HCN's take on Western elections


(Updated November 8)

Political trends established over the last several years, or decades, in the American West mostly continued in yesterday's elections -- providing more evidence that our region is not coherent politically, but instead is really two opposing sub-regions.

Democrats held or even gained ground in the coastal states (California, Oregon and Washington) as well as in the party's increasingly reliable colonies in the Interior West (Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico). The
Dems also just barely held two key Montana offices (a U.S. Senate seat and the governorship).

Republicans held their Interior West strongholds (Utah, Idaho and Wyoming), where elections these days tend to have as much suspense as wondering whether a bowling ball dropped from your hand will hit the floor.

Arizona was more of a mixed bag (another trend).

This graph shows the blue vs. red sub-regions in our political West, in terms of results in presidential races since 1960 (keep in mind, the West went almost totally blue in 1964 probably in sympathy to the Democratic Party after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy):

The most dramatic election results yesterday in the West have to do with marijuana (voters in Colorado and Washington passed ballot measures that approve recreational use of pot) and gay marriage (also approved by Washington voters).

Summing it up state by state, focusing mainly on political shifts (you'll notice how the redrawing of congressional districts after the 2010 census figured into some of the results):

Arizona (a Romney victory, continuing the Republicans' streak in the presidential race)

Republicans held the U.S. Senate seat vacated by retiring Sen. Jon Kyl, and might gain the U.S. House seat representing much of Tucson and rural southeast Arizona (in that nationally prominent race, the counting won't be complete for several more days, and Martha McSally is only a few hundred ahead of Democrat Ron Barber, a former aide to Gabby Giffords, who retired last January due to brain injuries she suffered in a 2011 shooting spree). But Democrats picked up a U.S. House seat in a new district that includes a college town (Ann Kirkpatrick in the Flagstaff area) and might pick up another seat, a redrawn district that includes a different college town (Kyrsten Sinema in suburban Phoenix -- who would be "the sole atheist in Congress") depending on how that final count eventually works out. Voters approved a ballot measure reforming aspects of managing state land -- a measure backed by environmentalists -- while rejecting a Sagebrush Rebellion ballot measure. Meanwhile, in races for three seats on the Arizona Corporation Commission, which regulates utilities and helps shape Arizona's energy policies, Republican candidates beat three Democrats who called themselves "the solar team" -- meaning, Arizona's energy policies probably won't shift more into solar.

California (Obama, same as 2008)

Democratic candidates apparently beat three incumbent Republican congresspersons (Scott Peters over Brian Bilbray in a redrawn San Diego district that weakened Bilbray's base, where the margin was less than 1,000 votes; Ami Bera over Dan Lungren in a redrawn Sacramento district that weakened Lungren's base, where the margin was even tinier, less than 200 votes, and the final tally might not be complete for several more days; and Paul Ruiz over Mary Bono Mack in the Palm Springs area, called "an upset"). Democrats also won a supermajority in both houses of the state Legislature -- "a surprise outcome that gives the party the ability to unilaterally raise taxes and leaves Republicans essentially irrelevant in Sacramento," says the San Francisco Chronicle. In ballot measures, voters decided not to require labels on food that contains genetically modified ingredients, while also rejecting a measure that sought to reduce the political influence of labor unions. In San Francisco, city voters rejected a ballot measure that called for a study of draining the Hetch Hetchy reservoir in Yosemite National Park, a source of the city's water.

Colorado (Obama, same as 2008)

Along with legalizing marijuana for recreational use, voters gave Democrats control of the state House of Representatives, so now the Dems run both chambers of the Legislature, and Colorado will have the nation's first openly gay House speaker. Colorado voters also approved a populist symbolic measure that says corporations are not people, so corporations should not be given the same constitutional rights as people have.

Idaho (Romney, continuing the Republican streak in the presidential race)

A glimmer of suspense vanished, as voters in the Republican-dominated state rejected three ballot measures that sought to apply some conservative ideologies to public schools (an effort to kill teachers' unions and reduce the number of teachers). Other than that, Idaho election results were ho hum, same old, same old.

Montana (Romney, continuing the Republican streak in the presidential race)

In Montana's highest profile race -- for a U.S. Senate seat -- incumbent Democrat Jon Tester beat Republican Denny Rehberg, who's represented Montana in the U.S. House since 2000, by only 4 percent of the total votes cast. Tester can thank the Libertarian Party candidate, Dan Cox, who got more than 6 percent (mostly drawn from Rehberg's base) -- similar to Tester's original 2006 victory, when a Libertarian also generated crucial subtractions from a Republican incumbent senator, Conrad Burns. In the race for Montana governor, Democrat Steve Bullock beat Republican Rick Hill by only a few thousand votes -- again probably because a Libertarian candidate siphoned away potential Republican votes. But Republican candidates won races for three seats on the Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities and helps determine Montana's energy policies -- and they're indicating they might try to kill the state's requirement that utilities get some power from wind projects. In ballot measures, Montana voters more or less killed the state's medical marijuana program, while overwhelmingly approving another populist symbolic measure, similar to Colorado's, that says corporations are not people, so corporations should not be given the same constitutional rights as people have.

Nevada (Obama, same as 2008)

Democrats picked up a new U.S. House seat that includes a slice of Las Vegas and rural areas (Steven Horsford over Danny Tarkanian).

New Mexico (Obama, same as 2008)

Democrats held the U.S. Senate seat vacated by their party's five-term incumbent, Jeff Bingaman (Martin Heinrich over Heather Wilson). And New Mexicans approved reforms of the Public Regulation Commission, which oversees utilities and helps shape that state's energy policies.

Oregon (Obama, same as 2008)

Oregon voters rejected a ballot measure that sought to legalize marijuana, but even so, the political momentum seems headed toward legalization sooner or later, according to Examiner.com.

Utah (Romney, continuing the Republican streak in the presidential race)

There was a glimmer of real suspense in a U.S. House race, where Utah's only prominent Democrat, Jim Matheson (a very conservative Dem, of course), faced an unusual Republican challenger, Mia Love, a black woman who was born in Brooklyn, New York. Matheson's district had been redrawn to weaken his base in the state's liberal island, Salt Lake City, and Love had Tea Party backing. But Matheson just barely pulled it off, beating Love by less than 3,000 votes. Other than that, Utah's election results were ho hum, same old, same old.

Washington (Obama, same as 2008)

Along with approving recreational marijuana and gay marriage, Washington voters favored Democrats in most of the key races. For governor, Jay Inslee, a former Democratic congressman, holds a slim lead on the Republican challenger, Rob McKenna, the state's attorney general (that vote count also won't be final for several more days). And Democrats won a new U.S. House seat representing the state capital, Olympia, and military communities (Denny Heck over Dick Muri). But voters leaned conservative in approving an anti-tax ballot measure that says new taxes need approval by at least two-thirds of the state legislators.


Ho hum, same old, same old.

Postscript, or make that, Po$t$cript

Regardless of your political persuasion, we all understand by now, the most fundamental trend has to do with money -- our increasingly capitalist, free-market system of democracy. Last night the national pundits doing the math concluded that a record of around $6 billion was spent by all the various interests in the presidential and congressional races alone. The total money spent on elections nationwide has soared into the hellish clouds after the U.S. Supreme Court's infamous 2010 ruling in the Citizens United case, which removed campaign money limits -- a ruling by the Republican appointees who run that court.

In the West, in the home stretch of the presidential race, for instance, swing states Colorado and Nevada in particular were bombarded by Obama-Romney TV ads, and Denver and Las Vegas ranked #1 and #2 in Obama-Romney ads in local TV markets. In Washington, AP reported Nov. 3, "A record $157 million has poured into state-level races, with six and seven-figure chunks coming from the likes of Microsoft co-founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen, actor Brad Pitt, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, travel guru Rick Steves and Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos." Montana's Senate race ranked #1 nationally in the number of TV ads in Senate races (more than 100,000 TV ads, primarily bought by out-of-state groups). That's why Montanans, at least, passed the ballot measure declaring that corporations are not people (a doctrine the Republican justices carried out in Citizens United, as they decided that corporations are exercising a constitutional right to freedom of speech when buying unlimited ads). By the way, AP reports that in general, "Collectively, Republican outside groups vastly outnumbered -- and outspent -- their Democratic counterparts" in political spending.

Ray Ring is an HCN senior editor, based in Bozeman, Montana.


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