Stampede of Newcomers Alters How West Is Won

The Colorado River flows through the high desert of this corner of Utah, cutting the spectacular salmon-colored canyons that stretch from here to the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Last month, President Clinton, with a stroke of his pen, declared a 1.7-million-acre swath of this scenic land a national monument.

The move angered many in the West, who saw it as yet another "land grab" by an arrogant federal government. "That's just big government overpowering a little state like Utah," says Ray Tibbetts, an old-timer and former county commissioner in this sparsely populated rural area.

But Mr. Clinton's decision thrilled Westerners such as Salt Lake City resident Bill Reese, who likes to ride his mountain bike over the red rock mesas. "I grew up in New Jersey, where everything is fenced and posted," he says. A voter for Ross Perot in 1992, he now backs Clinton.

The twin views represent a growing divide in the American West, one that holds important implications for the region and for the evolution of the nation's two major political parties.

The West is undergoing dramatic change. Republicans are counting on the region to remain a bastion of anti-big-government conservatism, an ethos that combines the old rural base of ranchers and miners with suburbanites fleeing urban ills. But Democrats are making their pitch to a "New West," a cliche that evokes a rapidly growing region where computer programmers are more common than loggers and where people live in cities but seek the solace of unsullied open spaces.

Yet beneath this black-and-white portrait lie more subtle shades. Not everyone moving into the area drives a Ford Explorer and wants to lock up every butte and mesa outside his picture window. Nor are all the "old timers" reflexively hostile to the environment and Washington. Out of the pragmatism and independence of the region, new alliances and allegiances are forming. This fall's elections will help determine the shape of these emerging blocs and beliefs - and whether a fundamental shift is under way, as some suggest.

"The South is increasingly Republican, but it looks like the West is turning Democratic," says Brad Udall of the New West Network, a political action committee.

Democratic strategists point to Clinton's 1992 campaign in the West, which was directed by former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt to appeal to this emerging New West. Clinton captured not only the coastal states of Washington, Oregon, and California, where Democrats have had success in the past, but also made inroads in the Republican stronghold in the eight Mountain West states, taking Nevada, Montana, Colorado, and New Mexico.

But Republican leaders such as Don Bain, Colorado Republican Party chairman, dismiss those results as an "anomaly." Clinton would not have won those contests, he contends, if not for the candidacy of Mr. Perot, who captured more than 20 percent of the independent vote in almost every state. Indeed, in the midterm elections of 1994, the Republicans trounced the Democrats regionwide, gaining three governorships, a US Senate seat, 15 House seats, and control of four legislative chambers.

The 1994 Republican success rested heavily on a backlash to Interior Secretary Babbitt's "War on the West" - a term the GOP uses to deride policies that gave environmental concerns new standing over the traditional ranching, mining, and timber industries. GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole has picked up those themes, espousing the cause of private property rights, a favorite plank of Westerners who oppose federal control over public lands, and calling for Mr. Babbitt's ouster.

Republican leaders remain confident that the Mountain West will remain theirs. But recent polls show Clinton either with a lead or in a dead heat in Western states he won last time, despite much lower public support for Perot. Even Arizona, a long-time Republican stronghold, is now a possible win for Clinton.

"If Clinton does well this time, there will be a recognition - that Clinton realized early on - that there is a New West," says Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, a two-term Democrat. "I'm banking my career on [that]."

Changing face of the West

This optimism is fed by the changing demographic profile in the West. Democrats believe that an influx of newcomers coming to work in new industries - and moving primarily to cities (or within easy striking distance of cities) - has created opportunities for them. The Democratic campaign has targeted cities such as Denver, Phoenix, and Las Vegas, where 9 out of 10 Westerners live and where job and population growth are the highest in the nation. They believe Clinton's message of economic growth and his support for spending on education, Social Security, and the environment play well there.

"The issue has to be engaged in the cities," says Philip Burgess of the Center for the New West, a Denver-based think tank. "The Republicans aren't doing that, and the Democrats are."

In addition to the presidential contest, several Senate and congressional races - especially those that pit New West-type candidates against more traditional Western politicians - are also being closed watched to see if they provide clues to the West's political future.

*In Colorado, the environment is a hot issue in the Senate battle between Democrat Tom Strickland and Republican Wayne Allard.

*In Arizona's Sixth Congressional District, Rep. J.D. Hayworth is being targeted for defeat by environmentalists and other New West activists.

*Idaho, long a stronghold of conservatism, offers the most striking contrasts. Democrat Walt Minnick, a favorite of environmentalists, is giving incumbent Republican Sen. Larry Craig a serious run. "This race is about the old Idaho vs. the new Idaho," Mr. Minnick said. "It's urban versus rural, New West versus Old West, emerging industry versus old industry, political reforms versus old-style politicians."

And in Idaho's First District, Democrat Dan Williams is given a good chance to oust right-wing freshman Rep. Helen Chenoweth.

Still, the distinction between Old West and New West voters is not clear-cut, political strategists on both sides concede. Republicans, for their part, say the newcomers coming to work in Western cities are not necessarily in the Democratic column. Mr. Bain, the Colorado GOP Party chairman, calls them "fair-weather enviros" more interested in recreation than protecting nature. "They're looking at jobs and the economy more than [at] preservation of the wilderness," he says.

Indeed, many who move to the West are fleeing the ethnic and racial tensions of older metropolitan areas, argues Ed Marston, editor of High Country News, a Western biweekly that supports environmental causes. "They discover that public land is where fires may come from, where cougars come from and snatch their kittens," Mr. Marston says. "Suddenly they're not greenies anymore. They react like the conservatives they are."

The anti-environment label

But some Western Republicans also see a danger in being too closely identified with hard-line anti-environmental views. The War on the West theme is "not as potent as it was [in '94]," acknowledges a strategist for the Dole campaign in the West, who asked to remain anonymous. While it benefits Republicans to draw a line with the Democrats over the issue of giving more control to the states, he says, it is dangerous for Republicans to be perceived as anti-environment. "In the West, the trap for Republicans is to get into a no-protection stance, which is an Old West theory."

The Dole campaign nonetheless continues to sound Old West themes. But state and local Republicans, meanwhile, have gotten the message.

On the issue of creating wilderness areas, Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt (R) has staked out a position that calls for a compromise between the state's congressional delegation and the Clinton administration. According to the Republican source, Governor Leavitt refused a request to tailor his speech at the GOP convention in August to the War on the West theme.

Indeed, Democrats and Republicans in the West say a clear, though not yet highly visible, shift is occurring, moving away from the confrontational politics that characterized the first two years of the Clinton administration. In the second half of Clinton's term, the emphasis has been on finding common ground between environmental protection and economic development.

"I don't sense there's a war in the West," agrees Republican Steve Bradhurst, chairman of the county commission in Nevada's Washoe County. "The elected officials who are closest to people in the West are saying we've got to ... work in a cooperative way." Even in rural areas like Nye County, which led one wave of the "Sagebrush rebellion" that demanded local takeover of federal lands in their jurisdictions, active dialogue with federal agencies is under way, he reports.

Some say the powerful demographic and economic transformation of the West has yet to show itself politically. Local governments still tend to be dominated by individuals with links to traditional industries, and state legislatures by rural representatives who get elected again and again.

"New people don't exercise power anywhere near as effectively as the old economic groups," says Luther Propst, executive director of the Sonoran Institute, which has been helping to mediate conflicts in communities across the West.

It may be true that these changes will not benefit any one party, particularly as Republicans adapt their message to the changing voter profile. But no matter what the results in November, elections in the West are likely to be far more hotly contested than in the past.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Stampede of Newcomers Alters How West Is Won
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today