What if the Western Republican Leadership Conference sponsored a debate in the West for Republican presidential candidates, with audience members all from the West, and they never got around to talking about Western issues?
That's pretty much what happened on Oct. 18 in Las Vegas in a contenders' debate co-sponsored by CNN, which also broadcast it to a national audience. The only two genuine Western candidates were not on the stage. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman decided to skip the debate because he wanted Nevada to move its caucus date back so it wouldn't jeopardize New Hampshire's traditional primacy in such matters. And former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, whose showing in the polls couldn't be much worse than Huntsman's, wasn't even invited to participate.
On stage were Michele Bachman of Minnesota, Georgians Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich, Texans Ron Paul and Rick Perry, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts. In other words, the Old Confederacy had more representation than the American West.
Two major issues in the West are water development and public lands, and they're related. Most of the West is too dry for profitable agriculture without irrigation; hence, much of the West remained in federal hands rather than being taken up by homesteaders or otherwise transferred to private ownership.
So you'd think there might be a question or two for the candidates about the 1922 Colorado River Compact -- a seven-state agreement that has held up for nearly 90 years, but is getting a little frayed because it overestimated the river's average annual flow. Might this be time to take another look at it, or should it be left alone?
And what of all those schemes that the Bureau of Reclamation floated years ago to import water from the Pacific Northwest, or even Canada? Did the era of big water projects die when Glen Canyon Dam began generating electricity in 1964?
The answers to such questions, whether we liked them or not, would give us some idea of how much thought the candidates have applied to water in the West -- always a major issue if you live here, and one the federal government has been intimately involved with since the creation of the Reclamation Service (now the Bureau of Reclamation) in 1902.
Once the candidates answered a few questions about the federal government's role in Western water, the conversation could have moved to a drier topic: public land.
For instance, all the Republican candidates would like to have some Tea Party support, and certain Tea Party types in the West -- some of them doubtless the same folks who were trying to generate a “Sagebrush Rebellion” a generation ago -- have said there is way too much federal land. So would you support selling some of it off, and if so, to whom and under what circumstances? Or would you prefer to transfer it to state control, and let the states manage it or dispose of it as they see fit?
And how do you feel about various travel restrictions imposed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management? Are these some of the “job-killing regulations” you often complain about, because these rules might lead to fewer ATV and dirt bike dealers and mechanics?
And while we're talking jobs here, many Western communities rely on tourism, so clean air and clean water are vital to their economies. Yet some of your party's members in Congress talk about weakening or even repealing the laws that protect our air and water. Do you support such efforts, and if so, what sort of compensation would you propose for the affected communities?
To be fair, the recent debate did touch on a few Western issues. Illegal immigration is a national concern, but the porous border is in the West, and the candidates talked about the fences they would build, along with the Predator drones they would deploy.
In general, they said Yucca Mountain shouldn't be a nuclear waste repository unless Nevada wanted it, and it was pretty clear that Nevada didn't.
An audience member asked “What would you do as president to help fix the overall problem of real estate and foreclosures in America?” after pointing out that Nevada has the highest foreclosure rate in the nation. Alas, this is something of a Western issue because of the 10 states with the highest foreclosure rates, five are in the West: Idaho, Utah, Arizona, California and Nevada (the others are Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Florida and Georgia.)
And that was about the size of anything that could be categorized as specifically Western. Timber sales, roadless regulations, grazing leases, endangered species, wildlife habitat, land management budgets, military training overflights, pipeline and power line corridors and rights of way, and the scores of other ways that Westerners interact every day with the federal government -- none of that came up in a debate that was supposed to be for Westerners.
This might explain why the West, once reliably Republican, has become more competitive. Instead of addressing the region's issues, Republicans have instead focused on building up their Tea Party cred by promoting a simpler federal tax code while contesting to see who is most against abortion and universal health care. That might sway a few primary voters, but it's no way to deal with the West.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.