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for people who care about the West

On Obama's coattails


Westerners inspired by Barack Obama have a right to feel giddy these days: The history-making wave that swept the Democrat into the presidency Nov. 4 had a lot of impact around the region. It lifted a surprising number of other Democrats into offices that had long been held by Republicans, many of whom were seen as obstacles to change. The winning Democrats promise to be better on protecting the environment, more supportive of clean energy and more even-handed on immigration and other Western issues.

Obama took six of the 11 Western states, spreading the Democrats' apparent majority inland from the West Coast to include Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico. He did it with a record-breaking $1 billion national campaign war chest, including hundreds of millions spent by unions on his behalf -- a huge financial advantage over his Republican opponent, John McCain -- and by running the most determined Democratic presidential campaign ever in the West.

In Colorado, the Obama campaign had 51 field offices -- many in conservative rural areas -- and the spark provided by the Democratic National Convention in Denver. Obama himself made calls to potential Colorado voters from a field office in a Denver suburb. Just a few days before the election, he drew more than 100,000 people -- said to be the biggest political crowd in Colorado history -- to a Denver speech.

In Nevada, where Democrats scheduled a primary in early February to spark enthusiasm, Obama made 20 visits in all, including three to the mining community of Elko, where he spoke in the town park and accepted a shirt bearing the name of the high-school football team (the Elko Indians). Nevada State Sen. Dina Titus, a political science professor, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that she won a U.S. House seat thanks in part to Obama's ground game, "the best she'd seen in 20 years of politics."

In New Mexico, the Obama campaign opened nearly 40 field offices. In out-of-the-way Montana -- where Obama came within a few percentage points of a rare Democratic win -- he opened 19 and made five campaign visits, and his campaign dispatched Los Angeles Lakers basketball star Derek Fisher to speaking engagements on the Blackfeet Reservation.

Obama received more votes than the last Democratic candidate for president, John Kerry, in 404 of the 413 counties in the West, indicating that a new order may be taking command of the region's politics. That impression was reinforced on the congressional level: Western Democrats took three Senate seats that had been Republican (in Colorado, New Mexico and Oregon). They took at least six House seats from Western Republicans, while losing no Democratic seats in either chamber of Congress.

Democrats also gained more seats on public utilities commissions in Montana and Arizona, with candidates who vow to put more emphasis on development of wind and solar energy.

But Obama's hopeful message, his call for fundamental change and unification, will meet resistance in the West from here on out, especially on the level of local politics.

Redoubts and fragments

Political pundits use a new word when they talk about the post-election Republican Party. They say the GOP -- due to its hard-line approach to fossil fuels, the Iraq War and deregulation of everything -- has had its majority reduced to "redoubts," mostly in Southern states. "Redoubts," according to Merriam-Webster's dictionary, are small, enclosed defensive positions.

But the redoubts aren't all in the South; the West has a significant number. Utah, Idaho and Wyoming haven't voted for a Democrat for president since 1964, and this time, they were among the top states in voter percentages for McCain.

Conservative religious voters are largely responsible for the redoubts in those states. On average, the most conservative voters are either evangelical Christians or Mormons, whose politics tend to center on opposing abortion and gay rights. About 60 percent of Utah adults are Mormon, and 45 percent of Idaho adults are either Mormon or evangelical; the only other states with totals so high are in the South. Politically, Utah and Idaho might as well be Southern states.

Mormon voters comprise 10 percent of the Wyoming electorate, and Republican Cynthia Lummis, a conservative Lutheran, made a point of reaching out to them in her winning campaign to be the state's next representative in the U.S. House. (She's replacing Republican Rep. Barbara Cubin, who didn't run for re-election.)

The politics in other Western states remain fragmented by similar hard-line Republican redoubts. In the West's liberal-majority coastal states, the redoubts are inland. In Washington, for instance, two-term incumbent Republican State Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland, a friend of timber and mining companies, just lost to Democrat Peter Goldmark, a rancher and Ph.D. molecular biologist who promises to have better environmental protection policies. That job manages 5 million acres of Washington's state land and logging on private land. Sutherland carried the inland counties, Goldmark carried the coastal urban areas.

In general, Western cities, college towns and resort towns tended to vote for Obama, while the rural areas went for McCain. Even in Nevada, where Democratic Sen. Harry Reid has led a revival of his party -- there are now 100,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans -- Obama won by carrying the urban slivers of metro Las Vegas and Reno, even though he lost in the rest of the state.

In Arizona, even as Democrats based in Flagstaff and the Navajo Nation gained congressional seats, voters in the Phoenix suburbs re-elected famous anti-immigration Republican Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Araipo to a fifth term; the sheriff promptly vowed to continue his raids on businesses and local governments that hire undocumented immigrants. Arizona voters also rejected a ballot measure that would've relaxed the state's tough penalties against businesses that hire undocumented immigrants.

In western Colorado, Ed Marston, High Country News' former publisher and a longtime political centrist, invested more than a year in running as a Democrat for a seat on the Delta County Commission. Competing on strongly Republican turf, Marston was smeared by ads claiming he would flood the area with illegal immigrant criminals and squash gun rights, even though he'd tried to take the gun issue off the table by getting a concealed weapon permit. He lost by a 2-to-1 margin -- a typical fate for local Democratic candidates in Republican strongholds on the state's rural Western Slope.

Gridlock, slam-dunks and contradictions

In the legislatures, Republicans still control both chambers in Arizona, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming. In fact, some of their locks got tighter in this election. Montana Republicans, led by hard-liners, effectively gained control of their Legislature. That means state politics in those legislatures will likely be disconnected from federal politics -- a common problem in Western states -- because the Democrats hold Congress and the White House. Meanwhile, Democrats have a lock on legislatures in California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington.

In six of the states with such one-party locks, the governor belongs to the same party. Such complete dominance encourages show-offish slam-dunks rather than a politics of compromise and consensus.

In states where the governor belongs to the opposite party from the legislature's majority, the difference frequently means gridlock. Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat dealing with a Republican Legislature for her six years in office, has vetoed more than 170 bills that took hard-line stances on immigration, gun rights, abortion and other issues. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican dealing with a hard-line Democratic Legislature, vetoed more than 400 bills this year alone, setting a new California record. Such collisions can eventually force consensus, but they waste a lot of time and effort.

Many more of the Western election results seem contradictory. Religious conservatives succeeded in writing bans on gay marriage into the California and Arizona constitutions. But they lost in Colorado, where voters rejected a tough anti-abortion measure, and in Washington, where voters OK'd a "Death with Dignity" measure that allows doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to terminally ill patients who want to kill themselves.

Earlier this year, Colorado agencies, spurred by the Legislature, imposed tough environmental regulations on oil and gas companies. But the voters decided not to impose higher taxes on those companies, even though Colorado's oil-and-gas tax rate is lower than the rates in neighboring states. Colorado's infrastructure and its public colleges have been strangled by a tax-limit passed in 1992, but voters also rejected a measure that would have relaxed that chokehold. Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter and some moderate Republicans and business groups backed both of those pro-tax measures.

Trend toward pragmatism, maybe

Some Western extremists were knocked out of office -- most notably, Republican Idaho Rep. Bill Sali, who was famously called an "idiot" by one of his party's leaders. But high-profile moderates also got booted out of federal and state offices, including Oregon's Republican Sen. Gordon Smith. And at least one extremist won a congressional seat: Jason Chaffetz, who defeated incumbent Utah Rep. Chris Cannon in the Republican primary, will take his uncompromising anti-immigration, anti-tax views to the U.S. House.

Wyoming's new Republican Congresswoman, Lummis, thinks the science isn't yet clear on global warming and wants to extend the Bush tax cuts despite a federal budget deficit bigger than the (shrinking) polar ice cap. Democratic Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, a few days after the election, vowed to continue pushing for a ban on handguns in city parks and buildings, despite opposition from his state's attorney general as well as from the hundreds of thousands of Washington voters who are staunchly for gun rights.

Even so, there is an apparent trend in the West toward pragmatism and populism, and voters seem eager to protect or improve local amenities and services.

In Sevier County, Utah, voters took a step toward voting down a Nevada company's plan to build a coal-fired power plant in the county: They OK'd a ballot measure that gives them the right to make the final decision. That battle extended as far as the Utah Legislature (which earlier passed a law saying the locals couldn't exercise such power) and the Utah Supreme Court (which ruled that the law was unconstitutional).

The animal-rights movement made progress in California, where voters overwhelmingly approved a measure to require more humane conditions for factory-farm chickens, pigs and calves. (Arizona, Colorado and Oregon have already passed modest versions.) In Utah, voters in metro Salt Lake County OK'd new taxes for improvements to the county's 48-acre zoo and 8-acre aviary, including new jungle exhibits with birds from Latin America.

Open-space ballot measures continued to be popular: There were 17 major proposals to impose new taxes for buying open space lands and improving parks in the West, and voters OK'd 14 of them, according to the Trust for Public Land, which worked on many of the proposals.

Mass transit also continued to be popular: Voters in California, Seattle, Wash., and northern New Mexico approved new taxes to expand commuter rail and bus systems. California's proposal is especially ambitious: The state plans to issue nearly $10 billion in bonds for a down payment on building a high-speed rail network linking Los Angeles to San Francisco and Sacramento.

Among the other reasons for Obamaesque optimism: American Indians won 10 seats in Western legislatures. Denise Juneau, a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes, fended off racial slurs to earn a statewide office, Montana school superintendent. Lena Fowler, a Navajo, won a seat on the Coconino County Board of Supervisors in Arizona. Todd Gloria, of the Tlingit-Haida tribes, won a seat on the San Diego, Calif., City Council.

In another sign of diversity, wealthy Internet entrepreneur Jared Polis won the U.S. House seat representing the liberal enclave of Boulder, Colo.; Polis is the first openly gay man elected as a freshman congressman. (Other gays in Congress have come out after they were elected.)

Looking ahead

On the horizon, the Obama wave may lead to future Democratic wins in the West and increasing political alignment of moderates in both parties. Young voters (under 30 years old) went for Obama 2-to-1, as did Latino voters (another fast-growing segment of the electorate).

But in the short term, it will be difficult for the region -- and for any particular state -- to truly unify around any plans to address today's huge crises, including the global economic meltdown. Many people in the Republican redoubts approved of the Bush administration's relaxation of environmental regulations, and they're already wary of Obama's plans to restore such rules.

Some of the new players appear determined to find middle ground. Oregon's new senator, Jeff Merkley, is the "son of a millworker (and) the first in his family to attend college," says the Associated Press. Merkley has proven effective as a leader in the Oregon Legislature, pushing for living wages, affordable housing and consumer protection; AP calls him a "populist."

The new Democratic congressman from southern New Mexico is oilman Harry Teague. He's a high-school dropout who earned his money in an oilfield services business, and he gives his employees good benefits, including college tuition and health insurance. He calls himself a pragmatic populist.

Idaho Democrat Walt Minnick won the House seat that had been held by Bill Sali. Minnick -- a former timber company executive and onetime Republican, who'd received endorsements from business groups -- is an avowed centrist. The day after he got elected, Minnick pledged to take a bipartisan approach.

Meanwhile, journalists around the West reported a surge in gun sales right after Obama got elected. Some Westerners fear that Obama and the Democratic Congress will pass more gun-control laws. They're buying semi-automatic assault rifles, Glock pistols and ammo so fast that gun stores are running out and manufacturers are straining to keep up. Apparently, the Old West stereotypes are still alive.