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Know the West

Western elections wrap-up

Red states get redder, while key Senate seats stay blue


For in-depth data on spending and other aspects of Western elections, see the sidebar: Snapshot of an election

If this year's political fury was fueled by the bad economy, then folks in the Navajo Nation's Hardrock Chapter should be angrier than most. More than half of the people on this wind-battered patch of Arizona, south of Black Mesa, live in poverty. Many of the modest homes lack adequate plumbing or electricity, even the ones right next to the coal plants' long-distance high-voltage power lines, which sag elegantly between huge towers that resemble skeletons of Ye'iitsoh, the Big Giant from the Navajo creation story.

Nevertheless, civility reigned at a forum here for Navajo presidential candidates, a few weeks before the election. There were no Tea Party flare-ups, no placards denouncing anyone as a socialist or dead Nazi dictator. No one questioned whether either candidate was, in fact, a Navajo.

The Navajo presidential candidates -- Lynda Lovejoy, a New Mexico state senator, and incumbent Navajo Vice President Ben Shelly -- stuck to issues: the pros and cons of coal, renewable energy, alcohol problems and copyright laws. (The Native American art and jewelry market is rife with fakes.) It was a refreshing departure from the ugliness that has infused recent U.S. politics.

But meanwhile, over in Window Rock -- the tribal capital -- all hell was breaking loose. The Navajo Supreme Court, enforcing a voter-approved ballot measure, had ordered that the tribal council be reduced from 88 delegates to 24, so the entire legislative branch was also up for grabs. Shortly before the election, 77 of the delegates, along with Shelly, were charged with crimes ranging from forgery to fraud, mostly involving the alleged misuse of tribal money. The Navajo Supreme Court disbarred the tribal council's attorney for giving his client advice that the court didn't like. And Lovejoy filed ethics complaints against Shelly for accepting $10,000 from the United Mine Workers of America.

In other words, even Navajo politics weren't immune to the nationwide turmoil. Yet there was definitely a Western character to the tribe's elections. Lovejoy hoped to make history as the first woman to lead the Navajo Nation, and her running mate, Earl Tulley, hoped to be the first environmentalist on the winning ticket. (He co-founded an activist group called Dine CARE in 1988.) But it was Shelly who ended up making history: He became the first Navajo elected tribal president while under criminal indictment.

On election night, a man named Thomas Begay wandered around Shelly's noticeably subdued campaign headquarters. When the Navajo Times asked him what he thought, his answer echoed voters across the West: "This has been a very weird election."

Indeed. If there was a takeaway from this year's elections, it's that the Western electorate is in a state of flux, still trying to define itself. We're Republican majorities in many places, and then we're not, and then we are again. We're moderate, except when we're extreme, or don't give a damn. We are, well, just a little bit weird out here. High Country News took a closer look at the weirdness, and here are a few of the major trends, or anti-trends, if you will, that we noticed.

The West: A region apart
As Election Day loomed, much of the nation's attention turned westward, to the key Senate races in Nevada, Washington and Colorado. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's seat in Nevada was especially coveted; a Reid defeat would have dealt a symbolic -- and literal -- blow to Democrats nationwide, and his opponent, Sharron Angle, had become a major proxy of the Tea Party/Sarah Palin revolution. Right after her unexpected victory in the Republican primary, Angle appeared too extreme for the electorate, and early polls reflected that perception. But gobs of money poured into the state -- Angle had a multimillion-dollar late fund-raising surge -- and the voters were bombarded with attack ads on behalf of both candidates. As the race tightened, the state's biggest newspaper, the right-wing Las Vegas Review-Journal, hammered relentlessly on Reid, including a final anti-Reid editorial on Election Day -- a last-minute barrage that many newspaper editors would have avoided.

In spite of Vegas' glitter, however, Nevadans, like many Westerners, are pragmatic folks: A majority went for Reid -- surprising many national pundits. Reid is no rock star, but he is the son of a Nevada hardrock miner and fought some rounds in actual boxing rings. He has a record of getting things done for Nevadans, including his successful opposition to storing nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain (which pleased environmentalists) as well as his repeated blocking of mining reforms (which pleased almost everyone else; Nevada is the top gold-producing state). His broad appeal showed in endorsements from the Sierra Club, many state Republican leaders and even the Nevada Mining Association, in stark contrast to his more polarizing opponent.

Reid's victory -- along with the narrow wins of Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet in Colorado and Patty Murray in Washington, and Reps. Raúl Grijalva and Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona -- was more than a bright spot for his beleaguered party. It proved once again that Westerners often value results over ideology and think -- and act -- independently of national trends and the predictions of polls and pundits.

That independence is also evident in the West's lukewarm reception of Tea Party candidates. Sarah Palin endorsed a total of 18 candidates in primaries and the general election in 12 Western states including Alaska; only five had prevailed as this magazine went to the printer (Alaska's Senate race was still not decided). Even a few hard-right Republicans, such as Dino Rossi, who lost to Murray in Washington, and Scott Tipton, who upset Democratic Rep. John Salazar in Colorado, seemed to shy away from the Tea Party's embrace.

In the Colorado governor's race, two candidates in the general election -- Republican Dan Maes and American Constitution Partier Tom Tancredo -- vied for the Tea Party label. Both lost handily to Democrat John Hickenlooper. Seems it isn't yet Tea time in much of the West.

Red states get scarlet
"This will be the most pro-freedom, pro-family, pro-business, pro-state's rights Legislature we've ever had in the history of this state."  So said Republican Russell Pearce on the day after the elections, as his colleagues in the Arizona Senate chose him as Senate president. That's a high mark to strive for, given Arizona's right-wing political history, but Pearce apparently has the electorate behind him: Arizona Republicans won every statewide race, gained a two-to-one majority in the Legislature, and incumbent Gov. Jan Brewer easily defeated Democrat Terry Goddard to hold onto the state's highest office.

It was part of a red tide that flooded many state-level races across the West. Republican strongholds went from red to the deepest crimson, and Democratic strongholds were weakened.

In Wyoming, Democrats are now more imperiled than sage grouse after their worst defeat in almost a century: There will be just 14 Democrats to counter the 76 Republicans in the next Wyoming Legislature, and the GOP's Matt Mead easily snatched the governorship from eight years of Democratic possession. In the legislatures in Utah and Idaho, Republicans won a four-to-one majority. In Montana, they increased their advantage in the state Senate and took control of the House by a surprising, overwhelming margin. Even in Colorado, where Democrats kept control of the state Senate, they lost control of the House.

The impact of the power shifts within states can be significant. In recent years, Arizona's Republican legislators passed tough anti-immigration laws (with Pearce leading the charge), while Colorado's Democrats toughened the state's oil and gas regulations. Wyoming legislators have a big say in the management of species such as wolves and grouse, and in how the wind-power boom plays out locally. States also manage state parks and other state land, while deciding budgets for many purposes, including higher education. And state legislatures serve as farm leagues for congressional candidates.

The conservative Republican surge also showed in pick-ups of congressional seats held by moderate Democrats in southern New Mexico (Steve Pearce over Harry Teague), Arizona (Paul Gosar clobbered Ann Kirkpatrick and David Schweikert walloped Harry Mitchell), Colorado (Cory Gardner beat Betsy Markey), and Idaho, where state legislator Raul Labrador knocked out the West's most famous Blue Dog Democrat, Walt Minnick.

Fade from green
"Elections matter for our public lands," announced Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance Director Scott Groene on the morning after. "Last night brought enormous change for the worse."

Groene has reason to be concerned: Though the environment wasn't a big player on the national stage, the Nov. 2 elections tilted the balance of power in a decidedly non-green direction -- and that will have noticeable impacts around the West. With today's Republicans soon in control of the U.S. House of Representatives, any efforts to pass green legislation that would increase federal regulations are likely to die outright or get lost in gridlock. And expect the new House leadership to take aim at environmental regulations and laws imposed during the Democrats' past two years of dominance in Washington, D.C.

Republican Rep. Doc Hastings of  Washington is poised to ascend to the chairmanship of the House Natural Resources Committee, which oversees federal land and water issues. Hastings is unabashedly pro-drilling, and his goals include "ensuring that public lands are actually open to the public … and to hold the Administration accountable … on a range of issues including the de facto offshore drilling moratorium in the Gulf, potential new monument designations and plans to lock up vast portions of our oceans through an irrational zoning process." California Rep. Darrell Issa, who's expected to be the new chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is a member of the Congressional Western Caucus, a nouveau Sagebrush Rebel, anti-regulation, private-property-rights group.

The chances of Congress passing more wilderness-compromise bills are reduced by the election of Utah's new Republican senator, Mike Lee, another Sagebrush Rebel, who would much rather take federal land away from the feds. But one wilderness deal may have been thrown a lifeline. Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson likely will chair the Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and Related Agencies, giving him power over federal land agencies' budgets. Simpson's not a tree-hugger by any means, and some observers expect him to make life tough for the Environmental Protection Agency. But he believes in environmental compromise. For years, he's been trying to pass a bill to designate a 300,000-acre Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness Area in his state. A lot of hardcore greens oppose the deal because it also gives some federal land to off-road drivers, but it has the support of the Idaho Conservation League and The Wilderness Society. Simpson might use his newfound power to consummate the deal.

Meanwhile, the West's redder state legislatures will likely try to roll back some environmental laws, including state clean-energy standards. And the two newly elected Republican members of the Montana Public Service Commission have vowed to use their party's new control of that utility-regulation agency to derail Montana's goals for developing wind and solar power.

But Western environmentalists still have a few reasons to celebrate. Most noticeably, California voters shot down Proposition 23, an oil-industry-backed effort to roll back the state's plans to slash emissions that cause climate change. If that ballot measure had passed, it would have hurt the renewable energy industry around the West, because California imports a lot of its electricity and has been seeking more wind and solar generation.

Latino vote gets stronger
As the Tea Party's name sort of implies, that movement -- the modern version -- began as a champion of federal fiscal restraint, cutting government spending and taxes and pushing free-market capitalism. The movement has since given sanctuary to fringe elements that have no clear connection to those principles (such as the "Birthers" who think President Obama is a foreign-born Muslim socialist). It has also enthusiastically embraced the anti-illegal immigration, border-security cause. Arizona's Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio -- notorious for his harsh views on illegal immigration -- became a regular on the Tea Party campaign circuit, stumping for Angle in Nevada and Tancredo in Colorado, among other candidates. Palin also endorsed Tancredo, whose entire reputation is built on being tough on illegal immigration.

But the more vitriolic anti-immigration rhetoric hurt some Western candidates. Angle ran ads that played on fears of undocumented immigrants, even as Reid promised to push centrist comprehensive reforms of immigration policy; Reid got about two-thirds of the Latino vote in Nevada. In California, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer fended off a challenge from Tea Partier Carly Fiorina with the help of two-thirds of the Latino vote. And the Latino vote also played a big role in the Colorado Senate race: Four years ago, in his role as Weld County District Attorney, Republican Ken Buck demonized undocumented immigrants, sparking a furor. In his bid for the Senate this year, Buck only got 20 percent of the Latino vote, an important factor in his loss to Bennet.

Latino voters have many concerns besides immigration policy, of course -- surveys find that education, health care and the economy are much higher priorities. That politicians should heed this powerful group of voters was also demonstrated by the election of two new Western governors: Brian Sandoval in Nevada and Susana Martinez in New Mexico, who are both Republicans.

Ballot measure weirdness
California voters, tired of gridlock, ended a longtime requirement that each annual budget had to be approved by two-thirds of the Legislature: They passed a ballot measure allowing a simple majority to approve a budget. But they also OK'd a ballot measure saying it will no longer take a simple majority to impose a new tax or fee; now a two-thirds majority is required for that.

California voters also fell a few tokes short of passing a ballot measure to legalize marijuana for more than medical purposes.

An Arizona ballot measure to legalize medical marijuana was also falling short, just barely, as we went to the printer. Arizonans also rejected a measure that would have made hunting a state constitutional right, but passed measures against affirmative action and national health-care reform.

On taxes, Robin Hood got the thumbs-down in Washington, as a ding-the-rich ballot measure (similar to one that passed in Oregon earlier this year) failed. But Colorado voters, worried that government services would be strangled, rejected three measures that would have cut their taxes by billions of dollars.

The National Association of Realtors, based in Chicago, spent about $2 million pushing a Montana ballot measure to change the Montana Constitution so that the state and local governments can never impose a tax on real estate deals. Montana has no such tax, and the Legislature wasn't seriously considering imposing one. The Realtors' campaign budget, huge by Montana standards, bought a ton of TV ads, and there was no organized opposition; real-estate-transfer taxes simply haven't been a statewide issue. So the ballot measure passed easily, and now Montana's Constitution -- an idealistic document in general -- will have a new clause about personal profits on real estate.

The road to 2012
Many of us can remember a time when one of the best things about Election Day was that it signaled the end of campaigning, at least for the next year. Now we don't even expect to get 12 months of relief, especially in the West. If one thing was made clear by the 2010 elections, it was this: The West remains swing territory. And because the West's voters are in play, what was once flyover country is now one of the hottest places for national political battles. The good news is, politicians will finally give the West the respect it deserves. The bad news? The 2012 campaigns -- and the new attack ads -- will be coming to an airwave near you before you know it. Beware.

Update 11-23-2010: Some close races weren't decided when we published our elections wrap-up. As the vote counts and recounts tallied up, Arizona voters narrowly approved a ballot measure for medical marijuana. Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski's unusual write-in campaign beat Tea Partier Joe Miller, and Colorado Republicans took control of the state's House of Representatives. (But legal challenges might keep some of those outcomes up the air for a while longer.)