Western elections wrap-up

Red states get redder, while key Senate seats stay blue

  • A Sarah Palin cutout on display during an October Tea Party Express rally in Phoenix. Palin endorsed candidates from Arizona to Alaska, but some of her highest-profile picks, like Nevada's Sharron Angle, lost.

    Joshua Lott/Getty Images
  • Doc Hastings, who will likely become chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, sums up his position: "The livelihoods of rural communities, especially in the West, are dependent on the smart use of our public lands, water, timber, minerals and energy resources."

    House Natural Resources Committee
  • California Prop. 19, which would have legalized marijuana, went down, 54 percent to 46 percent.

    Cannabus Culture/ Flickr CC

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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.

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