In 1964 an Orange County man by the name of Ron Rankin helped mastermind the conservative takeover of the California Republican Party. But, after Barry Goldwater's electoral debacle that fall, Rankin says he looked homeward and realized that his devotion to right-wing politics had exacted a cost: "My family life was zilch." So Rankin decided to move with his wife and five children to a quieter place. He wanted a rural communityalbeit one within driving distance of an orthodontist. And he also wanted a place that was politically ripe for the hard-right gospel he still intended to be his life's work. "We looked at the constitutions of the various states along the Rockies, from Idaho to New Mexico, and Idaho's constitution was so far backwards by contemporary comparison as to be, in our estimation, ahead of the others."
So in 1965 the Rankins left California for Idaho, and within two years Rankin was among the leaders of an effort to recall Idaho's antiwar Democratic Senator Frank Church. "He was too much like Jane Fonda to be a senator from this state," says Rankin. The recall effort failed, but in 1980 Church, then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, narrowly lost re-election in the Reagan landslide. And today, 34 years after arriving in Idaho, Rankin is an influential Republican and an elected official in a state that would no longer elect the likes of a Frank Church. In fact, Idahowhere there are now a mere four Democrats in the 35-member state senatemay be the most lopsidedly Republican and conservative state in what is now the most Republican and conservative region in the nation.
Rankin's story is an extreme but telling example of just why that is so: Ron Rankin moved to a place he thought would be a good fit for his conservative politics. He made the place more conservative by moving there. And that, in turn, made it a more attractive destination for those who share his politics. In the 1990s, Idaho's population has grown by 20 percentmore than all but two states (Nevada and Arizona)primarily because of the migration to Idaho of folks from other states, particularly California. And this flood tide of newcomers has swept Democrats and even some moderate Republicans out of office. Coeur d'Alene's Kootenai County has about doubled its population since 1985, and among its elected county commissioners is Ron Rankinonetime gadfly and perennial candidate, and now officeholder.
On the Road Again
Nor is Idaho an isolated example. Since the mid-1980s, and with increasing clarity in the 1990s, there has been evidence that politics and culture, writ large, influence where Americans choose to move. And those migration choices in turn reinforce the political and cultural characteristics those folks came looking for. Simply put, people are voting with their feet, and they keep voting when they get where they are going. The fact that the Mountain States have been simultaneously the fastest-growing region in the nation and the most rock-ribbed in their Republicanism is only the most obvious evidence of this phenomenon.
A more subtle and complex process is underway in the fastest-growing stretches of the South, which have become simultaneously more Republican and more blackand, in the alchemy of that mix, more moderate on matters of race and other social issues. In other words, people attracted to the so-called New South are making it more New South. Judging from the last election, the migration from the North that helped create the Republican South, embodied by Newt Gingrich, may also now be circumscribing its limitshelping to tip the outcome to the Democrats, who did surprisingly better than expected in Georgia, the Carolinas, and Alabama.
It is a curious instance of two overlapping phenomena. Black political enfranchisement and the southward migration of white Re pub licans for decades combined to polarize southern politics to Republican advantage. But the same trends are now, in some cases, having quite the opposite effect. The Yankee migration did play a key role in legitimizing the Republican Party in the once solidly Democratic South. These newcomers helped raise a tent into which white voters crowded en masse as the Democratic Party became home to burgeoning black political aspirations. But the black vote, and black turnoutabetted by a growing black migration southhave now increased to the point that Republican failure to attract more than a tiny percentage of the black vote can actually cost Repub licans elections. And the growth of a black middle class in the Southagain abetted by black migration therehas made it harder for Republicans to justify not reach ing out for the black vote, even as, to date, it hasn't really helped them win a greater share of that vote.
But southern Republicans, at least in the fastest-growing states, must continue to reach out to black voters, or at least appear to do so. They must do so not only to get at least some percentage of black votes but also to avoid alienating white newcomers from northeastern and midwestern states where the more successful Republicans tend to have at least some success in gaining black votes. These recent immigrants to the South don't think of themselves as neo-Dixiecrats just because they are white, Republican, and living in the South.
And these migration patterns are not only transforming the politics of the places people move to, but also the places they leave behind, the latter in ways that seem to be particularly beneficial to Democrats. Those New York or New Jersey Republicans who move south may be moderating the politics of their new milieu, especially in terms of race. But they are even more plainly eroding Republican strength in the states they leave behind, particularly because of the growing electoral influence there of immigrant minorities, who tend to vote Democratic.
Nowhere has this out-migration done the Dem ocrats more good than in California. Immi gration is clearly the single greatest factor in the demographic and political transformation of the nation's largest state. But the metamorphosis that is underway has been augmented and accelerated by the departure of those who have left. So far in the 1990s, California gained 2 million people through immigration (mostly Hispanic and Asian) and lost another 2 million people (most of them white) through out-migration to other states. The result, according to census projections, is that there will be not only 3 million more Hispanics and 1.3 million more Asians in California in 2000 than there were in 1990, but also 1.6 million fewer whites. By July of 2001, according to projections by the state of California, the state will be less than half white and nearly a third Hispanic. And while race is by no means a perfect proxy for political affiliation, at this moment in historyand especially in Californiait comes pretty close.
In winning the California governorship last November, Democrat Gray Davis, according to the Voter News Service exit poll, received 50 percent of the white vote. But within the rest of the electorate, he crushed Republican Dan Lungren, claiming 78 percent of the Hispanic vote, 83 percent of the black vote, and 67 percent of the Asian vote. According to the VNS poll, the combined Asian-Hispanic-black vote represented 25 percent of those casting ballots in California last November. The Los Angeles Times exit poll placed it much higherat 34 percent of the vote, twice what it was in 1994. Either way, the trend is clear. The nonwhite share of the California electorate (and of the nation, for that matter) is going to grow, inexorably, as the existing immigrant populations become citizens and grow more politically active. With continued immigration, that trend will continue.
When Ron Rankin left Orange County in 1965, it was 90 percent white and it defined the limits of right-wing white Republicanism. Orange County today is less than 57 percent white, and that change has begun to take its political toll.
In 1996 Robert K. Dornan, one of the most vitriolic and conservative Republicans in the House, narrowly lost his seat to Loretta Sanchez in a district that had become barely more than a third white. In 1998 Dornan lost by a wider margin, despite his claims to be the "real Latino" in the race because, as he explained it, he opposes abortion and speaks with his hands. He even dedicated his 1998 campaign to the Virgin of Guadalupe, the brown-skinned Virgin Mary of Latino veneration. But Dornan had spent much of the previous two years contesting his 1996 defeat with claims of immigrant voter fraud, and, in political terms, raining on his own typically idiosyncratic celebration of diversity. The ultimate lesson is that when folks like Ron Rankin leave Orange County, bad things happen to folks like Bob Dornan. Rankin's election in Idaho and Dornan's defeat in Orange County were connected. And Dornan's loss was Rankin's gain.
From his perch as the clerk of his Mormon church in Idaho, Rankin could see what was happening. Folks were moving to Idaho and leaving behind Mormon wards (collections of congregations) that were now mostly Vietnamese or Cambodian or Hispanic. "I don't like the use of the term white flight," says Rankin. "It's sort of cultural flight." Back in California, he says, there is "the constant hassle of the clashing of cultures."
Running the Numbers, Connecting the Dots
But just how clear is the relationship between foreign immigration and domestic out-migration? Does the experience of California and other states in the last dozen years show that such a correlation exists? William Frey, a University of Michigan demographer who has studied the interplay of immigration and domestic migration patterns, thinks it does. Immi gra tion remains intensely concentrated in a handful of metropolitan port-of-entry areas. Altogether, about two-thirds of all immigrants arriving between 1985 and 1997 clustered in ten such areas. But, Frey found, even as 6.3 million immigrants arrived in those metro areas, those same metro areas have suffered a net loss of more than 5 million domestic migrants, who have moved mostly to places with relatively fewer immigrants. This, Frey contends, is a new development. In the past, Americans tended to move to the same places that were welcoming new immigrants.
Of course, the economy also plays a big role in people's decisions to move. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the flight from California has slowed (according to state of California calculations, perhaps even slightly reversed itself) as the economy has improved. But we need to remember that immigrants continued to come to California in great numbers even when a bad economy was driving many other Californians away. Moreover, Frey has found that racial affinitythe search for other people like oneselfturns out to be a pretty good predictor of where people of all races will head when they move to another state.
The evidence from the Mountain States is that political affinity is also influencing who moves where. If those states had been deluged with a random cross section of Californians of all races, parties, and ideologies, the interior West would probably have grown more liberal and Democratic in recent years. Instead, the opposite is true. "So much of the in-migration is a flight from conditions that people find unacceptable or intolerable along the coast, and those who flee do tend to be politically conservative in their views," says Daniel Kemmis, former mayor of Missoula, Montana, and former Democratic speaker of the Montana House, who now directs the Center for the Rocky Mountain West. Montana has grown 10 percent in the 1990sthough it's still exactly as white (91.4 percent) as it was in 1990and stands to regain its second congressional district in the 2000 apportionment.
At the same time, Montana, like Nevada, is something of a special case. Montana has attracted liberal as well as conservative migrants. Pat Williams, one of the most liberal Democrats in Congress, held the state's congressional seat until his retirement in 1996, when Republican Rick Hill took the seat in a close, three-way election. The state has one Democratic senator and one Republican, though both houses of the legislature and the governor are Republican. The state may be trending in the same direction, but the transformation is not yet complete. Nevada is very conservative except for Las Vegas, which is a union town, and elected a Democratic congressman in 1998. Its two senators and its governor are Democrats, and now one of its two congressmen is a Democrat as well.
Sally Vaughn moved to Cheyenne, Wyoming, last year from San Jose, California. "I was a ticking time bomb in San Jose. In California, it's just turned into warring ethnic groups and these hypersensitive, hyphenated Americans all accusing each other," says Vaughn. "I feel like I'm in America again. I feel like I moved back to the America of my youth." Vaughn has had an "Impeach Clinton" button almost since the day he was inaugurated. "I wouldn't dare wear it in California." In Wyoming, she dares. "I get hugged by cowboys." Already hip-deep in Wyoming politics, Vaughn testified before a state legislative committee in January against a hate crime bill being pressed in the wake of last year's notorious beating death of a young gay man, Matthew Shepard. Vaughn believes that, in practice, hate crime laws are all about pressing a left-wing political agenda and bashing European Americans. The Wyoming House subsequently defeated the bill.
Colorado Springs, Colorado, was a conservative military town before James Dobson moved Focus on the Family there from Pomona in Southern California in 1991. Dobson's move inspired other Christian conservative organizations to relocate to Colorado Springs. Now Colorado Springs is a lot more conservative than it used to be. A local dispute over homosexual rights led to a statewide ballot referendum, and the abortion issue has moved to the forefront of state politics and internecine warfare within the Republican Party.
Altogether, Colorado has grown 20 percent in the 1990s, and Republicans have surged from minority party status to a 130,000 registration advantage over Democrats. Repub licans today control the governorship, both houses of the legislature, both U.S. Senate seats, and four of the state's six U.S. House seats. "The circulation of voters out of California and Texas into Colorado dramatically changed the politics of the state, tilting what was a moderately conservative state into a much more conservative and strongly Republican state, and you have seen that throughout the intermountain West," says Floyd Ciruli, a Colorado pollster and political consultant. "From the mid-'70s to the late-'80s the intermountain West was a bastion of progressive, centrist Democratic governors, pre-Clinton but having a lot of those same characteristics. Now they're gone and the Rockies are more conservative than the South."
Democrats held the governorship of Idaho for 24 years until 1994. In 1990, the Democrats had an even split in the state senate, where there are now 31 Republicans and 4 Democrats. Mary Lou Reeda Democratic state senator who in 1992 easily defeated Ron Rankin but in 1996, after 12 years in office, was defeated by another conservative Republicanblames the newcomers.
Their own Private Idaho
Why has the migration stream been so skewed to the right? Just consider Idaho's decade in the headlines. There was the 1992 FBI shoot-out with white separatist Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge. Aryan Nations has made Hayden Lake its headquarters. (They dream of creating a white homeland in the Northwest.) The Idaho Statesman noted that planning for the Hitler Day parade made the front page of the Jerusalem Post. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported that Idaho led the West in hate groups per capita. When the world's most famous police officer, Mark Fuhrman, decided it was time to make his escape from L.A., he went where a lot of retired L.A. cops goto Idaho. U.S. Representative Helen Chenoweth said that blacks and Hispanics don't like Idaho because the weather's too cold. And then there's Ron Rankin, whose most recent cause is making English Idaho's official language. "Rankin's waving the welcome flag," says Mary Lou Reed, "'Come here if you're a white flighter. Come here. We don't have any brown skin here.'"
If all you knew about Idaho was what you read in the papers, and you were trying to decide where to make a new life, how would what you read influence your choice of destinations? You need not believe that Mark Fuhrman is a racist to believe that Idaho is a place where he might sensibly conclude that he is less likely to get hassled for being Mark Fuhrman. Conversely, one does not have to believe that the fringe elements in Idaho are anything more than fringe elements to think that a black or Jewish family would decide, all things being equal, not to move there.
"If you were a Californian and you really cared about education and the environment would you go to Idaho? Would you pick Montana? No. You would go to Oregon or Washington, probably Washington," says Reed, who is the mother of Clinton domestic policy chief Bruce Reed. "But, if you're an independent kind of redneck that hates the government and wants lower taxes and to be out here in the open spaces, where the government wasn't going to get you, the Rocky Mountains would look very attractive." And, she says, it's not just obvious crazies. "It's the quiet ones, the silent ones, who may not be out on the fringe but are attracted by the idea of a monoculture and want to get away from diversity."
Rankin dismisses the notion that many people avoid Idaho because of its image as a haven for right-wing extremists. "If people are afraid to come here it certainly isn't evidenced by the in-migration," says Rankin. But the question may be which people. Companies have a hard time recruiting minority candidates. The Idaho Statesman reported last year that North Idaho College could not persuade any person of color to even apply for its presidency. And, while the total black population numbers are so minute as to render census estimates somewhat unreliable, it appears that the black population in Idaho, and in Montana and Wyoming, actually declined sharply in absolute numbers during the booming 1990s. These states are being transformed, it seems, not just by white flight in, but by black flight out as well.
A New Southern Strategy?
And where are those blacks headed? In a word, south. Beginning in 1910 and continuing right into the mid-1960s, there was a massive southern black exodus to the north. But beginning in the late 1970s, according to Frey, the University of Michigan demographer, that tide began to turn, and in the 1990s the black migration south really took off. Also for the first time in the 1990s, blacks were moving south from every region, including the West. As a consequence, in the 1990s the black proportion of the population has crept up across the Southand the 1998 elections revealed that the Republicans may now be feeling it.
Interestingly, what appears to be the increasing moderation of the southern electorate is not simply a consequence of growing black political clout, though that is obviously critical. It is also the result of a synergistic relationship between the black vote and the political behavior of more newly arrived whites. In tandem, they are undermining the racial politics the Republicans used so effectively since the 1960s to swing the region from the solid Democratic South of yesterday to the strongly Republican South of today.
Last fall's election in Georgia was particularly instructive. "Georgia Republicans finally learned this year that racially divisive politics not only no longer works, it is counterproductive, and that rule could be applied across the South," says that state's Republican chairman, Rusty Paul. Paul was referring to a last-minute "anti-quota" television ad that Republican gubernatorial candidate Guy Millner's campaign ran to shore up support among older white men. Millner's ads followed the shrill attacks by Mitch Skandalakis, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, on Atlanta's black mayor. "Bill Campbell is an incompetent boob," Skandalakis said in one ad. The Republican efforts, Paul believes, only served to drive up black turnout, which exceeded white turnout (and went 90 percent to Democrat Roy Barnes). They also annoyed white newcomers who thought they had moved to a place where people were "too busy to hate," and effectively buried Millner's candidacy.
"We went from basically [black voters] not liking us because we ignored them to despising us because we threatened them," said Paul. What was most frustrating to Paul was that Georgia Republicans actually ran more black candidates for office in 1998 than any other state GOP, by a long shot, and Millner actually devoted considerable campaign resources to the black community. That southern Republicans should now find themselves lurching from outreach strategies to backlash politics, and not doing either particularly well, suggests their unsure footing in what appears to be changing political terrain.
"There are not many votes left in . . . making racist appeals," says Hastings Wyman, who writes the Southern Political Report. "They got the maximum return on it but they've reached a point now where there are not that many whites interested in it, some are embarrassed by it, and others don't care very much, especially in a very prosperous time."
"The time that being antiblack was an advantage for the Republican Party is over," says David Bositis, an expert on black politics at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington. "The old-line racist population is dying out. They're being replaced not only by black and white migrants from the Midwest and North but even by a younger generation of whites that are not as redneck. The old racial politics just isn't going to work."
In Alabama, Democrat Don Siegelman won 95 percent of the black vote in his big, 58 to 42 percent win over Governor Fob James, who had defined his governorship in Biblical termsstanding up for the Ten Commandments and school prayer and mocking, to the point of imitating a monkey, the theory of evolution. Siegelman, Bositis says, clearly benefited from the votes of some newcomer white business Republicans who had voted for Winton Blount III, himself a moderate white business Republican, in the party primary. And Siegelman ran on creating a state lottery, something newcomers are far less likely to have moral objections to than are the large numbers of Christian conservatives in the native-born population.
The lottery also worked against South Carolina's Republican Governor David Beasley, who lost his re-election bid (winning 6 percent of the black vote). Beasley also ran into trouble earlier in his administration when he tried going "New South" by attempting to remove the Confederate flag from atop the statehouse. But he backed off under a hail of neo-Confederate criticism, a constituency southern Republicans do not want to alienate but which they cannot completely appease without alarming newcomer whites.
White Republicans moving south from suburbs of New York or Chicago may like the warmer weather, friendlier people, slower lifestyle, lower taxes, smaller government, and perhaps, in some cases, even the more southern style of race relations of their new home. They may be drawn by a nostalgia for an earlier America. But that doesn't mean they are going to think it important, or even sensible, that the Confederate flag still flies over the state capitol. Celebration, Disney's planned community in Orlando, was designed to feel like a small turn-of-the-century southern town. But that doesn't mean that the folks who move there want to pull jury duty on a modern-day Scopes trial.
Last fall Democrat Mary Squires defeated a leading Christian conservative Republican (he's now the Christian Coalition's legislative lobbyist) for a Georgia state house seat from Gwinnett County, outside Atlanta. "Gwinnett boomed. Poof. One minute it was farmland, the next minute it's a big suburb," says Squires. Gwinnett is very Republican and barely anyone in her district, she says, is a native Georgian. "I'm a very traditional Georgia Democrat and that does look an awful lot like a Republican with a soft heart," says Squires. But, she says, she was more in tune with a lot of her newcomer constituents who, she says, "can't stand social issues that are right-wing." Already this year she has dismissed a campaign by Republican legislative colleagues from Gwinnett charging that the county library is purveying pornography to Gwinnett's youth. "I've looked at the parental advisory shelves and there's never any books in it," Squires told the Atlanta Journal and Constitution. "They're probably all checked out by the social conservatives wanting to see how pornographic they are."
Cary, North Carolina, next to Raleigh, is the prototypical newcomer community. The population is closing in on 100,000, more than twice what it was in 1990 and nearly five times what it was in 1980. It is a Republican stronghold. But, says Jack Smith, a Massachusetts transplant who serves on the town council, "The favorite phrase of virtually every local politician is, 'I'm a fiscal conservative, but I'm a liberal in my social policies.'"
"How did I, a loud-mouthed rich guy, along with a six-foot-four black man beat two 20-year incumbents?" asks Glen Lang, a former midwesterner who was elected in 1997 to the Cary town council, despite, he says, being a "liberal Democrat somewhere to the left of Ted Kennedy on social policy." The answer, he says, is that he and Jess Ward, a black Republican, cam paigned on a platform of limiting growth and spending more on parks and roads and schools. Folks, he says, didn't move to Cary from New York and New Jersey to have their children attend classes in trailers. And what's a soccer mom without a soccer field?
According to John Davis, head of the nonpartisan North Carolina Forum for Research and Economic Education, the newcomers are far more likely to register as Republicans than native-born North Caroli nians are, but, says Davis, they are also more moderate than many homegrown white Democrats. They especially dislike stridency, and are less susceptible to populist or racial appeals. They lack that southern strain of antigovernmentism, especially because the governments they encounter in their adoptive states are probably already notably diminished versions of what they left behind. Davis' survey research has confirmed exactly what Glen Lang discovered running for town council in Cary. According to Davis, "These Republicans wanted the best schools and the safest neighborhoods. They wanted lots of soccer fields and city parks and clean lakes and rivers." In sum, says Davis, they are making the state simultaneously more Republican and less conservative. Whereas white rural conservative Democrats have long split their tickets to vote for Senator Jesse Helms, these white moderate suburban Republicans split their tickets to vote against Helms. In the 1996 race pitting Helms against Harvey Gantt, the former mayor of Charlotte, who is black, nearly one in five voters had moved to the state since the first Helms-Gantt race in 1990. Among those newcomers, the Voter News exit poll found Gantt winning, 59 to 41 percent.
Interestingly, last fall, former U.S. Senator Lauch Faircloth did better with the newcomers (still about a fifth of the vote) in his losing re-election battle, splitting their vote with Democrat John Edwards. Why should that be? Faircloth is close to Helms, who as much as any politician alive represents the skillful Republican exploitation of white racial fears. But he is not as incendiary a figure as Helms; he did not have a black opponent to heighten the saliency of race; and he did not really push the racial buttons. All this may have helped him to do much better than Helms with the newcomers (though he still only got 8 percent of the black vote). But what cost him the election is that he did substantially less well with longtime voters than Helms had. "Faircloth did not do what some people expected him to do in order to energize, in polite terms, the anti-quota forces, the Jessecrats," says Seth Effron, a North Carolina political analyst.
While last fall's results do not signal a reversal of Republican dominance in the South, they do suggest that the changing political demography of the region is destabilizing the conditions that worked for them in the past and leaving them in a difficult situation where they seem damned if they do and damned if they don't on race. Nationally, Republicans face a similar quandary in figuring out how to improve their standing with the growing number of Hispanic voters. A party built upon amassing large white majorities is facing an electorate that is becoming less white each year.
New South, New Sunbelt
Take a look at the early line on reapportionment. Based on the Census Bureau's population estimates for 1998, the Congressional Research Service projects that after the 2000 Census, California, Florida, Georgia, Montana, and Nevada will each gain an additional House seat, and Arizona and Texas, an additional two seats. Meanwhile, Connecticut, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin will each lose a seat, and New York and Pennsylvania will each lose two seats. At first glance this seems like an old story: it is the Sunbelt ascendant, good news for Republicans. But the Sunbelt has changed. In California, all of the population gain is Hispanic and Asian; in Texas, blacks, Asians, but especially Hispanics represent 75 percent of the population gain. In Florida, 62 percent, and Georgia, 54 percent of the population gain is minority. And in Arizona (which has grown 24 percent in the 1990s) and Nevada (which has grown 40 percent), more than 40 percent of the growth is minority, mostly Hispanic.
"Republicans are now in a huge bind," says Fred erick Lynch, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College in California. "If they want to broaden their base among Latinos they are going to have to dump immigration and affirmative action reform, and that's going to alienate the base."
And what of the future? On one side are those like Texas Governor George W. Bush, who won nearly half the Hispanic vote (albeit against feeble opposition and with low Hispanic turnout) in his recent landslide election by steering clear of issues like affirmative action and immigration, speaking Spanish, and campaigning strenuously for Hispanic votes. (He also received an estimated 27 percent of the black vote.) Similarly, his brother Jeb Bush, just elected governor of Florida, gave Ward Connerly the brush-off when Connerly came by to say he might try to put a Proposition 209style initiative on the Florida ballot. Connerly, Bush said, "wants a war; I'm a lover."
On the other side are those like Patrick J. Buch anan, who prefer making war to making love, at least politically. Buchanan argues that unless Republicans rally their white base, and move to place a moratorium on immigration, the Republican Party is facing a "demographic death sentence." "If the Republican Party doesn't deal with immigration, in eight to ten years, the Republican Party at the national level may be a permanent minority party," warns Buchanan, who says many immigrants are natural Democrats not only because of race, but because of class.
The Bush approach, of course, has generally won the praise of "enlightened" punditry. But up in Idaho, Ron Rankin is not impressed. "That's a gene pool," he says of the Bush brothers, "I wouldn't want to get involved in."
Remember the 1970s? The ultra-earnest Democratic senator from Idaho, Frank Church, was leading legislative efforts to end the war in Vietnam. Liberal Utah Democrat Frank Moss was writing the bill banning cigarette advertising on TV. Colorado Democrat Gary Hart was stitching the "neo" into "neo-liberal" and putting together the playbook that would eventually take Bill Clinton to the White House. A Montanan named Mike Mansfield was Democratic majority leader at a time when it seemed like "Democratic" would always modify "majority." The House delegations from the Rocky Mountain West were stacked with Democrats, and most of the state legislatures and governorships were, too.
Turn the politics of the 1970s upside down and you've got the 1990s, a decade of growing, and now commanding, Republican dominance out West. But if Republican conservatism seems such a natural fit for the flinty independence of the prototypical westerner, how is it that this same region was capable of producing so many distinguished progressive Demo crats in the not-too-distant past?
It was, of course, a more liberal time in the nation's history. And in- and out-migration patterns played an important role. But there was more to it than that. In the Rocky Mountain states in the 1970s, organized labor was still powerfully influential and environmentalism was newly ascendant as a political movement. Both worked to the advantage of Democrats.
"When we had mammoth growth back in the 1970s it was back-to-the-landers and Vietnam veterans heading to the hills, wanting to get back to nature, away from the smokestacks, and they were critical to Cecil Andrus getting elected as an environmentalist," recalls Mary Lou Reed, a former Democratic state senator in Idaho. Andrus was elected governor of Idaho in 1970 and 1974 and then again in 1986 and 1990. Colorado Democrat Dick Lamm rode his successful opposition to hosting the 1976 Winter Olympics (based on fiscal and environmental concerns) to that state's governorship.
But, says Ed Quillen, the publisher of the monthly journal Colo rado Central, "there's a split now between labor Democrats and green Democrats" in the Mountain West. Sometimes the two wings of the party can unite in a coalition; when they don't, they lose.
"At one time they had enough in common to win elections," he says. The region used to crackle with class consciousness. Butte even had a Socialist mayor early in the century. But today organized labor is a shell of its former self. As the Center for the New West reported last year, "The disappearance of highly unionized, blue-collar workers in the mines, smelters, and mills of the West has eviscerated a core component of the traditional Democratic base."
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