The 2004 and 2006 elections were tough for Republicans west of Kansas, with losses of governorships and Senate seats in longtime red states Montana and Colorado, among others. Traditional constituencies such as sportsmen bailed on the GOP in surprisingly high numbers - and, looking ahead, 2008 promises to be little better in that regard.
As much as the national GOP may downplay the environment as an issue that runs against it out West, recent events indicate that Republicans could see even more attrition among hunters, anglers and others, as a result of the apparent pitting of core local interests against those of giant corporations - especially those operating in the energy sector, which are perceived as being buddy-buddy with the GOP.
In August, the Environmental Working Group released a report on mining in the western U.S. It concluded that mining claims affecting public lands have skyrocketed an astonishing 80 percent in the past four and a half years, and the rise has been especially notable in places like Colorado and Arizona, including in locations like Grand Canyon National Park.
With all the concerns about damage caused to natural landscapes by mining, many voters in states like these, where tourism is one of the top two industries, will not be happy to learn of that figure.
Given mining’s tendency to present increased risks of pollution and contamination, likewise, hunters and anglers are unlikely to be pleased by the 80 percent surge — which Western Democrats, who have successfully campaigned on the environment as an issue that appeals to greenies and sportsmen, will no doubt remind them occurred on President Bush’s watch.
Already, more than a year ahead of the 2008 election, Coloradan sportsmen and wildlife officials are expressing worries about Republican senatorial candidate Bob Schaffer’s ties to the energy industry — whose drilling is seen as a direct threat to the interests of hunters, in particular.
Recently, several of them commented that his work as vice president for business development at Denver-based Aspect Energy was cause for concern, and that it could push sportsmen to support Rep. Mark Udall, the Democratic candidate, who has strong ties to the environmental movement.
Schaffer seems unconcerned, but he and his Republican colleagues should not be.
In 2004, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer won his first gubernatorial race, in large part by portraying conservationists’, and sportsmen’s, interests as joined — and not represented by Republicans, who wanted to sell off public lands and restrict rights to access private property for fishing and hunting purposes.
Indeed, pre-election polling showed that in a then deeply red state, more Montanans felt that Schweitzer, with his pro-hunting, conservationist message, shared their values, rather than his Republican opponent.
In Colorado in 2006, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill Ritter’s construction of a coalition between environmentalists and sportsmen helped lead to an easy victory.
A post-election survey by Colorado Conservation Voters and National Wildlife Action showed a 9 percentage point margin in favor of Ritter, where hunters and anglers were concerned, over his Republican rival, then-Rep. Bob Beauprez. In addition, the survey showed that hunters and anglers preferred Ritter by a 30 percentage point margin where wildlife protection issues were concerned.
Some Republicans are taking note of the way in which concerns about exploitation of the environment, perceived as sanctioned by the Bush administration and congressional Republicans, have contributed to their declining fortunes out West.
Perhaps scared by her slim 45.6 percent victory in 2006, Colorado Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, a staunch conservative regarded as big-business-friendly, recently surprised political observers by asking federal regulators to delay approval of a uranium mine. Her action was described by one pundit as “siding with property owners over traditional GOP interests.”
The Bush administration also seems to have noticed the trend, but rather than responding by attempting to get environmentalists and sportsmen onside, they have gone the route of simply trying to return hunters to the fold. In August, the president issued an executive order instructing federal agencies to “manage wildlife and wildlife habitats on public lands in a manner that expands and enhances hunting opportunities.”
It was a clear move to demonstrate to hunters that Republicans simply care more — not a point that Western Democrats look willing to concede.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who maintains a better NRA rating — an “A” — than all of the current presidential front-runners from either party (except former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson), implied that White House policy that would end “unabashedly pro-corporate exploitation of our natural resources” might be “another empty promise.”
Mark Udall, prepping for next year’s Colorado Senate race, has introduced legislation that would allow public participation in culls to bring down excess numbers of elk in national parks — a proposal that looks popular, and which would address the underlying problem identified by Bush and many Westerners.
One thing is clear from the back and forth between Democrats and Republicans on the issue: Environmental concerns, especially in relation to public lands, matter greatly out West, and not just to greenies. With recent elections in places like Colorado, Montana and Arizona having favored Democrats, Republicans would do well to remember that.