The Republicans now own the West

  • House of Representatives vs. Senate races

    Diane Sylvain

The morning after the elections, Carl Pope and Deb Callahan, heads of the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters respectively, held a jubilant conference call with the press:

"The message from yesterday's election comes down to two words - environment wins. Voters supported those committed to protecting our environment," began Callahan. "The nation's water and air are safer today than they were yesterday."

Not in the West. The League's "dirty dozen" campaign fared well nationally - six out of 12 candidates targeted were defeated - but after nearly $10 million spent by the two national groups, not a single U.S. Senate or House race targeted by environmentalists in the inland West went the way they wanted. Take away the coastal states of Washington and Oregon, and the West is almost solidly Republican.

There are now only four Democratic congresspeople in the eight inland-West states: two in the Denver area and one each in New Mexico and Arizona. There are 12 Republican senators and four Democratic senators: Richard Bryan and Harry Reid in Nevada, Jeff Bingaman in New Mexico, and Max Baucus in Montana. In the governors' mansions, only Roy Romer in Colorado and Bob Miller in Nevada are Democrats. The other six are Republicans.

Things are only marginally more Democratic in the coastal states. While Democrats have managed to get elected around the coastal cities - there are four Democrats out of five congresspeople in Oregon and three out of nine in Washington - all seven are in metropolitan or suburban areas. Rural eastern and central Oregon and Washington send Republicans to Congress, as does California east of the Sierras and north of the Bay Area. In the U.S. Senate, both Oregon and Washington have one Republican and one Democrat. The states both have Democratic governors: John Kitzhaber in Oregon and newly elected Gary Locke in Washington.

The Republican landscape is not the result of this year's election or even the 1994 revolution. It is the result of an evolution - a methodical weeding of Democrats that has gone on for years. This year, three-term Democratic Representative Bill Orton of Utah was defeated, possibly in response to Clinton's designation of the Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument in his district. Montana's sole House seat, which had been in Democrat Pat Williams' hands since 1978, went to Republican Rick Hill.

The state legislatures in the 10 Western states have followed the same path. Twenty years ago, Democrats controlled the state legislatures in six states and controlled one chamber in two other states. Republicans controlled two state legislatures. Today, only New Mexico's state Legislature has a majority of Democrats in both chambers. In Nevada, the Democrats control the House. In the other eight states, Republicans control both chambers.

Rick Johnson of the Idaho Conservation League considers Idaho state Senator Mary Lou Reed's loss the most telling. "As I've talked to people around the country, everyone wants to talk about the (Senate candidate Walt) Minnick race. But to give a sense of how elections went, I tell them that Mary Lou lost." Reed, an environmentalist from Idaho's Panhandle who has withstood the Republican tide for 12 years, succumbed this year. When she was elected in 1984, there were 21 Democrats and 21 Republicans in the Idaho Senate. By 1994, that had shrunk to eight Democrats; now there are five.

"Everyone said it couldn't get worse. It did," says Dave Crandall of the Northern Rockies Campaign in Boise, Idaho. Like many of the region's environmentalists, Crandall put more energy and resources into this election than any previously. "Idaho is much more of a conservative state than many of us wanted to believe. People moving in are fitting the same profile as the people that are already here."

Do environmentalists need a new election plan for these states? No, say the national groups. "We are happy with the six out of 11 (of the dirty dozen - one is undecided) we defeated," says Burt Glass of the League of Conservation Voters. "We're not going to rush to conclusions that our pro-environmental message can't play in Idaho."

The Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters aren't completely off base when they say that environmental issues played well in the elections. The "War on the West" rhetoric from earlier years was put to rest, and candidates targeted by environmental groups scrambled to put a green spin on their reputations. Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, known as the mining industry's strongest supporter, ran ads showing him river rafting and fishing, and Colorado Senator-elect Wayne Allard, who as a congressman voted to sell off Forest Service land to ski areas, tried to claim the environmental high ground by painting his opponent, Democrat Tom Strickland, as a lawyer for polluters.

So the environment was definitely an issue, but it didn't elect Democrats. For one thing, in the public-land states, the Republican Party is generously supported by the resource-based industries. In the two House races where Democratic seats went to Republicans, the Democrats were grossly outspent: In Montana, for example, Republican Rick Hill spent an estimated twice as much as Democrat Bill Yellowtail.

But more than money, in many Western states, the Democratic party lacks the infrastructure to compete, says Johnson. "They don't have a precinct structure. They haven't done the legwork it takes to build a party."

In the future, Johnson would like conservationists to field candidates who have no party affiliation or who are Republicans. He says this worked on the local level in Boise, Idaho, where conservative voters elected two progressive environmentalists to the state's highway commission.

The candidates never mentioned their party affiliation while campaigning.

Here are some election details:


Arizona could have skipped this election. Every incumbent held his congressional seat. In the 1st District, Republican Matt Salmon beat Democrat John Cox. In the 2nd District, Democrat Ed Pastor beat Republican Jim Buster. In the 3rd, Republican Bob Stump beat Democrat Alexander Schneider. In the 4th, Republican John Shadegg beat Democrat Maria Elena Milton. In the 5th, Republican Jim Kolbe beat Democrat Mort Nelson. In the 6th, Republican freshman J.D. Hayworth, who was targeted by environmentalists, beat Democrat Wayne Owens by 2 percentage points.


Although environmentalists celebrated the defeat of Republican freshman Rep. Andrea Seastrand by Democrat Walter Holden Capps in the Santa Barbara district, in the northern, rural district, Republican Rep. Frank Riggs handily defeated Democratic challenger Michela Alioto.


Colorado broke its habit of having both a Democratic and Republican senator by electing Republican Wayne Allard over Democrat Tom Strickland to the Senate. Although there were two open House seats, neither changed parties. In the 1st District, which is mostly Denver, Democrat Diana DeGette beat Republican Joe Rogers for retiring Democrat Pat Schroeder's seat. In the 2nd District, which centers on liberal Boulder, Democrat David Skaggs beat Republican Pat Miller. In the 3rd District, Republican Scott McInnis beat Democrat Al Gurule. In the 4th, Republican Robert Schaffer beat Democrat Guy Kelley for now-Senator Wayne Allard's seat. In the 5th, Republican Joel Hefley beat Democrat Mike Robinson. In the 6th, Republican Dan Shaefer beat Democrat Joan Fitz-Gerald.


In Idaho, all Republicans won re-election. Sen. Larry Craig beat challenger Democrat Walt Minnick. In the 1st District, which is centered on Boise, Helen Chenoweth barely survived a challenge by Democrat Dan Williams. In the 2nd District, in eastern Idaho, Michael Crapo easily beat Democrat John Seidl.


When Democratic candidate for Montana governor Chet Blaylock died a few weeks before elections, popular Republican incumbent Marc Racicot was virtually assured re-election. He won, as did Democratic Sen. Max Baucus. In the race to replace retiring Rep. Pat Williams, Republican Rick Hill beat Democrat Bill Yellowtail for Montana's sole House seat.


Nevada's two congressional districts held no surprises. Incumbent Republican John Ensign beat Democrat Bob Coffin in the Las Vegas district. In the vast 2nd District, Republican Jim Gibbons beat Democrat Thomas Wilson for retiring Republican Barbara Vucanovich's seat.

New Mexico

Nothing changed in New Mexico as a result of the elections. Republican Sen. Pete Domenici easily won re-election, as did all three representatives. In the 1st District, which contains most of Albuquerque, Republican Steven Schiff beat Democrat John Wertheim. In the southern 2nd District, Republican Joe Skeen beat Democrat Shirley Baca. In the northern 3rd District, Democrat Bill Richardson beat Republican William Redmond.


Environmentalists found a reason to celebrate in Oregon. Forest supporter Democrat Elizabeth Furse won re-election over challenger Republican Bill Witt in the 1st Congressional District, which contains part of Portland, and in the 5th District, environmentalist Darlene Hooley beat Republican freshman Jim Bunn. In the rural 2nd District, which contains over half the land in the state, Republican Bob Smith beat Democrat Mike Dugan for the seat vacated by disgraced Wes Cooley. In the 3rd District, which contains the rest of Portland, Democrat Earl Blumenauer beat Republican Scott Bruun. In the 4th District, which contains liberal Eugene, Democrat Peter DeFazio beat Republican John Newkirk. Republican Gordon Smith won his second try in a year for Senate. He beat software tycoon Democrat Tom Bruggere.


Like neighboring Idaho and Wyoming, Utah now has an entirely Republican congressional delegation. In the 1st District, James Hansen easily won re-election over Democratic contendor Gregory Sanders. In the 2nd District, Republican Merrill Cook finally won an election, after six tries at office. The explosives magnate beat liberal Ross Anderson for Enid Greene's (formerly Enid Waldholtz) Salt Lake City seat. In the 3rd District, Democrat Bill Orton lost his seat to Republican challenger Christopher Cannon. Popular Republican Governor Mike Leavitt easily won re-election.


After receiving the brunt of the Republican storm in 1994, Washington democrats took back one congressional seat: Democrat Adam Smith defeated Republican freshman Randy Tate in the 9th District, south of Seattle. Incumbents won the rest of the races. In the 1st District, which includes part of Seattle, Republican Rick White beat Democrat Jeff Coopersmith. In the central 4th District, Richard Hastings beat Democrat Rick Locke. In the eastern 5th District, Republican George Nethercutt beat Democrat Judy Olson. In the 6th District, Democrat Norm Dicks beat Republican Bill Tinsley. In the 7th District, Democrat Jim McDermott beat Republican Frank Kleschen. In the 8th District, Republican Jennifer Dunn beat Democrat Dave Little. At the time of this writing, two races are too close to call: In the 3rd District, Republican Linda Smith has a narrow lead over Democrat Brian Baird and in the 2nd District, Republican Jack Metcalf has a narrow lead over Democrat Kevin Quigley. Washington voters elected Gary Locke as governor; he will become the continental United States' first Asian governor.


Wyoming stayed as Republican as ever. Mining booster Mike Enzi beat former Secretary of State and National Rifle Association supporter Kathy Karpan for retiring Sen. Alan Simpson's seat. Barbara Cubin held onto the state's sole House seat.


Industry opposition knocked off the three most far-reaching environmental initiatives. Montana's clean water initiative, which would have forced new or expanding mines to treat their wastewater, was outspent by $2.2 million to $350,000. Oregon's clean streams initiative was soundly defeated by the ranching and agriculture industries. Idaho's anti-nuclear waste initiative, Stop the Shipments, was defeated in part because of the confusion the pro-nuclear groups created by calling their group Get the Waste Out.

Pro-gambling initiatives lost in the West, 2-to-1. In Colorado, voters soundly defeated Amendment 18, which would have allowed the historic town of Trinidad to operate limited stakes casinos if locals voted for it in a special election. In Washington, Initiative 671 also failed. It would have allowed 19 tribes to legally operate a total of 495 slots. In Arizona, voters approved Proposition 201, which demands that Governor Fife Symington sign gaming compacts with the five tribes that don't operate gambling.

Hunting initiatives fared better. Only in Idaho did voters turn down the chance to restrict hunting. Voters in Colorado and Washington approved measures to restrict trapping and hunting and Oregon voters rejected a measure to overturn the ban on hounding and baiting. Initiatives preserving open space did very well: Colorado can now manage its state trust lands for values besides money, such as open space, agriculture or wildlife.

Heather Abel is a staff reporter and researcher for HCN.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- Don't expect problem solving in 1997-1998

- The way columnist Ellen Miller saw one '96 race in Colorado

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