Just over two years ago, in a political race that only folks in Colorado noticed, something remarkable happened. State Rep. Mark Larson, the Republican candidate to represent southwestern Colorado in the state Senate, abandoned the race. It wasn't because he couldn't win; he had at least a 50 percent chance, maybe more, of beating his rival. And he was the Republicans' biggest hope to regain control of the state Senate, which the party had recently lost. By dropping out, Larson effectively handed the Senate to the Democrats. He cited personal reasons at the time, but anyone who had been watching state politics knew there were other factors involved: Larson had long been at odds with his own party.
The district Larson represented in the House (and hoped to represent in the Senate) is a sort of microcosm of the West as a whole. It includes everything from liberal-leaning resort residents to libertarian bean farmers and cattle ranchers. Republicans outnumber Democrats by about three to two, but nearly one-third of the registered voters are unaffiliated. As a result, moderate, independent candidates tend to succeed, and hard-liners don't.
Larson was just such a candidate, occasionally stepping across the political aisle to get things done and breaking ranks with the national party when he thought it was appropriate. He was considered a maverick who embodied the traits that Westerners like to be known for: independence and pragmatism. Those same traits made him popular with his constituents -- and caused him to be reviled by the party's hard-liners.
Larson is "liberal, Democratic, anything but Republican," the chairwoman of one county's Republican Party told the Durango Herald, several months after he dropped out of the race. Other party loyalists echoed her, making public a rift that had been growing quietly for years. Larson responded by calling the hard-liners "conservative transplants from out of state, who are muscling moderates from the party." He told another newspaper that he was a 1964 Goldwater Republican, "but the party's changing. They've abandoned issues like the environment and have litmus tests."
Another GOP state senator who resigned a few months before the election decried the growing influence of "ideological Christian conservatives" in her party. And former U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell refused to run as a Republican candidate for governor; he said he didn't like the direction the party was taking.
At the time, state party leaders passed the whole thing off as an isolated family squabble. It wasn't. Today, such rifts are breaking out all over the West among the GOP, as Ray Ring documents in this issue's cover story.
So what went wrong with the party that, just a few years ago, seemed to have a stranglehold on Western politics? Ring examines some of the reasons in his story. But I've got my own theory: Western Republicans simply felt put off by the Bush administration's "you're either with us or against us" attitude. That whole my-way-or-the-highway thing tends to get on Western nerves. After a while, the moderate pragmatists refused to sit quietly by while ideologues hijacked the Grand Old Party.
John McCain, the Republican candidate for president, was once a maverick Western Republican; like Larson, he wasn't afraid to break party ranks. But now that he's running on a national stage, he's begun to pander to the ideologues. By doing so, however, he's in danger of losing his Westernness -- and possibly losing the West, the very region he would once have been favored to win.