West's new brand of Republican

GOP dominance in the Rockies fortifies a live-and-let-live type of

There is a feeling of standing on high ground throughout the corridor of Western states bordering the Rocky Mountains and stretching from Canada to Mexico. The high plains either are interrupted by soaring peaks or offer their own vistas that seem to go on forever.

A pinnacle of another sort has been established here, too.

Gradually over the past decade, this region, once known for its politics of peace and environmentalism and sprinkled with independent though left-leaning leaders, has become America's new conservative heartland.

Conservatism still beats strong in portions of virtually every region in the nation. But none can match the hegemony of rock-ribbed Republicanism that dominates this broad swath of land, which is by many measures the most rapidly expanding and modernizing region in the US.

And while this region doesn't have the numbers to drive national politics, it is seen by many analysts as a cutting-edge model of conservative ideology. Both major political parties are paying close attention as they gear up for the 2000 elections. The Democrats are wondering what went wrong here and how to prevent its spread while Republicans would like to bottle their success for export.

"This is the conservative/libertarian heartland of the country, a very 'live and let live' kind of conservatism," says Cliff May of the Republican National Committee. "It is the best example we have working of the whole range of the Republican coalition working together."

Working together, indeed. Republicans hold the governor's office in every state in the region, which includes Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. And there are 503 Republican state legislators in the region, compared with 307 Democrats, a reversal of the Democratic dominance of statehouses in the mid-1970s.

It's difficult to affix a single brand of conservatism to this region of cowboys, national parks, high-tech expansion, and Latino population growth. But most analysts see its core as a somewhat eclectic amalgam of conservatism on economic issues, a strong libertarian preference for limited government, and a wide range of views on social issues.

In Montana and Idaho, for instance, there are plenty of conservative conservationists. In Wyoming, one of the region's most traditionally Republican states, transplanted Southerner and political scientist James King is struck by the contrast between conservatism in the cowboy state and his most recent home of Tennessee. "Here, they're for guns but also for choice on abortion. In the South, those issues don't go together," he says.

Of course, not all Republicans here support abortion. The religious right has moved into Colorado in a big way, with groups like James Dobson's Focus on the Family making Colorado Springs a national center for the Christian right.

And for those relying only on occasional headlines, this region's attention-grabbing white survivalists and hate groups may seem to represent a prevalent regional ideology.

But what the region is really about is moderate conservatism that has found its home, for now at least, in the Republican Party. Still, this is a highly independent group not deeply rooted to party loyalty. Indeed, the party structure itself is generally weaker and loyalty thinner in the West than elsewhere.

Conservatism here contains many strands, but Colorado pollster Floyd Ciruli says "the largest segment is fiscally conservative and skeptical of government."

Most analysts at a recent political conference here sponsored by the Center for the New West agreed with that assessment, though opinions were all over the map on whether the Republican tide is just a cyclical peak or something more lasting.

One of the great variables is the surging strength of unaffiliated voters in this region, mirroring a trend that exists throughout the US but is particularly strong here. In Colorado, for instance, those registering as "unaffiliated" are in second place and nipping at the heels of registered Republicans. Democrats are now a distant third. "As we leave this decade, the real surge is among the unaffiliated voters, representing a strong antipolitician streak," says Mr. Ciruli.

Unaffiliated voter

Sensing some hope in that trend, Jim Gibson of the Democratic Leadership Council in Colorado wonders if Republican strength is "more of a mask than a leading indicator" with the growing ranks of independents being "nonideological."

That independent streak may help explain the ascent of the more populist and maverick leaders, like Govs. Jane Dee Hull of Arizona, Gary Johnson of New Mexico, and Marc Racicot of Montana.

The rise of these populists, the growth of unaffiliated voters, and the generally flinty independence of the region's culture and background make for challenges to any rigid party allegiance.

Governor Hull's embrace of new programs rather than tax cuts with budget surpluses is one of many approaches that have exacerbated tensions within the Arizona Republican Party, says state pollster Bruce Merrill. Similar strains are found in the state GOP in Colorado as cultural conservatives battle for more sway with first-term Republican Gov. Bill Owens.

While some see these tensions as the seeds that will eventually weaken the Republican grip on the region, others describe it as a source of strength.

The causes of the Rocky Mountain states' conservatism are multiple. The state Republican parties have over the past 15 years honed messages of antitax, limited government, and individual freedom that resonate with most voters.

Republicans, in many cases, have been tactically smarter, too. Up to the 1990s, Democrats were competitive in Idaho. But with reforms that made it easier to register and to vote by absentee ballot, exploited most effectively by Republicans, the Democrats have been on what Dan Popkey of the Idaho Statesman calls a "crazy downhill luge run," creating the most lopsided Republican state legislature in the US.

And there is a prevailing thesis that demographics are playing a major role in pushing the region to the right. The theory is that a large influx of whites, many of them from southern California, fleeing crime, high taxes, poor schools, and congestion, brings a conservative bent to the region. If that's true, it's contrary to the early forecasts of the 1970s that migrants to the region would be pro-environment and more liberal in orientation.

Labor losing power

Further undermining the Democrats has been the weakening voice and role of organized labor in the region's mining and extraction industries.

The region's tilt to the right is one sign of its growing independence from Pacific Coast states - Oregon, Washington, and California - all now ruled by Democrats. Beyond political affiliation, though, the Rocky Mountain region seems to have matured out of its pattern of boom-and-bust cycles and is more independent economically.

Whether the region will remain dominated by Republicans is anyone's guess. But even if partisan loyalties shift, and that is quite possible given the growing ranks of independents, most see the region's conservatism, under whatever banner it flies, prevailing for years to come.

"I think we'll be in this pattern for the next half decade at least," says Ciruli.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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