Poltertics, 2010

Will this fall's election chronicle a Republican resurrection in the West?

  • It's almost election time! Poltergeist II's Heather O'Rourke, as Carol Anne Freeling, ushers in a world of evil spirits simply by answering the phone.

    From the movie poster, Poltergeist II

A strange old man in a black suit appears at the door spouting grim proclamations. A toy phone rings in the dead of night. A little blonde girl lifts the receiver to her ear. Soon after, in a skin-crawling monotone, she says: "They're baa-aaack."

That's right: It's an election year. Actually, it's the horror film Poltergeist II: The Other Side, but 2010 is taking on a similar sequel-y feel. With the economy still foundering, President Barack Obama's approval rating sinking, health care reform bogged down, and the impending retirements of some prominent Democratic lawmakers, pundits are already speculating about a Republican resurgence, especially in places where Democrats' hold is relatively new and tenuous -- i.e., the Interior West.

At least one major enviro-boogieman has returned. In early January, former Congressman Richard Pombo, R -- perhaps best known for his repeated attempts to gut the Endangered Species Act -- announced plans to seek re-election to the U.S. House of Representatives in California's 19th District. That's just next door to the 11th, which Pombo lost after seven terms to Democrat Jerry McNerney in 2006, thanks in part to ethics scandals.

Pombo isn't the only formerly vulnerable Western Republican to reappear. In 2008, three-term New Mexico Congressman Steve Pearce lost a bid for Republican Pete Domenici's Senate seat to Democrat Tom Udall. Now, Pearce has a good chance of winning his old seat back from Harry Teague, the first Democrat to represent New Mexico's 2nd District since 1980.

The defeats of both Pombo and Pearce were part of a Democratic surge in the West over the last several years. Colorado, with its booming urban and suburban populations and increasingly strong Latino vote, is perhaps the best example. Between 2004 and 2008, Democrats seized the state's Legislature, its governorship, five out of seven house seats, both Senate seats, and with Obama, took the presidential vote for the first time since 1992.

Now, Colorado has emerged as a bellwether of Democratic vulnerability. On Jan. 6, Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter announced that he won't run for re-election this fall. He had become an easy target for Republican challengers like former U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, who blame Ritter's oil and gas regs for a massive slowdown in drilling and the accompanying loss of jobs. Popular Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, a petroleum geologist-turned-brewpub entrepreneur, has announced plans to run in Ritter's place. He'll be trickier to peg (he's already said Ritter's gas rules are too strict) and thus may offer Democrats a better opportunity to retain their edge, but he still trails McInnis in early polls.

Democratic Rep. Betsy Markey, who ousted three-term Republican Congresswoman Marilyn Musgrave from the state's traditionally conservative 4th District in the 2008 Democratic wave, also looks vulnerable this fall, as does freshman Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet. Ritter appointed Bennet to replace now-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. He and rival former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff trail the top Republican candidate, former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton, by double digits, according to a mid-January Rasmussen poll.

Nine Western states are holding gubernatorial elections this fall, and Colorado's won't be the only shakeup. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, R, who stepped into the position when Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano became secretary of Homeland Security, will have trouble overcoming the stigma of the state's budget woes, as will scandal-plagued Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons, R. Meanwhile, California's Arnold Schwarzenegger, R, Oregon's Ted Kulongoski, D, New Mexico's Bill Richardson, D, and Wyoming's Dave Freudenthal, D, are all term-limited. Republicans are likely to nab Wyoming, unless Freudenthal, a popular centrist, challenges the term-limits law. (A similar move by legislators was successful in 2004.) So far, he's commissioned a statewide poll of voters, but he didn't appear to be fund-raising as of the end of 2009.

Republicans even seem confident that this could be the year to pick off four-term Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada, deep in unpopular national battles over health care and climate change. The independent-minded state has swung Democrat in recent years, but also now has among the nation's worst foreclosure and unemployment rates, and Reid's disapproval rating is high -- 52 percent, according to one recent poll. Though the senator is reportedly on track to muster $25 million for the election, and the Republican field is a fractured mess of relatively unknown candidates, political analyst Stuart Rothenberg has moved Reid's seat into the "lean-takeover" category.

So will the West's electoral show chronicle a Republican resurrection? Maybe. But then again, remakes don't always succeed. We're still waiting for Hollywood's proposed remake of Poltergeist.

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