The West: A New Center of Power

Moderation in the pursuit of office is no vice, and nine other lessons to take away from the midterm elections

  • Just West of Center

    Chad Crowe
  • A Little Pull

    Chad Crowe
  • Strange Bedfellows

    Chad Crowe
  • The Vision Thing

    Chad Crowe
 

There was certainly no lack of color.

Jon Tester, a 50-year-old farmer running against Montana Republican Sen. Conrad Burns, got hit with especially ugly attack ads in the run-up to the November elections. Authentically rural as they come, Tester lives on the farm homesteaded by his grandparents and told Time magazine, "I do some of my best thinking on my tractor." But because Tester raised some campaign money in San Francisco, Republican mailers hammered him as a pawn of Left Coast hippies. The ads — starring goofy longhairs who wore psychedelic, pot-leafed outfits and flashed peace signs against a Golden Gate Bridge backdrop — warned Montana voters that Tester "is as liberal as his supporters."

In the battle for Wyoming’s lone U.S. House seat, Republican ads also used the dreaded Golden Gate Bridge image, this time to bash Democrat Gary Trauner, charging he was nothing more than a stooge for Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi, who hails from San Francisco. The race got so intense that, after a three-way debate, Libertarian Party candidate Thomas Rankin, who has multiple sclerosis and rolls around in an electric wheelchair, complained that Republican incumbent Barbara Cubin had snarled, "If you weren’t sitting in that chair, I’d slap you across the face." (Pressed for comment, Cubin insisted she’d only told him that if he’d been as rude to other people as he had been to her, "they probably would have smacked you.")

In Colorado, someone illegally tapped an FBI crime database to make an ad attacking the Democratic candidate for governor, Bill Ritter. The ad was sponsored by Ritter’s opponent, Republican Congressman Bob Beauprez, who, ironically, has voted for crackdowns on database leaks. Beauprez would only say he’d gotten the data from an "informant," and federal agents launched an investigation.

An alluring ballot measure in Arizona proposed to enter all voters in a special lottery that would award a $1 million prize. The measure’s creator, Mark Osterloh, said it was intended to increase voter turnout. He ran no ads but promoted his voter lottery with an appearance on the comedy-news TV program The Daily Show, and 413,052 Arizonans voted for it. Still, twice as many voted no, apparently fearing it would, somehow, further corrupt the electoral process.

Some races finished so close and Third Worldish that every vote had to be counted by hand, and it took days to declare a winner. All the same, all around the West, whether by a fraction of a percentage point or a landslide, most all of the individual races in this most contentious and entertaining midterm election have been decided. But what do the results add up to for the region as a whole?

These 10 electoral takeaways, at least:

1) The West has arrived.

Western voters and leaders now wield unprecedented power nationally. That fact began to surface during the campaigns, as George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, Al Gore, Barack Obama and other celebrities kept popping up around the West, wooing voters to support House and Senate candidates in such political hot spots as Billings, Mont., and Elko, Nev.

The national attention is partly a function of the region’s growth. Since 1960, the West’s population has soared, and so has its House delegation; 66 Western House seats have become 95, taking power from other regions and states that lost seats. (The House total is fixed at 435.) The West’s higher profile is also a function of chance and the quirks of partisan perception and balance; this year, for example, a narrow victory in Montana was given credit for tipping control of the Senate to the Democrats.

The West’s influence will become obvious when the next session of Congress convenes in January. California Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi will be Speaker of the House, and Nevada’s Harry Reid will be majority leader of the Senate, thanks to Tester’s Montana Senate victory, achieved by less than 1 percent of the votes cast. Anyone remember the last time Western politicians held the top posts in the House and Senate? I hope not, because it’s never happened. Never.

With two Westerners steering federal lawmaking, expect Western issues — public-land management, the rush in oil and gas drilling, salmon declines and immigration across the Mexican border, among others — to get more attention in Congress. Beyond policy, the West’s increasing political power will also show in the selection of the Democrats’ next presidential candidate. Nevada has wrangled its way into the front end of the 2008 Democratic process: Its caucuses will come right after Iowa’s and just before the New Hampshire primary, giving one batch of Westerners unprecedented say over a presidential race. It’s no accident that the Democrats are considering Denver as the site of their 2008 national convention, or that there’s talk of creating a Western super-primary; it’s all a bow to growing Western power.

High Country News Classifieds
  • GRANT WRITER (PART-TIME, FREELANCE CONTRACT)
    High Country News seeks an energetic, eloquent and highly organized grant writer to support a growing foundations program. This position works closely with our Executive...
  • ASSOCIATE PROGRAM MANAGER
    Associate Program Manager ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our State Parks thrive. From redwood groves and desert springs...
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • FREE RANGE BISON AVAILABLE
    Hard grass raised bison available in east Montana. You harvest or possible deliver quartered carcass to your butcher or cut/wrapped pickup. Contact Crazy Woman Bison...
  • CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST (NORTH CENTRAL WA)
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, and the chance to work with many different kinds of people and accomplish big conservation outcomes? Do you...
  • CARDIGAN WELSH CORGIS
    10 adorable, healthy puppies for sale. 4 males and 6 females. DM and PRA clear. Excellent pedigree from champion lineage. One Red Brindle male. The...
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...