WASHINGTON, D.C. — Rapid population growth in the West and unprecedented gains by the Republican Party in the region are dramatically changing America’s political landscape and will greatly expand the influence of the Western region on national politics. This is one of the punchlines of “Western Political Outlook,” a new report released today at the National Press Club by the Denver-based Center for the New West.
The West outside of California has grown mostly by migration from the big cities of California, with the rest coming from the East. Many pundits assumed these newcomers would be Democrats, more liberal and more friendly to the expansion of government programs at every level — what the report calls “City Slicker Politics.” Many predicted the “greening” of the West as thousands of the “City Slickers” moved to the Rocky Mountain-Pacific Northwest region, attracted by natural amenities and lifestyle considerations and the region’s booming high-tech economy. But that is not happening.
Instead, according to Richard F. O’Donnell, the Center’s executive director and one of the authors of the report, these “new” Westerners are adopting — or come equipped with — “Old West” values, including support for political reforms, fiscal constraints and smaller government. The result, says O’Donnell: “There is only tepid local support for expanding government intrusion — even into traditional Western industries like mining, ranching and logging. Locals want to solve their own problems without the spur of government.”
The report offers several reasons for the failure of “City Slicker Politics,” including the decline of organized labor in Western industries like mining; newcomers’ family ties to the region; the continuing tendency of the West to attract independent individuals skeptical of government; and deep affection for traditional Western culture and ways of life, even among newcomers to the fast-growing suburbs of Western cities like Denver, Phoenix and Salt Lake City.
The report quotes Cecil Andrus, a former four-term Democratic governor of Idaho and U.S. interior secretary in the Carter administration: “If Al Gore thinks he is heir-apparent to the presidency after the Clinton administration, he is mistaken. Gore is not going to be elected without substantial votes from west of the Mississippi River. His attitude about the West is a terrible mistake for him, for his advisors and for the Democratic Party — and I was a Democrat long before some of these people were born.”
The Andrus appraisal is confirmed by recent election results across the West, compiled in the report. In January 1993, when President Clinton was inaugurated, there were 37 Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives from 11 Western states. In January 1997, there were 50 Republicans from these states — including Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. During the same period, Western Democrat seats in the U.S. House has declined from 53 to 40.
The pattern of Democratic loss is seen at the state level, too, where the number of Republican governors in these same 11 Western states jumped from four in 1993 to seven today. At the same time, Republicans have gained control of many Western state legislatures, including the traditionally Democratic legislatures in Washington, Oregon and Montana. This trend is important because more Republicans may preside over redistricting after the 2000 census — when the West is likely to gain eight of 11 redistributed seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Result: If the Rocky Mountain and Pacific Northwest states can agree on a common date for a “Big Sky” presidential primary in the West and if Republicans continue to tighten their grip on Western statehouses, then a new and more influential role for the New West in national politics will be firmly established as we enter the first decade of the 21st century.