Lynch-mob politics

It's not the Old West -- it's our guide to this year's Western elections

  • The old West, as seen at Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park, Tombstone, Arizona.

    Leslie Kalohi, Flickr

Note: This is the introduction to a state-by-state analysis of key races.


In August 2009, some 400 Democratic leaders and strategists gathered in a dimly lit room at the Colorado History Museum in Denver. The setting was intimate; people speaking from the low stage didn't need a microphone to be heard.

Party leaders and lesser-knowns, mostly decked out in the New West politician's uniform -- sport coat, blue jeans and cowboy boots but no tie, except maybe a bolo -- spoke to an intent audience. Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter strode around shaking hands and slapping backs; Kyrsten Sinema, a rising star in Arizona state politics, and Terrance Carroll, the first African-American speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives, debated the meaning of patriotism with Idaho Rep. Walt Minnick. Hollywood refugee Robert Redford gave a candid, sometimes harsh critique of the policies that had shaped the region over the past century; he called the leaders of his adopted state, Utah, "retarded and no friends of the environment," said that all dams should be torn down, and encouraged the complete phase-out of coal power.

For the many wonks in the audience, however, Redford's grizzled good looks paled beside the strategic acumen of Jim Messina, deputy White House chief of staff. Messina opened his talk with a giant close-up of the back of a distinctly crew-cut human head. "Hair matters," he said, to uproarious laughter. The head in question belonged to Montana Democrat Jon Tester, the organic farmer who took a Senate seat from Republican Conrad Burns in 2006.

Messina reiterated what was already conventional wisdom: Democratic candidates should talk Western, look Western, revere the American flag and throw a lot of community barbecues. But it somehow sounded fresh coming from Messina, a Denver native who attended high school in Idaho, earned a University of Montana political science degree and became an important behind-the-scenes player in the Interior West's recent Democratic uprising. Messina, who had worked on several congressional campaigns, was a high-level strategist in Barack Obama's presidential campaign. He helped transform the region from a Republican stronghold ignored by most national politicians to a critical battleground suddenly dominated by Democrats.

"The road to the West Wing goes through the American West," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada told the conference. Not only had Obama won Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, but also, at that moment, seven of the West's 11 states had Democratic governors and 14 of the region's 22 senators were Democrats.

Today, as the mid-term elections approach, the pundits are again watching the West closely. This time, their focus is on a different uprising, one that seems boiling mad and threatens to leave the political landscape littered with carnage. Reid himself is fighting for his political survival, and Democratic congressional incumbents in Colorado, Nevada, California and Washington face tough battles for re-election. Meanwhile, the right-wing branch of the Republican Party is knocking out moderate Republican candidates in primaries in places like Utah, Idaho and Colorado. It's possible that the region will wake up on Nov. 3 with nine Republican governors, a huge reversal of the balance of power.

As in the rest of the nation, the urge to string up incumbents and moderates from the nearest hangin' tree -- metaphorically speaking -- is stoked by the wretched economy. For the past three years, the Southwest has led the nation in home foreclosures. Unemployment levels are especially high in Oregon, Nevada and Arizona. In Colorado, the downturn hit natural gas prices shortly after the Democratic Legislature and Gov. Ritter imposed strong new drilling regulations; the timing was coincidence, but the industry and those who lost gas-field jobs tended to blame Democrats rather than the nationwide economic collapse. Displeasure over health-care reform and the stimulus bill helped spur the anti-federal-government, libertarian-leaning Tea Party movement, which is prominent in the West, like a revitalized version of the 30-year-old Sagebrush Rebellion. In June, Rasmussen Reports listed Colorado as the number-one Tea Party state, with 33 percent of likely voters identifying themselves with the movement; Arizona was also in the top five.

But before you pull out the body bags, keep in mind: This kind of abrupt back-and-forth is politics-as-usual for the West. In August 2008, for instance, the Democrats' power play climaxed with Obama's rousing speech to a rock-concert-like audience in Denver's Mile High stadium. A day later, the Republicans stole their thunder by announcing that Alaska's Sarah Palin would join McCain, also a Westerner, on their presidential ticket.

In the run-up to this November, Palin has been traveling the West endorsing Tea Partyish candidates, urging on the right-wing revolutionaries who condemn their opponents as un-American "communists" and "socialists." On the other side, left-wingers say they're battling "corporate stooges" and "religious fanatics." It's an especially ugly election season.

Western voters, however, by temperament tend to lean toward moderate candidates, no matter the party. That's why Republicans with a green side and Democrats who shoot guns often win our general elections. On the same day that the Tea Partiers held a giant rally in Reid's hometown of Searchlight, Nev., Reid spent the day with National Rifle Association Vice President Wayne LaPierre, out shooting. You could say Reid is getting pretty Western in his race against Tea Partier/Sagebrush Rebel Sharron Angle.

Will that be enough to keep Reid and his colleagues in power? There are always exceptions to the general tendencies toward moderation, and this year feels pretty exceptional. While High Country News can't predict the future, our state-by-state elections guide -- identifying the hottest races and analyzing the political dynamics, without getting sidetracked in the lynch-mob-style attacks -- should give you a good idea of what to expect on Nov. 2. Keep this as a handy reference as the voting results come in.

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