How the New West will vote is anyone's guess


Note: This article is a sidebar to a feature story.

They moved to Boise to kayak the Payette River's world-class rapids. They came to Salt Lake City for Wasatch powder snow, the lightest on earth. They came to Seattle for Starbucks Coffee, Mount Rainier and the cutting-edge music scene.

Since the early 1990s, thousands of people have moved to the Pacific Northwest, the Intermountain West and the Central Rockies to play in the mountains and enjoy the highly rated fly-fishing, skiing, mountain biking, rock climbing, and whitewater boating. Many came from Southern California. Sick of high crime and high taxes, they sold their homes for $500,000 or more, bought nicer homes for one-fourth the price, and retired early.

Until the 1994 election, environmental and Democratic leaders were licking their chops. Finally, they thought, we've got a new crop of fair-minded people who will vote for quality of life and toss out the old-guard Western Republicans who support resource-extraction industries at the expense of the environment - things like cheap grazing fees for ranchers, salvage clearcuts for the timber industry and $5-an-acre patent fees for open-pit gold mines.

But everyone knows what happened in 1994: The Democrats took a whipping.

"The environment doesn't count on election day," says Greg Cawley, a University of Wyoming political science professor. "The polls suggest that the American public supports the environment, but the irony is that there's no proof that voting for the environment buys politicians anything at all."

Come November '96, however, the environment is expected to be a big deal at the ballot box. Newt's Republican Contract With America didn't mention anything about the environment, but Congress waged an unprecedented assault on the nation's environmental laws in the last two consecutive years. Lawmakers gutted the Environmental Protection Agency's budget. Congress placed a moratorium on the listing of new endangered species. Western lawmakers such as Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, browbeat Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt over his proposed grazing reforms and they proposed neo-Sagebrush Rebellion legislation that would give the nation's BLM lands back to the states.

Even Business Week magazine suggested that the environment would be a key election issue in 1996. "Eco-activists are readying their biggest ever get-out-the-vote effort this fall," a Business Week article said.

The League of Conservation Voters, a Washington D.C.-based public interest group, gave most Republican senators and representatives "zero" scores for their voting record on 13 environmental issues. Craig and Young were no exception. The League is targeting Republicans who have done the most damage.

Should be a field day for pro-environment Democrats in 1996, right? Not necessarily. Cawley looks back to 1984, when former President Reagan ran for a second term, with anti-environmental baggage weighing heavily on him. Reagan had appointed the likes of James Watt as his Interior secretary and timber industry attorney John Crowell as assistant director of Agriculture, with direct oversight of the U.S. Forest Service. Did he lose any political points? Not really. Reagan trounced Democrat Walter Mondale, carrying 49 states.

Dan McCool, associate professor of political science at the University of Utah, says Westerners of all kinds are torn between supporting Republicans to hold the line on spending and endorsing Democrats for their typically more moderate social and environmental views.

"There's a strong perception out there that the Democrats are not capable of delivering on a balanced budget," McCool says. "The Democrats have had 40 years to balance the budget and they haven't done it. At the same time, 80-85 percent of Americans say they're environmentalists and the majority would pay higher taxes to protect the environment."

McCool sees environmental issues as the "trump card" for Democrats in 1996. But he's not sure if the public will trust Democrats on fiscal issues. "Right now, we in the West have to make a choice between mega-deficits and raping the environment. Until we have a new choice, it's not really a good choice either way."

Another factor in the 1996 general election is whether Democrats can field capable candidates with hefty financial support and the political savvy to beat incumbent Western Republicans. As a general rule, incumbents win 90 percent of the time, political experts say, and unprecedented levels of industry political action committee (PAC) funding will make any incumbent a formidable foe.

To truly make a difference, however, political experts say Democrats will have to expose Republicans' voting records and show how they affect people at home, how they might ruin a favorite fishing hole or recreation spot. "The environmental movement has succeeded in developing an abstract environmental conscience in the American public," Cawley says, "but locally, environmentalists haven't been as effective. There is an absence of local proof."

We'll see on election day whether Westerners - both newcomers and natives - are concerned enough about Congress' environmental record to make a statement at the polls.

Stephen Stuebner reports from Boise, Idaho.

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