• By Shaun Gibson

No matter who wins in November, one thing is certain about this year's election: the Interior West has finally arrived. For the last 40 years, campaigns generally flew right over the eight states in the interior. Their sparse populations, relative handful of electoral votes and status as Republican strongholds meant they just weren't worth fighting over. But the balance has shifted. Democrats now sit in the governor's mansion in six interior states and are making inroads into state legislatures. Key Senate and House seats have gone from red to blue. Suddenly, all eyes are on Western states: Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado are all considered up for grabs. Some polls even call Republican candidate John McCain's home state of Arizona a toss-up, and spoilers could give Montana to Democratic candidate Barack Obama. The Democrats held their convention in Denver, and both candidates have visited towns that haven't seen a major party candidate for decades. All told, they've paid more than 100 visits to the Interior West so far this campaign.

Here's some of the dynamics of the national and state-level races, explained:

Campaigns oozing with energy

One of the most expensive, nasty battles of the political season is being waged in Colorado for the Senate seat being vacated by Republican Wayne Allard. So far, the candidates have raised over $12 million, spending much of it on attack ads in which Republican Bob Schaffer is referred to as "Big Oil" Bob, and Democrat Mark Udall is portrayed as a Boulder liberal who will raise gas prices to $6 per gallon.

Although the ads stretch the truth, they do draw attention to a major issue underlying this year's races in Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming: Energy. More specifically, the battle over whether and how to regulate and tax the current Rocky Mountain drilling boom.

Schaffer, who until last year was a vice president with Aspect Energy, has pulled in over $160,000 from energy companies. Ads supporting him complain that oil companies are shut out of too much public land. Udall's top contributor, meanwhile, is the League of Conservation Voters — as a congressman, he has sought to slow the gas boom, especially in areas such as the Roan Plateau in western Colorado.

If this weren't the year of energy, it might be the year of the Udalls. Mark's brother, Tom, is also running for the U.S. Senate, against Republican Steve Pearce in New Mexico. And fossil fuels play an even bigger part — at least financially — in this race: Pearce's campaign has pulled in $224,000 from oil and gas companies, and his top contributors include Marbob Energy, Yates Petroleum and Marathon Oil.

Meanwhile, up in Wyoming, Democrat Gary Trauner centers his campaign on energy policy. Trauner says that if voters send him to fill the state's lone seat in the U.S. House, he'll increase federal support for development of wind power and other clean energy sources, while requiring gas and oil drillers to be more sensitive to the environment.

Nationwide, gas and oil companies rank number 16 on the list of industries donating to campaigns this year. They've given over $20 million to politicians, 74 percent of it to Republicans.

Adios, Nuclear Pete!

New Mexico's political landscape will change forever after this year. That's because Republican Pete Domenici, who was first elected to the Senate in 1972, is retiring. Domenici's legacy is a big one. He's leveraged his seniority to bring millions of dollars to his state -- New Mexico receives a higher ratio of federal money to taxes paid, per capita, than any other state -- and he was instrumental in pushing through the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Mostly, however, he'll be remembered as a friend to nuclear power. Domenici, who wrote a book, A Brighter Tomorrow, about the glory of nukes, has always been kind to his state's nuclear industry, which stretches from the labs of Los Alamos to the uranium mines at Grants. He essentially emasculated the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to make it easier to push projects through. Most recently, he spearheaded the successful effort to bring a nuclear enrichment facility — the first to be built in the U.S. in 30 years — to rural southeastern New Mexico.

That's not to say he ignored the rest of the energy industry; aside from his 2007 vote in favor of protecting the Valle Vidal in northern New Mexico, Domenici always did what he could for coal and oil and gas. (The 2005 energy act included over $85 billion in subsidies for energy.) Those industries gratefully reciprocated, funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars into his many campaigns. All in all, the energy and natural resource sectors donated more than $1.5 million to Domenici's political career.

Immigration: Still a factor here

Immigration has practically vanished from the presidential race, in part because the candidates have fairly similar, moderate stances. But the issue is still in play in state-level politics. During Utah's Republican primaries, political newcomer and anti-immigration hard-liner Jason Chaffetz beat heavily favored six-term incumbent U.S. Rep. Chris Cannon, whose support for a guest-worker program likely did him in. In Arizona, polls show that 26 percent of Republican voters think that immigration is the most important issue in the 2008 election. They're not thrilled with McCain's immigration stances, but a couple of ballot measures will likely draw them to the polls. One would amend the state Constitution to "prohibit preferential treatment" -- meaning affirmative action — "by state government." While not overtly an anti-immigration measure, it is arguably a reaction to a growing Latino population. A second ballot measure, "Stop Illegal Hiring," appears to impose stiff penalties for employers who hire undocumented immigrant workers, but several of the state's most anti-immigration politicians have come out against it because it actually weakens a stricter state law.

Shooting for the center

Oregon's U.S. Senate race is one of the most expensive in the country: Incumbent Gordon Smith, R, has pulled in $10 million, while the challenger, Democrat Jeff Merkley, has raised $2 million.

Smith, who has served two terms in a solidly Democratic state, is known for defying party conventions. He's relatively green, often voting with environmentalists, and in 2006 he came out in opposition to the Iraq War. And he is pro-life, but voted for stem cell research. But Merkley, who is considered an effective bipartisan coalition-builder, could ride Obama's coattails to victory. The Democratic presidential candidate holds a strong lead in the state's polls.

In ultra-red Idaho, it's the Democrat who's racing for the center in the closest high-stakes race. Democrat Walt Minnick — a former timber company executive and one-time Republican — is challenging hard-line Republican incumbent Bill Sali. Sali, an in-your-face Christian-values politician, has held the office for only one term and hasn't gotten much done. National forces are focused on the race: The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is running radio ads for Minnick, while Freedom's Watch, a group funded by conservative Las Vegas casino baron Sheldon Adelson, is doing the same for Sali. Minnick is an underdog, but he should do well enough in northern Idaho's logging country, the University of Idaho area and the district's portions of metro Boise to make it a real race.

The Latino swing?

Latino voters could play a bigger role in this year's presidential election than ever before, since they now make up more than 10 percent of eligible voters in the Western battleground states of Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico. President George W. Bush, who has done better with Hispanics than any Republican before him, won these states by less than five percentage points in 2004.

But this year, the Democrats seem to be coming out ahead with Latino voters. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, 76 percent of registered Latino voters view Obama favorably, while only 44 percent feel the same about McCain.

Though it probably won't be enough to swing the presidential vote away from homeboy McCain, Arizona will certainly feel the effects of the Latino vote. Back in 1990, Latinos made up only 19 percent of the population; in 2006, it was 29 percent and growing.

Battleground: Nevada

Despite a long history of sending Republicans to the White House (with the exception of Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996), Nevada is now up for grabs. In 2004, George W. Bush beat John Kerry by just three percentage points. As of August of this year, however, the fast-growing state had over 76,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans, in part because of the Democrats' early Nevada caucus and Obama's aggressive ground campaign. Meanwhile, state Republicans are wrestling with corruption and adultery scandals surrounding Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons.

The state Legislature may also tip from Republican to Democrat. And one of the most contested House races in the country is heating up in Nevada's 3rd Congressional District, which encompasses much of suburban Las Vegas. The three-term incumbent, Republican Rep. Jon Porter, is facing a stiff challenge from the current state Senate majority leader, Dina Titus.

The race is being called a bellwether for the Southwest because the district fits the profile both parties are targeting: fast-growing suburbs populated by independents.

Whatever happens, it pays to pay attention to Nevada. With the exception of 1976, when it backed Gerald Ford, the state has voted for the presidential winner in every election since 1912.

Spoiler alert

Westerners are independent, so when they see someone running for office who's not a Democrat or Republican, they're inclined to vote for him. Back in 1992, for example, Ross Perot fared well in the West — some would even credit him for handing a few states to Bill Clinton. There's no Perot on this year's ballot, but potential spoilers lurk. Libertarian Bob Barr, who is on the ballot in every Western state, has received strong support in Nevada and could pull gun-rights voters away from McCain. In Montana, the state's Constitution Party put Ron Paul on the ballot. Paul beat McCain in both Montana's and Nevada's Republican primaries. Meanwhile, Ralph Nader, also on the ballot in every Western state, is back for yet another go, with the potential to pull a few votes from Obama.

Spoilers aren't just for presidential races. Five candidates are vying for Idaho Republican Larry Craig's abandoned Senate seat. In addition to Democrat Larry LaRocco and Republican Jim Risch (currently lieutenant governor), there's Rex Rammel, an independent, Libertarian Kent Marmon, and yet another independent who's legally changed his name to "Pro-Life" to attract a certain type of voter.

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