Politics Out West; Defying a brand, the maverick Mountain States spice their conservatism with a liberal dash of environmental action

Labeling the politics of a Western state is like branding a maverick. You know it's a calf, but you're not sure whose.

This is particularly true in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. Every one of these states has a Democratic governor. But only in New Mexico does the same party control the legislature. In the other five, the people have put a Democrat in the executive chair while electing Republican majorities to both legislative branches.

The six states have shown more consistency on the national level. In 1980 they were solid for Ronald Reagan. And in recent years they have elected eight Republicans to four Democrats to the US Senate and 10 Repubicans to six Democrats to the US House of Represenatives.

What will these states do this year? Will President Reagan's cliff-hanging economic program be a key factor in 1982 races for governor, senator, and US representative?

Reaganomics and the administration's record as a whole will figure in some races, say longtime observers in each state, but in very few will they be key factors.

Like other Americans, Westerners are concerned about inflation, unemployment, federal-state relations, defense, and foreign policy. But people in states like Colorado and Wyoming are just as concerned with the challenges of growth and the pressures that come with development of their great natural resources.

The awakened awareness of the need to control growth, conserve land and water , and protect the environment is sharper now than when it helped elect people like Colorado's Gov. Richard D. Lamm (1978) and Sen. Gary Hart (1980).

In a region that is historically conservative and individualistic, successful Democrats have to prove that their philosophy responds to that ethos. But Democratic Gov. Bruce Babbitt of Arizona is expected to be reelected this year as much on the basis of his forceful conservationist record as on his ability to accommodate political conservatism.

Four of the six states have picked up a seat in the US House of Representatives as a result of the 1980 Census -- Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah. Tentative prospects are that the GOP will win three of these new seats to the Democrats' one. Add at least one turnaround in the Republicans' favor, and it is possible the area could add five or six members to the party's minority in the US House.

The US Senate picture is quite different. Three members of the thin GOP majority -- Sens. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, Harrison Schmitt of New Mexico, and Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming - appear vulnerable. But incumbent Democratic Sens. Dennis DeConcini of Arizona and John Melcher of Montana seem fairly secure.

Three of the six Democratic governors are seeking reelection and favored to win. Two other Democrats are in mid term, and the sixth is barred by law from succeeding himself.

Here is an early look at races that are shaping for summer and early fall primaries: Arizona

Democratic Gov. Bruce Babbitt, who succeeded to the office in March 1978 and was elected in his own right the following November, is seeking reelection to a second full term. He has articulated and fought for a program that seeks to balance growth with conservation of resources, especially water, and protection of the environment. The word is that Mr. Babbitt will be hard to beat. State Senate President Leo Corbett is considered the Republican most likely to win the right to attempt to unseat Babbitt.

Democratic US Sen. Dennis DeConcini is considered safe for reelection next fall. With the June 24 primary filing deadline still a long way off, it is not clear who his possible Republican opponent will be.

Republican Rep. John J. Rhodes, former US House minority leader, masterminded Arizona's congressional redistricting this year. One result: Although Democratic US Rep. Morris K. Udall is almost certain to return to Washington, his old Tucson district has been broken up and he will have to choose between two less politically cohesive ones. With formerly Democratic Rep. Bob Stump switching to the Republican Party to run for reelection, the GOP seems certain to pick up one House seat in the state - possibly two, changing the Arizona lineup from two Democrats and two Republicans to four Republicans and one Democrat. A 3-to-2 lineup in favor of the GOP is considered more likely, however. Colorado

As in Arizona, says one local observer, ''people are more inclined to control growth, slow it down'' in Colorado. Democratic Gov. Richard D. Lamm, seeking reelection to a second term, is considered to have two major assets: He is still perceived as a leader who can balance the need for economic growth with the desire to preserve the qualities that make the state a good place to live; and, although he has disappointed Colorado's environmentalists in some respects, he retains their support.

Not as hard hit by recession as many other states, Colorado nonetheless has had an economic letdown and will probably have to reach into its cash reserve to avoid a budget deficit in fiscal 1983. It is considered unlikely, however, that Governor Lamm would be blamed for this condition.

Among Lamm's possible Republican opponents, state Rep. Phil Winn has been considered the front-runner. But his standing has slipped recently. Speaker of the state House of Represenatives John D. Fuhr is also a strong contender.

Neither of Colorado's US Senate seats will be contested this year. As for the House races, the US District Court imposed a redistricting plan when the Democratic governor and Republican legislature reached an impasse on redrawing the lines and carving out the state's new, fifth congressional district. The court's plan is considered likely to result in a 3 to 3 Democratic-Republican split, a gain of one seat for the GOP. New Mexico

New Mexico: Republican US Sen. Harrison Schmitt, seeking a second term, is considered vulnerable. He is closely tied to President Reagan, who already has made an appearance in the state this year to bolster former astronaut Schmitt's prospects. One thing in Senator Schmitt's favor: The voter registration trend in New Mexico favors the GOP.

Vying to oppose Schmitt in November are former Gov. Jerry Apodaca and state Attorney General Jeff Bingaman, who bested Mr. Apodaca at the Democratic convention.

Democratic Gov. Bruce King, prohibited by law from running for a second term, will go back to his ranch. There is no lack of candidates, Democratic and Republican, to succeed him. Considered most likely to face off in November are Tony Anaya, former state attorney general who received the most votes at the recent state Democratic convention, and John B. Irick, a former state senator from Albuquerque who is the choice of GOP regulars. Former state Sen. Aubrey Dunn of Alamagordo is also seeking the Democratic nomination; and Bill Sego, a former state senator who is considered a tough campaigner, is a Republican contender.

Both of the state's incumbent GOP congressmen are expected to be reelected. But the state picks up a third House seat this year, and the new congressional district in the northern sector of New Mexico favors Democrats. Montana

Democratic Gov. Ted Schwinden's term runs through 1984. US Sen. John Melcher, also a Democrat, is seeking reelection this year. He has been the target of a ferocious attack by the National Conservative Political Action Committee, which has tried to portray him as ''out of step with Montana.'' However, inaccuracies about the senator's voting record and other errors in anti-Melcher ads have discredited the campaign.

At this point, the Republicans don't have a candidate to run against Senator Melcher, although there is speculation that Larry Williams, a moderate Republican who is an investment counselor, might enter the contest.

Montana's economy is in good condition overall, mainly because of coal production, but unemployment is high in the timber industry. Melcher is already running hard, criticizing the high interest rates that he attributes to President Reagan's economic policies.

The state's two congressmen -- Republican Ron Marlenee and Democrat Pat Williams - seem secure. Utah

Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch is being challenged by a progressive political action committee that charges him with being too close to oil interests. Organized labor also is expected to go all-out to defeat Senator Hatch in his bid for a second term. The likely beneficiary of all this Hatch opposition is Democratic Mayor Ted Wilson of Salt Lake City, a liberal who is expected to stress conservative themes. Among other things, he is against gun control and for a balanced budget amendment.

Utah gained a new House seat this year, and in redistricting the GOP majority in the Legislature appears to have locked up all three seats for Republican candidates.

Democratic Gov. Scott M. Matheson's term expires in 1985. Wyoming

Gov. Ed Herschler announced he will run for a third term rather than challenge GOP Sen. Malcom Wallop. With Wyoming doing well in developing its energy resources, Governor Herschler is considered safe for reelection. The state has some unemployment, but it is well below the national average.

Republican Nels Smith of Sundance, former speaker of the state House of Representatives, may run against Herschler. Mr. Smith is a moderate Republican who has been out of office for six years. He has until July 16 to file.

Seen as a possible issue in the gubernatorial campaign: the use of water, a precious resource in Wyoming as in all Western states. Development of the state's mineral resources consumes a lot of water and some traditional water users, like ranchers, are concerned about that.

Wyoming's only congressman, Republican Dick Cheney, is expected to be reelected.

Elections in Alaska, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington were previewed in the March 26 Monitor.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Politics Out West; Defying a brand, the maverick Mountain States spice their conservatism with a liberal dash of environmental action
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today