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for people who care about the West

Republicans need to claim the environmental middle ground


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "The One-Party West."

At a time when the United States is deeply — and evenly — divided politically, the Rocky Mountain West is firmly in the grasp of the Republican Party.

Thank goodness.

I believe Republican leaders are better equipped to meet the challenges that we face both in the West and in the nation. My values and, I believe, the values of a majority of Westerners are better reflected in GOP approaches to taxation, personal responsibility, cultural and moral issues, national security, environmental responsibility and natural resources development.

On Western matters like wilderness designation, public-lands issues, energy development, water conservation, and growth and sprawl, Republican leaders have balanced environmental protection with the basic needs of citizens for water, power, housing, food and infrastructure like highways.

Voters have recognized these successes and have responded accordingly at the ballot box. But the electorate seems restive this year, particularly with a highly divisive presidential race that is quickly deteriorating into a mud-slinging contest. Republicans have controlled the Intermountain West for so long they must guard against complacency.

Heading into an enormous political year with important ramifications for the future of the country and a host of Western issues, I rate the status of the GOP not quite as solid as Rocky Mountain granite. Republicans need to sharpen their messages on some important issues, particularly the environment.

Only 25 years ago, the Intermountain West was predominantly Democratic. I remember when some of the most liberal politicians in the country came out of the Rocky Mountain states, including such luminaries as Sen. Frank Church of Idaho, Sen. Frank Moss of Utah, and Rep. Morris Udall of Arizona.

Within recent history, every Rocky Mountain state has had a Democratic governor, among them some of the West’s best and most popular politicians: Cecil Andrus of Idaho, Scott Matheson of Utah, Bruce Babbitt of Arizona, Bruce King of New Mexico, Roy Romer of Colorado, Mike Sullivan of Wyoming, Bob Miller of Nevada, and Ted Schwinden of Montana.

The rise of Ronald Reagan Republicanism turned the tide in the West. With his sunny optimism, communications skills and adherence to bedrock conservative principles, Reagan rallied Republicans, particularly in the rural West, like no one before or since. And even though the Interior West is highly urbanized, with significant in-migration from other parts of the country, the Republican Party has stayed strong. The newcomers, particularly those fleeing high taxes and congestion in Southern California, have tended to be just as conservative as those with deep roots in the Rockies.

Today, a few liberal Democrats survive in a handful of urban congressional districts, but most Western Democrats promote themselves as moderate, practical politicians. Interior West voters view "eastern liberals" and the national Democratic Party with some suspicion, so they’re more likely to support Democratic governors and state legislators than to send Democrats to Washington where they will be part of the national agenda.

Still, in times like these, Republicans can take nothing for granted. I believe voters in the Rocky Mountain states tend to be conservative, but in a pragmatic way that isn’t highly partisan. And with high numbers of independent voters, this means moderate, practical Democrats have a reasonable shot at winning.

To remain in power, Republicans need to nominate pragmatic, personable candidates who speak for centrist Republicans, independents and Democrats. That’s easier said than done, because the Republican base seeks candidates who can pass conservative litmus tests on a range of issues, like prayer in school, abortion, immigration, guns and school vouchers.

One issue Republicans shouldn’t shy away from is the environment, which will continue to be very important in elections. Republicans are somewhat vulnerable in this area because they have allowed Democrats to portray them as anti-environment.

It is a major public relations problem for Republicans. They don’t seem to have a vocabulary for talking about conservation in a way that connects. The truth is, every day, Republican governors, county commissioners, mayors and city council members, in addition to those in legislative and congressional positions, do things to protect, clean up, preserve and conserve the region’s natural resources. Republican governors spend multi-millions of dollars and have hundreds of employees focused on environmental matters, but they don’t get the credit they deserve.

With a little effort, Republicans could do a much better job of pointing out the excellent work they have done. They could also be more vocal in supporting the efforts of moderate environmental groups like the Nature Conservancy while sharply criticizing the irrational positions of the radical environmental groups, like the Sierra Club’s proposal to drain Lake Powell and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance’s proposal to place 10 million acres of Utah BLM land in wilderness.

A good place to start developing a pro-active, mainstream environmental platform would be to look at the work done by the Western Governors’ Association in this area. In particular, the association’s "Enlibra philosophy," comprised of eight environmental principles, makes sense to mainstream, moderate voters in both political parties. Enlibra means "to move toward balance," and it is designed to provide a rallying place for those who embrace environmental problem-solving and balance, rather than extreme views and rhetoric.

Voters respond to competent, personable politicians who want to solve problems. Today, Republicans better reflect the values and ideals of a majority of voters in the Rocky Mountain states. But Republicans need to sharpen their message, and claim the middle ground on environmental issues.

LaVarr Webb writes from Salt Lake City, Utah. He is a political consultant and former newspaper reporter and editor. He worked for former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt as his campaign manager and policy deputy for six years. Webb can be reached at [email protected]

For more information about "Enlibra philosophy"