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Know the West

Western Republicans have a few things to crow about


Here's some solace for Rocky Mountain Republicans suffering the post-election glooms: It could have been worse.

You could be New England Republicans, the few, the forlorn, the forgotten, in a six-state region with more than 14 million people, soon to have exactly one Republican member of the House of Representatives.

Or you could be in the Midwest, where a surge of populism, war-weariness and general disgruntlement swept away two incumbent Republican senators and a slew of House members.

But no, you're in the Interior West, where the great Democratic wave that rose off the coast of New Hampshire, swelled across Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, and Missouri, and even inundated Kansas, began to diminish. It got you wet, but didn't flood you.

Otherwise, those perennial Democratic targets, Congresswomen Marilyn Musgrave in Colorado and Heather Wilson in New Mexico, would have lost. Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona might have been defeated. Barbara Cubin could have beaten in Wyoming, and, a Democrat might even have taken Idaho's reliably Republican 1st Congressional District from an ultra-conservative Republican.

At this writing, none of this has happened. Kyl and Musgrave are safely re-elected, and Bill Sali will represent Idaho's first district even if a fellow-Republican once described him as "an absolute idiot." Of the 16 senators from the eight states in Mountain Time, 11 will be Republicans when the 110th Congress convenes in January, as will 14 of the 28 members of the House.

But that will be one less senator and three fewer representatives than in the 109th. The House losses were in Colorado (1) and Arizona (2). That one-less senator is in Montana, about to be the only Mountain State with no Republican senator. Bill Ritter's victory over Bob Beauprez in Colorado means that only three of the eight states will have Republican governors. Yes, from the perspective of Mountain State Republicans, it could be worse. But it could surely be better.

The Interior West has not turned Democratic. But it has turned competitive. Only a few years ago, Republicans had reason to hope and Democrats to fear that the region had become irrevocably red, a solid Republican West, a modern counterpart to the solid Democratic South of a few decades ago, where winning the primary was "tantamount" (a word never used in any other context) to victory in November. This was always something of a delusion. It was not that long ago that Bill Clinton carried five mountain states. Still, for the last half of the 1990s and the first part of this decade, Republicans were regionally ascendant as the Democrats grew both weaker and meeker.

No longer, and one reason is that the West is part of America. The Iraq war is no more popular in Denver than in Detroit, and corrupt congressmen are held in no higher regard in Bozeman than in Boston. But there have also been changes within the region. New arrivals — refugees from Mexico, California, and the Midwest — brought new attitudes. And at least a few of the longtime residents question the neo-anarchism that perverts the traditional libertarian attitude of "you can't tell me what to do on my own time in my own place,' to "You can't tell me what to do, no matter what I destroy."

In which context, one Republican loss outside the region should be noted. In California's Central Valley, Richard Pombo, chairman of the house Resources Committee and arguably the most extreme of the neo-anarchists, was soundly whipped. Like a lot of other Republican losers, Pombo had dealings with now-imprisoned lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Like a lot of the newly-elected Democrats, Jerry McNerney might have trouble holding the seat against an untainted Republican next time.

But McNerney also assailed Pombo for trying to weaken the Endangered Species Act and for supporting more oil drilling off the California coast. Like voters elsewhere in the West, those in central California may not love government regulations, But they are having second thoughts about scuttling them altogether.

And one more thing: For days, those who dominate what passes for journalism on television have been braying that most of the new Democratic congressmen are conservatives who will war with their more liberal leadership.

Nonsense. On two or three social issues, notably abortion and gun control, some of these Democrats differ with party dogma. On taxes and trade, health care and education, foreign policy and environmental policy, they are in the Democratic mainstream. In the 110th Congress, Social Security will not be privatized, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will not be drilled, and the minimum wage might well be raised -- all with plenty of support from freshmen Democrats, including those from the Rockies.

There is, this week, only so much solace available for Mountain State Republicans.

Jon Margolis is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He covers politics in the West from the vantage point of Vermont.