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

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  • Strange Bedfellows

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  • The Vision Thing

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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.

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