Around the West, the hot races to watch


Note: this is one of several feature stories in this issue about the 2002 election.


Hispanics could stage a Democratic comeback

Hispanics, who now make up one-fourth of Arizona's population, may take half of the state's eight seats in the U.S. House of Representatives for the Democrats.

Raœl Grijalva is virtually guaranteed the seat for District 7. This is one of two new House districts in the state, and it stretches from Tucson to Yuma along the Mexican border. As Pima County supervisor, Grijalva built his green credentials advocating for planning and fighting sprawl. Democrat Ed Pastor, Arizona's first Hispanic in Congress, is sure to hold the District 4 House seat, while Randy Camacho has a chance of winning District 2.

The race in District 1, in contrast, is among the nation's most competitive. The district, also new, is as big as the state of Illinois, encompassing much of eastern and northern Arizona. Democrat George Cordova, a businessman from Arizona's rural White Mountains, worked hard to bring out Navajo voters during the primary. If Cordova can energize Navajos, Apaches and other tribes in the general election, he may edge out a wealthy Republican businessman who spent the last couple of decades back East, Rick Renzi.


Governor in a tight re-election race

The most populous state has all 52 of its seats in the U.S. House in play, plus a new House seat - and Democrats will likely hold on to the majority of them. The race to watch is for governor, where Democratic incumbent Gray Davis finds himself in a fairly tight contest with Republican Bill Simon.

Simon, who runs an investment business that supports a "family-friendly" TV network, has made hay out of the electricity debacle and the rolling brownouts during Davis' first term. But despite Davis' less-than-perfect environmental record, the Sierra Club has endorsed him. "In his heart, we feel he's an environmentalist," says Bill Allayaud, with the Sierra Club.

Water is a hot issue as well. Voters statewide will decide the fourth big water bond in six years: Proposition 50, at $3.4 billion, would help keep the CALFED project afloat (HCN, 9/30/02). Some critics say it's a sweetheart deal for developers who want to sell sensitive coastal land to the state. In San Francisco, Proposition A lets voters decide on a $1.6 billion bond to earthquake-proof the infamous dam in Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park.


Senate race will be a squeaker

Colorado is home to what looks like the closest race in the nation. Republican incumbent Sen. Wayne Allard, a born-again Christian and former veterinarian, once again defends his seat from Democrat Tom Strickland, a millionaire lawyer. When they faced off in 1996, Allard edged Strickland by 5 percent of the vote. This time, polls have Allard ahead by just 0.1 percent.

In his two Senate terms, Allard has earned a spot on the League of Conservation Voters' Dirty Dozen list, as one of the 12 worst members of Congress on environmental issues. Now, in election season, Allard claims he's joined the Sierra Club. But the club endorses Strickland, who has alienated some rural interests by asserting water rights for Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

Republican Gov. Bill Owens has a comfortable lead in his bid for re-election, and Colorado's new House district looks like a toss-up. The deciding factor may be Coloradans registered as "unaffiliated" - their strength has increased steadily, and they now account for nearly 33 percent of voters.


Democrats are still long shots

For Idaho Democrats, the only direction to go is upward. With Democrats holding only 12 of the 105 seats in the state Legislature, Republicans have the largest such majority in the nation. Republicans also hold all four congressional seats and Republican Dirk Kempthorne is governor.

That's unlikely to change, but some colorful Democrats are running, including Alan Blinken, a Jewish Wall Street refugee who was once ambassador to Belgium. Now living near Sun Valley, Blinken seeks to topple long-standing Sen. Larry Craig. Jerry Brady, publisher of the Idaho Falls Post Register, is running against Gov. Kempthorne.

The Democrats' best chance for a victory is Betty Richardson, a former U.S. attorney for Idaho, who is taking on Rep. Butch Otter (HCN, 10/23/00). Her chances are bolstered by Hispanics, who make up 12.5 percent of Idaho's population, according to the 2000 census - up from 3.9 percent in 1980. But the key to winning is money for TV ads in October, something Democrats haven't had in Idaho.


Encumbents likely to hang on

Montana's Max Baucus, one of the few Democrats with staying power in the Interior West, has surrendered a lot trying to win his fifth term in the Senate. As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Baucus pushed through President Bush's $1.3 trillion tax cut for the wealthy and corporations. In return, Baucus can run as a fence-straddler in a state where Democrats are a minority. His campaign ads even claim he's buddies with Bush.

Baucus is expected to beat Republican challenger Mike Taylor, a businessman and state legislator who also claims to be a friend of Bush. And in the race for Montana's lone seat in the U.S. House, Republican first-term incumbent Denny Rehberg is expected to win re-election over Democratic challenger Steve Kelly, an artist and lefty gadfly - and definitely no friend of the president.


Plains won't see much action

North Dakota seems to be a calm spot in the Interior West. The state has a single congressional race, in which five-term Democrat Earl Pomeroy is expected to retain his seat in the House. The ballot includes a constitutional amendment that would end tax breaks for land set aside for conservation. But it's not controversial - much of the land is taxed already, and even conservationists support the measure.


Races draw a little diversity

Nevada's first black gubernatorial candidate, Democratic state Senator Joe Neal, is falling on his sword. Neal has raised little campaign money, partly because he continues a long crusade to raise the tax on Nevada's casinos by almost 70 percent. That's cost him the support of the AFL-CIO, the state teachers' union, and the chairman of the state Democratic party. Outside of the political arena, Neal continues to battle Barbara Scott, even though he already bested her in the primary: The former topless dancer is suing Neal for allegedly calling her a "blonde bimbo."

The balance in Nevada's two original House seats, with incumbents Shelley Berkley, D, and Jim Gibbons, R, looks like it will hold, and you can bet on Republican Kenny Guinn to hold the governor's seat he won four years ago.

But there is one real race, for the new 3rd Congressional District in Las Vegas. Democrat Dario Herrera, a county commissioner described as a protege of Sen. Harry Reid, faces Republican Jon Porter, who's in the insurance business and the state Senate. If Herrera wins, he will be Nevada's first Hispanic congressman.


Governor's seat likely to go to Democrat

Democrat Bill Richardson, former President Clinton's secretary of Energy, is expected to win election as governor, taking the place of two-term Republican Gary Johnson, known for his support of legalized marijuana. And Democrat Tom Udall has no opposition in his run for a second term in the U.S. House, representing Santa Fe and northern New Mexico.

On the Republican side, Sen. Pete Dominici is expected to hold onto his seat, which he's owned for a marathon 30 years. And Rep. Heather Wilson, on the League of Conservation Voters' Dirty Dozen list, faces a self-defeating Democrat in her bid to win a third term in her Albuquerque-area district. Her opponent, Richard Romero, fractured his Democratic support by engaging in party infighting.

The hottest race is for the House seat representing southern New Mexico. Republican rancher Joe Skeen is retiring after 22 years in Congress. Steve Pearce, who runs an oilfield business in Hobbs and served four years in the state Legislature, is the Republican candidate. The Democrat is John Arthur Smith, a real estate appraiser in Deming, who's served 14 years in the Legislature. Though Democrats far outnumber Republicans in the district, the race will be close - the voters are rural, often conservative Democrats.


Outgoing governor leaves big shoes to fill

Oregon voters will choose a new governor: After eight years in office, green Democrat John Kitzhaber has reached his term limit (HCN, 10/26/98). Another green Democrat, Ted Kulongoski, is ahead in polls. Kulongoski, a backpacker who has served as Oregon's attorney general and as a state Supreme Court judge, calls for a cleanup of the Willamette River and tougher air and water quality standards. His opponent, Republican Kevin Mannix, is a lawyer known for some consensus efforts while serving as a state legislator, but he gets a poor rating from the League of Conservation Voters.

Also in play are five U.S. House seats and the last Republican Senate seat on the West Coast. In the Senate race, Democrat Bill Bradbury, who used to run a green group called For the Sake of the Salmon and is now Oregon's secretary of State, hopes to dislodge Sen. Gordon Smith. Smith says his environmental record includes opposing oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But he also violated water quality standards on his pea farm, and environmentalists say his overall record is abysmal.


Democrat takes on the "Dirty Dozen"

South Dakota is home to one of the hottest races in the country. Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson seeks a second term, facing a formidable challenge from Republican John Thune. Thune has represented South Dakota in the House, where his anti-environment stance landed him on the League of Conservation Voters' Dirty Dozen list. It's deja vu for Johnson - to win his seat in 1996, he knocked off Republican Sen. Larry Pressler, who was also among the Dirty Dozen. The parties and candidates have burned $14 million in the Johnson-Thune race, the most expensive in the state's history.

Meanwhile, South Dakota's popular, centrist Republican governor, Bill Janklow, has hit his term limit, so he's claiming the state's lone seat in the U.S. House. He has a credible Democratic opponent, but the seat is his for the taking. The governor's office will likely go to another Republican, Mike Rounds, who is in the insurance and real estate business and has experience as a state legislator.


A staunch wilderness foe bows out

Utah's Republican Rep. Jim Hansen, a longtime opponent of wilderness protection, is calling it quits after 22 years in office (HCN, 6/24/02). His successor (unless the sky falls) will be Republican Rob Bishop, a high school teacher in the small Mormon town of Brigham City. Bishop has also been a state legislator and chairman of the state Republican Party.

Meanwhile, Utah's lone Democrat in the House resembles an endangered species. Jim Matheson won handily in a Salt Lake City district that included most of the state's Democrats in 2000. But as he tries for his second term, his district has been gerrymandered to take in only a sliver of his former habitat, and now includes much of conservative eastern and southern Utah.

The rural desert is arguably also Matheson's habitat: A sixth-generation Utahn whose father was a popular governor, he has family roots there. Matheson doesn't mention his party affiliation in his TV ads, though.


Candidates at least moderately green

Of the nine U.S. House seats in play in Washington, the most interesting race will be for the northwestern 2nd district, including urban Bellingham and Everett, where Democrat incumbent Rick Larsen faces Republican challenger Norma Smith.

In a sign of how the West Coast is going green, both candidates support wilderness to some degree. As a freshman in the House, Larsen co-sponsored the bill, currently stalled in Congress, to create the Wild Sky Wilderness, protecting 106,000 acres including lowland in the Skykomish River Valley northeast of Seattle (HCN, 6/24/02). Smith has offered tentative support for Wild Sky, but only if private property rights are protected.

Larsen has been a moderate in Congress, earning endorsements from environmental and labor groups, but he barely won the primary in September. Smith is kind of moderate, with past experience in the congressional arena, working as an assistant to Rep. Jack Metcalf - and she's a tough campaigner.


Governor's race pits old economy against new

In the nation's least-populated state, Democrats haven't mustered credible opposition to either Sen. Mike Enzi or Rep. Barbara Cubin. Both Republicans essentially get free rides - Enzi to his second term and Cubin to her fifth - despite their lackluster records. Mainly, they just try to keep the feds out of Wyoming's hair.

But for the governor's office, with Republican Jim Geringer done after two terms, the race may be close. The Republican candidate, Eli Bebout, is an oil and gas man, a coalbed methane man, even a nuclear waste storage man. His boosterism has gotten him crosswise with other Republicans, however, because of his attempt to turn Fremont County into a nuclear waste dump, his ties to dirty companies like US Energy, and his conversion a decade ago from Democrat to Republican.

Democrat Dave Freudenthal is a tough political operator, known for frankness and smarts. He calls for more environmental regulation, better audits to reduce suspicion that the companies are ripping off the state and an end to the colonial energy economy. Wyoming had two Democratic two-term governors (Ed Herschler and Mike Sullivan) before Geringer. So don't count Freudenthal out until the last votes are in.

High Country News Classifieds