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Mountain West Perspectives
Republicans are losing their grip on the West, by losing touch with its changing constituency
By Rocky Barker
for Headwaters News
In 2000, George W. Bush carried most of the Rocky Mountain and Great Plains states. His victories in these states reflect the gradual shift toward Republicans in all of these rural-dominated regions since 1980.
Don't be surprised if Republicans have peaked in the West. Western Republicans face the same problem Democrats have faced since the Reagan Revolution – their core ideology no longer fits their traditional base.
The core of Republican support in western states remains its rural voters. Historically, Democrats could count on getting many of these rural voters who were members of labor unions or true small farmers who recognized their livelihoods were tied to federal farm programs and federal water projects.
They, as did their urban counterparts, shared in the vision created by the Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal that lasted all the way into the 1970s.
But as the era of the big water projects died and as the farm economy began transforming in the world of global markets and mega-food corporations, the Democratic farmer faded from the landscape.
The Farm Bill of 1985 changed the formula for subsidies so that truly small farmers no longer could survive without outside income. Eventually they faded into the landscape and were replaced in the farm workplace by nonvoting migrants.
In the 1980s, labor unions were weakened nationally and by state right-to-work laws. Union Democrats no longer turned out miners and woodworkers, who voted for Republicans because of their anger with national Democratic support for environmentalists.
By the 1990s, Republicans had sewn up most of the rural areas by portraying themselves as the defenders of the timber, ranching and mining industries under siege by Clinton's "War on the West."
The strategy has been extremely effective. It tapped into the emotional reaction of westerners to oppose rules that come from the East. Most western Democrats share these reactions and the feeling that Easterners don't understand their problems.
Republicans in western and plains states have always supported farm programs as well, but until the 1990s, they always couched their support in the hope that farm programs eventually would be unnecessary, if the federal government would only develop trade and food policies that would allow farmers to thrive in the free market.
They finally put the ideology into law in 1996 with the Freedom to Farm Act.
The law increased farm subsidies and removed most of the requirements to limit what crops could be grown where. When world crop prices dove in the late 1990s, the program turned into an obvious failure. Congress had to remove the phase-outs and essentially keep the dole coming, no matter if the land was farmed or not.
In some states, such as Montana, half of all farm income came in the mail from the federal government to upper middle class farmers, many of whom had sold their equipment.
When the latest farm bill was passed in 2001, few of the disparities were cured, although it did shift more of the money to conservation and environmental programs. This at least meant that some of the money was being spent on a public purpose.
In the end the bill cost a whopping $171 billion. Before it was even signed reluctantly by President Bush, Rush Limbaugh and other conservatives were bemoaning it as a farm welfare bill and trying to hang its passage on Farm State Democrats, such as Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota.
In reality, House Republicans from the South and the West forced Congress to approve the biggest subsidies for the richest farmers. They used the old rhetoric about trade policies and getting the government out of farming. But they knew it would be hard to repeat their budget-busting victory, so they authorized the program for 10 years instead of the usual five.
Then there is the more than $2 billion in water subsidies the region enjoys. Most rural interests are demanding the federal government spend even more money on new projects to either build dams higher, line canals or add new reservoirs.
The reality is that government has gotten larger under Republican control. At the same time the Bush administration has run up the budget deficit again, that will eventually force one of two things: budget cuts or tax increases.
At some point, someone is going to have to pay the piper. Conservative strategists like Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, are urging party leaders to starve government with tax cuts and deficits that force Congress into thrifty habits.
At some point, Republicans are going to have to begin cutting government. That means Western states, who are today more dependent on government than ever, will lose. My guess is the day of reckoning will be when the farm bill comes up again for reauthorization in 2011.
Eventually Democrats, who can naturally argue government's beneficial role in society, ought to be able to get some traction. They have the best chance on the state level first where Westerners best recognize the responsible role of government.
They already have in New Mexico, where Bill Richardson replaced an anti-government Republican and has already risen to national prominence in the Democratic Party.
Gov. Dave Freudenthal, a conservative Democrat, won in Wyoming.
In Montana, a central theme of Republican rhetoric, deregulation, has led to a chaotic mess and higher electricity rates.
Elsewhere, the general shortfall of state governments due to the weak economy falls heavier on Republicans who have been in control at the wrong moment.
The urban West, an increasing piece of the political pie, will continue to grow, offering opportunities for Democrats. So too will the growing number of minority voters, especially Hispanics.
Make no mistake: Republicans will remain strong in the West, no matter what happens to the rural economy. Rural areas in the West grew by 20 percent, largely due to immigration from California. Most of the people who left California were Republicans, who oppose high taxes.They brought their jobs or their retirement incomes with them.
These new migrants also moved to cities such as Boise, Salt Lake, Spokane, Colorado Springs and Reno. They tend to be more supportive of protecting open space, wilderness, wildlife and other natural amenities than the native rural Republicans with roots in the resource industries.
But Democrats don't naturally appeal to their concerns about family values and their distrust of government. These voters and their children will become an increasing part of the political mix in Western states in the next two decades.
This means Republicans will remain the majority in the West unless they trash the region's wide open spaces. That's why environmental groups are trying to convince the nation, with some success, that Bush's energy and environmental policies amount to his own kind of war on the West.
Whatever happens, better balance will mean better debates, more checks and balances, and perhaps, more participation in government at all levels.
Rocky Barker is the environmental reporter for the Idaho Statesman in Boise. He also is a fellow at the Andrus Center for Public Policy and author of the book "Saving All the Parts: Reconciling Economics and the Endangered Species Act."
His website is www.rockybarker.com.
California's expats brought their politics
By Greg Lakes, editor
Oct. 1, 2003
For at least the past decade, a torrent of newcomers has poured out of California into the Interior West and fundamentally changed the region's politics.
The impact can't be underestimated, although it may be beginning to shift back, but that depends on the interpretation.
From 1995 to 2000, according to census figures, more people moved out of California than moved in, the first time that had happened since the 1940s.
The bulk of those 2.2 million out-migrants moved elsewhere in the region, overshadowing in-migration.
Nevada, for example, consistently one of the fastest-growing states, gained about 200,000 ex-Californians, while sending only 60,000 Nevadans the other direction.
Most of the nation's fastest-growing cities, counties and states were in the West then, and since. The migration patterns measured by the 2000 census marked the first time in a century that California and New York weren't the major draws for migrants.
Most of those Californians who left for greener pastures in the Mountain West were conservative white voters, and they brought their
Republican party ties with them.
By 2000, the GOP dominated Idaho, Utah, Arizona and Colorado politics at all levels, making the Rocky Mountain West the most Republican region in the nation.
But while the gross numbers are impressive enough -- the region gained 1.4 million people more than it lost from 1992 through 2000 --a more subtle analysis indicates an even greater shakeup.
The key metric is not the net in-migration, according to a leading Montana economist, but the degree of replacement.
In Flathead County, one of Montana's perpetual hot spots for growth, 74,500 people lived there in 2000, 15,000 of whom had moved in from somewhere else in the preceding five years. Of those, 11,000 had come from out of state.
During the same time, 13,000 county residents moved out.
The net gain was 2,000-plus, but more than 20 percent of the people who had been living there at the start of the period had been replaced by newcomers by the end.
The data say the people moving in are older, more wealthy and more conservative than those moving out.
In addition to becoming GOP strongholds, those changes have also lowered grade-school enrollments, a disproportionate increase in construction of high-end houses that raises average property tax bills, and in some cases, higher employee turnover.
By 2002, Republicans held all eight governorships in the region, and a 31-9 lead in the region's U.S. House and Senate seats.
But after the November 2002 elections, Democrats Janet Napolitano was governor of Arizona and Dave Freudenthal had won in Wyoming, Bill Richardson was headed for the New Mexico Capitol, although the victories may have more pertinent explanations than broad electorate shifts.
Napolitano was a powerful and well-known candidate who pulled in Hispanic voters, according to a CNN analysis, and her opponent had a penchant for mistakes.
Freudenthal is a conservative Democrat, and Democrats had held the governor's post from 1974 to 1994.
Richardson, now headed for national prominence, defeated a Republican who had quarreled constantly with the Legislature and had launched a national campaign to end the war on drugs.
Rocky Barker makes some excellent points and sharp observations about the shifting sands of environmental politics in Idaho and beyond.
Another, perhaps even more salient example is in the Idaho panhandle near beautiful lake Pend Oreille.
The Forest Service recently approved the Rock Creek mine just over the state line in Montana. The proposed mine is 25 miles upstream from Lake Pend Oreille and will release millions of gallons of treated wastewater daily into the lake and the Clark Fork River.
Folks in the panhandle of both political parties know they need to take care of their lake — an enormous economic asset and recreational resource. That's why the Bonner County Commission and Sandpoint City Council voiced opposition to the mine.
Some 60 Sandpoint businesses supported conservationists' appeal of the mine (something unprecedented in my knowledge of Idaho history).
In spite of this grassroots uprising, politicians (and news media) outside Bonner County have been slow to take notice.
- Ben Long
Another sign of the challenge facing Republicans in the rural west is the growing controversy over dairies and feedlots.
As these confined animal feeding operations get bigger and bigger, they are increasingly coming into conflict with their neighbors.
These and other "not in my backyard" issues have the potential to turn otherwise moderate Republican voters into disgruntled crossover voters.
The strategy has been a winner for Republicans during the last decade when the outside threat was wolves or grizzly bears the federal government was bringing into Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
Nevada Democrats have long used the federal plan to dump nuclear waste in their state as a rallying cry for support.
But now issues like field burning, stinking feedlots and even energy development are energizing opposition that may soon transform into political activism.
I recently saw this first-hand when I wrote a story about a feedlot near Weiser, Idaho. Neighbors of the feedlot told me the dust caused by the milling and trampling of thousands of head of cattle was causing respiratory problems for them and their children.
Most of them can't drink their water because of unhealthy levels of nitrates in their wells. Some wells even tested with bacteria attributed to the feedlot. The same problems led a former owner to close the feedlot in 1993 but it reopened in 1999 without much fanfare.
Suddenly these long time neighbors, many of them farmers themselves, were coughing and buying bottled water. They went to the Idaho Department of Agriculture for help in 2002. Officials worked with the farmer to reduce the dust problem but said they could find no link between the feedlot and the water contamination.
A year later, their patience gone, the neighbors went to the Idaho Conservation League for help. They filed a 60-day notice to sue the feedlot for violating the Clean Water Act for contaminating their wells and polluting the Snake River.
Within days the feedlot owner dug up a pipe emptying directly in the river.
The point is, the administration of Republican Dirk Kempthorne's slow reaction to their complaints made them take drastic action. Now they are all members of the Idaho Conservation League and, I suspect, very open to a Democrat who challenges the state's Republican power structure.
Kempthorne is not ignoring the problem. In the Twin Falls, Idaho, area, he has put his top resources aides to work to find a solution to dairy odor problems. He also is seeking a way to resolve a conflict in North Idaho over field burning by bluegrass farmers. The smoke is angering many otherwise good Republicans in the tourism-dependent communities of Coeur d'Alene and Sandpoint who are downwind.
These not-in-my-backyard problems in Idaho, similar to gas exploration conflicts between ranchers and energy companies in Wyoming, are just two of the changing nature of environmental issues Western leaders must solve.
Even as they challenge Republicans, the natural allies of the feedlot owners and bluegrass burners, the issues also force a new approach on environmentalists.
Western environmentalists have gotten used to going to Washington to solve their problems, finding more willing allies in the national bureaucracy and Congress. But these backyard issues require backyard politics.
I suspect these new fights will force environmentalists and powerful ag groups like state farm bureaus, dairymen and cattlemen's groups to sit down with state politicians and talk. The political opportunity for the two parties in such talks is anybody's guess.
-- Rocky Barker
While it is easy to agree with much of what John Downen says, his unfortunate claim that rising prosperity is a precondition for environment protection is at odds with the evidence.
For example, the seasoned social researcher Riley Dunlap headed a team commissioned by the Gallup organization to examine the relationship between affluence and environmental concerns in nations great and small around the world.
Dunlap, in a commentary published in Science, one of the world's top science journals, took issue with the claim that rising affluence produces rising environmental concern. He had found that, instead, environmental concern is (consistently) diminished by rising affluence.
Real-world examples abound, and have been reported in the financial and political press as much as in the science press.
For example when The Economist reported on deforestation in Malaysia, it took a close look at the response of poor villagers in the forests. The logging industry had offered jobs to the village's young men and had built a school, and yet the villagers ended up standing in the road to block logging trucks until their own government had them put in jail.
I don't disagree with much of what Mr. Downen says. The problem he and most free market environmentalists face is that the Bush administration has undercut their agenda in nearly every initiative.
Instead of standing with them in decrying wasteful subsidies, President Bush stood on Ice Harbor Dam promising to save the dams.
His energy initiative replaces locally developed policies on federal lands for a one-size fits all effort to open as much land for exploration as possible dictated from Washington.
I believe Mr. Downen's vision for Republicans in the West is sound. Unfortunately, it clashes with the values and instincts of the Republicans in power throughout the region.
He and his colleagues have a major selling job to do but I sense they will find more support among progressives than they will among the western Republican base.
Yet if the party can embrace such a program, it will attract the urban and suburban Republicans nationwide who share in the values of sustainability and liberty.
Rocky Barker describes some of the social changes taking place in the West. The extractive industries, agriculture, timber, mining, and oil and gas, make up a shrinking proportion of per capita income in the West.
These are being replaced by high technology and service industries. With modern communication technologies, many companies in these fields can locate wherever they want.
Thus, environmental quality, a well-educated workforce, and community character are increasingly important to the West’s economic success.
As more urbanites migrate to the West’s open spaces they bring their environmental concerns with them. By allying themselves with the extractive industries, particularly timber, mining, and oil and gas, Republicans risk losing these new voters.
To the extent that Democrats are seen as the party of the environment, and to the extent that they refrain from excessive interference in the economy in the form of burdensome regulations and taxation, they will gain at the Republicans’ expense.
As wealth and education increase, so does environmental sensitivity. If the broader Republican agenda successfully increases the prosperity of Americans, then demand for environmental quality will grow. Continuing to subsidize environmentally destructive natural resource extraction in the West is a political dead-end.
For example, the Montana Board of Investments recently loaned $2 million to Montana Resources, Inc. to help reopen its Continental Pit copper mine in Butte. For Republicans, who claim to favor free markets over government intervention, ending such subsidies is a natural environmental move.
Republicans should adopt a new environmental vision to replace the regulatory, bureaucratic, one-size-fits-all approach of the Democrats with a decentralized, incentive- and community-based alternative. This could appeal to what Barker notes as both Republican and Democrat Westerners’ opposition to "rules that come from the East."
In addition, a decentralized, community-based approach could help find solutions that address the conflicting environmental attitudes in the West.
For example, Barker notes that there are "more than $2 billion in water subsidies the region enjoys.
Most rural interests are demanding the federal government spend even more money on new projects to either build dams higher, line canals or add new reservoirs."
In contrast, many environmentalists are successfully pushing for the removal of dams to restore natural flows and fish habitat. Having all interested parties at the table, working toward a solution, would do more to bridge the West’s growing cultural divide and foster mutual respect than the imposition of directives from Washington, DC.
Unless Republicans adopt constructive reforms consistent with their claimed ideals, they will continue to alienate their traditional constituency: the well-off and the well-educated.
With its conjunction of spectacular scenery and an economy based increasingly on the manipulation of symbols instead of stuff, the West provides an opportunity for Republicans to promote both economic growth and sound environmental policies based on property rights, incentives, and sensible, sustainable regulations.
This alternative would be far more effective, efficient, and ecologically sensitive than the command-and-control approach that has led to poor management of our wilderness and natural resources, the violation of individual rights, and mutual hostility and distrust between traditional rural residents: farmers, ranchers, loggers, miners and environmentalists, as well as between Westerners and Washington.
John C. Downen
Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment,
"W ater is perhaps the most critical resource Colorado manages, and we do it very well. EPA's rule creates more confusion than clarity and unreasonably expands the federal government’s regulatory reach into our backyards, our farmers’ crop land and our ranchers’ acreage.
On The Bookshelf
Barbara Theroux of Fact & Fiction reviews Jack Nisbet's "Ancient Places"
Mountain West Perspectives
Mountain West Voices
Hear weekly stories from the Rocky Mountain West as gathered by Clay Scott