The Mountain West: A Republican Fabrication

  • Cartoon: Elephant dressed as a cowboy

    Diane Sylvain

How Republican is the Mountain West? That's sort of like asking, "How wet is the ocean?" Many readers of High Country News weren't even born in 1948, the last time a Democratic presidential candidate carried every one of the eight states in the Mountain West - Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

In the U.S. House of Representatives these days, the Mountain West's delegation is 83 percent Republican, while the U.S. Senate has 55 Republicans and would have 75, if the rest of the country were as Republican as the Mountain West.

State legislatures are even more lopsided. In 1995, Republicans held 63 percent of the seats in the Mountain West's legislatures, a higher percentage than the 48 percent the party enjoys nationally.

Until 1990, Democrats more than held their own in governors' races, with Democratic governors in five mountain states. Now there are only two, one of them Roy Romer of Colorado. Even if Romer is also the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, it's hard to find the difference between Romer and a Republican - he's never met a big corporation he didn't want to help with a tax break.

The Mountain West started voting in national elections in 1864 after Nevada joined the Union. Since then, 16,484 electoral votes have been cast in American presidential elections; 8,818 of them - 54 percent - have gone to Republicans.

Even when the Republicans field a weak presidential candidate - Bob Dole last year, George Bush in 1992, Barry Goldwater in 1964 - he can count on some electoral votes from the Mountain West. By contrast, Democrats do well in the Mountain West only when they're doing well everywhere.

That may be no accident. In July 1864, Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, feared that he would not be re-elected that fall. His Union forces were stalled, and if there had been polls then, they would have shown substantial support for the Copperhead Democrats, who proposed to negotiate a peace with the Confederacy.

Lincoln and his political advisors reckoned that a few more Republican electoral votes could come in handy.

And so, to make sure Nevada made it into the Union in time to vote Republican in 1864, its entire state constitution was telegraphed, at tremendous expense, to Washington for approval by Congress.

As it turned out, Lincoln didn't need Nevada. Admiral David Farragut captured Mobile in August, General William T. Sherman conquered Atlanta in September, and in November, Lincoln won a second term with a 212-21 victory in the electoral college.

But the Republicans would need their next instant Mountain West state, Colorado, which entered the union in 1876 when it - like Nevada had been - was short of the required territorial population.

That year, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes won the narrowest victory in the history of the Electoral College - 185 votes to Samuel J. Tilden's 184. Without Colorado's three votes, Tilden would have been elected president.

One way to read this history: The Mountain West began its political life as a series of territories to be admitted to statehood when the Republican party needed electoral votes.

But this relationship between the Republican Party and the Mountain West goes even deeper - and farther back. The Republican Party was founded to determine the organization and politics of the Mountain West.

One hundred fifty years ago, the United States annexed the Republic of Texas, whose independence (declared in 1836) had not been recognized by Mexico. That inspired the Mexican War. The U.S. invaded Mexico and took nearly half its territory - Texas, California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, along with chunks of Kansas, Colorado and Wyoming.

Many Americans - such as Henry David Thoreau - saw the Mexican War as a conspiracy of Southern slaveholders to add to their territory. To protest the war, Thoreau went to jail rather than pay his taxes. Other critics were Abraham Lincoln, a Whig congressman from Illinois whose opposition cost him re-election and apparently ended his political career, and Ulysses S. Grant, a young lieutenant who called the war "one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation."

After the American victory came the hard questions: Should this vast territory be slave or free, or some mixture? If the Pacific Railroad should be built, should its eastern terminus be in Chicago, tying the new territory to the north, or in St. Louis, connecting it to the south?

Democrats had one answer - local option on slavery in the territories. The other parties were in disarray. The Federalists had faded away, and the Whigs were falling apart over slavery, especially the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Thus emerged the Republican Party in 1854, in response to the pressing question of the day: How should the American West be organized?

Though it had adherents all across the North, especially in anti-slavery New England, the new Republican Party was essentially a regional party, representing the growing power of the Midwest, and its goal was to turn the far West into a part of the Midwest.

The emerging Republicans said that the Pacific Railroad, if it ever got built, should tie the West to Chicago and the Midwest, despite all those St. Louis surveys commissioned by Southern Democrats in Washington. Along the railroad route, the land should not be apportioned into sprawling plantations, with their need for slaves, but should instead be divided into small family farms - 160-acre homesteads, available to all who would settle and work the land. Of course there would be no slavery. Nor should Brigham Young's Mormons in Deseret be allowed their plural marriages.

In 1856, Republicans nominated their first presidential candidate, a hero of the day famous for his expeditions in the West - John C. Frémont. They campaigned against "those twin pillars of ignorance and barbarism: polygamy and slavery" and for "Free Speech, Free Soil, Frémont!" It was the most successful third party in American history. Frémont carried New England, as well as Iowa and Ohio.

Democrat James Buchanan still won the presidency with 174 electoral votes, carrying the South as well as the West of the day - California and Illinois. But Frémont got 114 electoral votes. The third candidate, former Whig President Millard Fillmore, running for the anti-immigrant American ("Know Nothing") Party, won only Maryland's eight votes. The Whigs and Know-Nothings were no more.

That set the stage for a Republican triumph in 1860 with the election of Abraham Lincoln of Illinois. Lincoln pledged not to tamper with slavery where it existed, but opposed extending slavery to the Mountain West. Fearing that this would soon lead to an expanded United States where the South would lack the Senate votes to protect its "peculiar institution," the Confederacy seceded and the Civil War began.

But look at what Lincoln and the Republican Congress accomplished in the West even as the war raged back east: In 1862 they passed the Homestead Act, the Pacific Railroad Act, and the Morrill Act, which established land-grant colleges. The Republicans organized the West, especially the Mountain West, as part of the Midwest. The GOP ran the federal government, and federal policy made the West.

Indians in the way, nomad hunters wandering across what should be productive farmland? Send in some federal negotiators, followed by the federal cavalry. The federal surveyor could then set the section corners, so that farmers could establish homesteads. Need to get the crops to market? The GOP arranged subsidies for railroad construction and operation. Did those farms lack water? Call on Theodore Roosevelt's federal Bureau of Reclamation.

The Republicans set up the Mountain West to attract the right sort of people with the right kinds of occupations - little wonder that the West responded with GOP votes at campaign time.

All that is history, but it's relevant, despite all the surveys that show that most Americans don't know what century the Civil War occurred in, let alone its causes and results.

I'm not the only one who thinks so. In the fall of 1995, Bob Dole was a Republican senator from Kansas out stumping for the presidential nomination. When throwing raw meat to the faithful, he made the usual attacks on the Hollywood "cultural elite" and similar big donors to the Democratic Party.

But at one stop, Dole also tore into the "liberal academic elite," teachers of American history who "sow doubt about the nobility of America in the minds of our children." He meant historians like Richard White and Patricia Nelson Limerick, who write honest stories of the American West - the military and commercial conquest of indigenous cultures, the constant search for cheap resources and labor, the transformation of landscape to serve global capital markets in everything from cows and coal to molybdenum and plutonium.

The Republicans attempt to maintain the myth that their founding ideology somehow took root - that the West is a land of small family farms, skillful artisans and wholesome little towns, all populated by the descendants of courageous rugged-individualist pioneers who moved into a vast empty space without any help from that pernicious government in Washington.

That mythology persists in every Republican campaign in the West, from the good-ol'-boy seventh-generation rancher running for county commissioner to Jack Kemp in Grand Junction, Colo., last fall, pledging to end the Clinton administration's "War on the West."

The GOP mythology comports with the way Westerners like to think of themselves, as rural individuals taking control of their own destinies and not as urban flotsam bobbing with the ebbs and flows of global markets. Anything that stands in the way of implementing that myth, such as public control of public land, is deemed an attack on the West.

That, in essence, is why the GOP retains a hold on the West. Idaho's Helen Chenoweth may sound worse than a dingbat once she reaches civilization, but out on her own dunghill, she's carrying the torch of those traditional Western values - that is, the Republican mythology that her constituents have bought into.

This myth is so strong that it transcends economic self-interest. Ronald Reagan got 52 percent of the popular vote in 1980, and 62 percent in the Mountain West. His economic policies - union-busting, free trade and deflation - were worse than cruel to the Mountain West. Prices for metals, fuels, cattle and grain all plunged. Thousands of Westerners were thrown out of work. Skyscrapers stood empty in Denver, and some Western states even lost population.

Did the West rebel against the Reagan regime? Of course not. Reagan wore a cowboy hat, rode a horse and said all the right things about gun control and rugged individualism. His share of the West's vote rose from 62 percent in 1980 to 66 percent in 1984.

Honest history is a threat to that GOP hegemony, so Dole was no fool when he attacked the "liberal academic elite." He was protecting his party's electoral base.

But will the future be so kind to the GOP in the West? Probably. It looks as if the Republicans have survived the transition from a party that was formed to fight the South into one that has been taken over by the South - its congressional leaders, for instance, are Trent Lott of Mississippi and Newt Gingrich of Georgia.

The GOP has bridged the transition in the West by becoming the party of development. Land developers who are busy carving the West into 35-acre ranchettes help finance the party.

And then the developers usually sell those ranchettes to people fleeing to white enclaves in the interior - author Joel Kotkin calls it "the Valhalla Syndrome." Damn right they care about the Second Amendment - they want to be able to defend their fiefdoms, and all those urban gun deaths are no concern of theirs.

In essence, California exports its narrow-minded Republicans to the interior, and it shows in election returns. In 1992, Bill Clinton carried Colorado. In 1996, Dole did. In the intervening four years, Colorado gained 194,000 registered voters - 156,000 of them Republicans.

That trend is likely to continue, since the national Democratic Party is essentially a bi-coastal party. As Jimmy Carter demonstrated in 1976, a Democrat can take the White House without carrying a single state in the Mountain West. Democratic strategists realize that California alone has 54 electoral votes, while the entire Mountain West has only 40.

On the local level, Mountain West Democrats seem irretrievably split between Labor Democrats and Green Democrats. Labor Democrats, while generally tolerant on lifestyle issues, focus on economic matters. They don't care if there's a big mine, as long as it's got a union and pays decent wages.

Green Democrats would oppose that mine, and they don't offer much else to the working stiff. Preserving the environment means preserving a place for the wealthy to disport themselves while spending as little money as possible among the heathen natives who toil for low wages and no benefits.

Given that split among grassroots Democrats and the effectiveness of the Republicans at creating and exploiting the mythology of the Interior West, it isn't surprising that the GOP is so dominant in the Mountain West. The real surprise is that any Democrats get elected - everything is working against them, and it's going to stay that way for a long time.

The West will be Republican until it runs out of 35-acre ranchettes.

Ed Quillen writes a regular column for the Denver Post, helps publish Colorado Central magazine, and lives in Salida, Colorado.

This article was paid for by grants from the Wyss Foundation and the Ruth Mott Fund.

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