hikes on the ballot, and all three were approved. Colorado’s will increase from $8.31 to $9.30 an hour by Jan. 1, and to $12 by 2020; Arizona’s will be $10 next year and $12 by 2020; Washington will increase wages to $13.50 by 2020.


Colorado struck down a statewide healthcare system that would have added a 10 percent payroll tax. It approved Proposition 106, which allows terminally ill patients to take their own lives with doctor-prescribed medication. Three other Western states, California, Oregon and Washington, as well as Vermont, have right-to-die laws, and Montana decides each case with a court decision.


Oregon voted to ban trade in exotic animal parts from 12 species – including rhinos, tigers and elephants – within state boundaries. Voters in Montana rejected an animal trapping ban on public lands in the state.


Washington rejected the nation’s first carbon tax, which was criticized by environmentalists and the fossil fuel industry. It would have put a $25 per ton tax on carbon emissions and used the revenue to cut sales and business taxes. Monterey Co., Calif. became the state’s sixth county – and first oil-producing one, as it produces 4 percent of California’s oil—to ban fracking and new oil well drilling.


Oregon voters approved a measure to allocate funds for outdoor education. The money will go to the Outdoor School, a program that allows middle school students to participate in camps all over the state, and any leftover funds will help other outdoor initiatives for fifth and sixth graders.

California: gun control, taxes and more

With 18 measures on the ballot, Californians had a lot to vote on. They approved a gun control measure that bans large-capacity ammunition magazines and requires background checks for ammunition purchases, increased the cigarette tax by $2.00 a pack, and preserved the requirement that public schools must ensure students become proficient in English. The state voted not to repeal the death penalty and rejected a measure to require condoms in pornographic films.

Note: This story was corrected to reflect that both California Senate candidates, Kamala Harris and Loretta Sanchez, are Democrats. 

Lyndsey Gilpin is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets

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