Western states seek national political clout
COLORADO SPRINGS – While the Rocky Mountain region may be blessed with abundant natural resources, robust landscapes and endless recreational opportunities, the area is under-endowed when it comes to political influence at the national level.It’s fly-over country, especially for presidential candidates who spend little time and even less money in the region, said Chris Jackson, a student researcher at Colorado College who introduced a session on regional politics at the State of the Rockies conference in Colorado Springs last week.Jackson’s charts clearly showed that the eight-state region (Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Nevada, Montana, Arizona and Idaho) doesn’t rate when it comes to campaign stops and campaign spending. Much of the subsequent panel discussion focused on how that could be changed with early regional primaries or caucuses, and with more bipartisan cooperation among the region’s congressional delegations.”Right now we’re being ignored. Even the major TV networks don’t include us in their schedule,” said Democratic State Rep. Gary Lindstrom, reacting to word of the discussions at the conference. “I’ve always thought that the powers that be in the East have done their best to stop the movement (toward more influence by other regions). Iowa and New Hampshire are a pain … to national parties on both sides, expensive and hard to control,” Lindstrom said. “Who knows, with early caucuses and primaries, you might get the person the people want rather than the person the parties want,” Lindstrom said, encouraging efforts to distill more political power from regional issues in the Rockies and inter-mountain West.But a push toward earlier primaries in the Rocky Mountain region could lead to a kind of “arms race,” with different parts of the country vying to host the earliest contests, said Ron Bristol, chair of the county’s Republican party.And Summit County Commissioner Tom Long is not so sure the region is not well represented.”What have we lost, what hasn’t got done in the Rockies?’ he said, responding to Lindstrom and wondering if the call for more clout isn’t just Democratic code for advancing a partisan agenda. “The Democrats, by their actions, have galvanized Republicans and disgusted a lot of other folks,” Long said, possibly explaining the regional shift from blue to red during the past three presidential races. As recently as 1992, Clinton won in Montana, Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico, taking 20 of the region’s 40 electoral votes. In 2004, Bush won every state in the region, taking all 44 electoral votes.Still, Long acknowledged that there are some common issues that deserve bipartisan attention, including transportation, water and energy.Maturing identity?Those issues could form a basis for a more unified political voice, according to Dan Kemmis, a former mayor of Missoula, Mont., and senior fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West at the University of Montana.Kemmis said he has observed a rapidly maturing sense of regional identity, spurred in part by home-grown writers who have held the West up before itself and tried to dispel some of the mythology and replace it with honest self-examination. That mythology is an important part of the nation’s heritage, but it’s time for the West to move beyond the legends and recognize itself for what it really is, Kemmis said.He also encouraged the idea of an early regional primary, but cautioned that it’s only a vehicle to move toward more power.”If we get that influence, we need to know what we’re going to say,” he concluded.In fact, working behind the scenes, some Western political strategists are already taking real steps toward making that regional influence a reality. The presentation by Democratic strategist Michael Stratton, of Durango, is called “Turning the West Blue in 2008,” left no doubt that, for him, it is a partisan issue. Stratton, who chaired Sen. Ken Salazar’s successful 2006 campaign in Colorado, said he’s working with the Democratic National Committee to set up a slate of early political events that will ensure more regional influence.He hopes the effort will force potential candidates from both parties to consider issues important to residents of the region.”A lot of people think Iowa and New Hampshire have too much clout and that they’re not representative enough,” Stratton said. “In 2004, (presidential candidates) came, they took our money and they paid lip service, but they didn’t talk our issues,” Stratton said, referring to short tarmac visits and fly-in, fly-out fundraisers in Denver and a few other Western cities. “We’ve got to get the Democrats talking our issues.”Stratton said a new emerging regional alliance between traditionally Republican constituencies like hunters and anglers, ranchers and conservation-minded residents, with a focus on open space and natural resource protection could bode well for Democratic candidates in the interior West. He said wins by Democratic governors in states that voted red is one sign for that new political coalition.Bob Berwyn can be reached at (970) 331-5996, or at email@example.com.
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