Tuesday, August 2, 2011

There's Nothing "Western" About Being Extreme

Last November, while the right wing of the Republican party celebrated decisive electoral victories throughout the country, ultra-conservatives in Western battleground states were left to ponder a more mixed result. While Republicans secured important victories in the Nevada and New Mexico gubernatorial races, they also failed to capture either house of the state legislature in those states. In Colorado, conservative Republicans lost both of the state's high-profile statewide races. That the West served as an effective Democratic firewall in a year when right-wing Republicans achieved overwhelming victories in such battleground states as Wisconsin and Ohio has widely been seen as testament to the increasingly moderate views of the Western electorate.

Almost a year later it doesn't appear as though the right has learned a great deal from the 2010 experience. Over the weekend, conservative pundits, policymakers, and presidential candidates convened in suburban Lakewood, Colorado for the annual "Western Conservative Summit," where they committed to the second annual "Lone Tree Declaration," a pledge to support ultra-conservative policies on everything from the federal budget to abortion to foreign policy. At this year's conference, presidential candidate Rick Santorum shared his concern that same-sex unions could lead to legalized bigamy and incest. Texas Governor and likely presidential candidate Rick Perry, meanwhile, used the forum to lob red meat criticism at President Obama.

The Conservative Western Summit may well have served its purpose in rallying the right-wing base in Colorado, but the themes presented at the conference fly in the face of everything you'd expect Republicans would have learned about the West in the last few years. As PNW has learned through extensive public opinion research, the last thing Western voters want is for candidates to "commit unswervingly" to any ideological platform, particularly not on social issues like abortion and gay marriage. Our June, 2011 Nevada survey of 601 likely Nevada voters shows that over half of Nevada voters think gay marriage should be legally recognized, including 7 out of 10 independent voters. Surveying the Western political landscape, it's clear that the most popular statewide politicians in the region--New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer and Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval--are those who have worked across the aisle and compromised with the opposition in the legislature, particularly on state budgets.

But it wasn't just the Western Conservative Summit's commitment to right-wing politics that was telling. Save for the location of the event, there was nothing "Western" about the Conservative Summit's agenda, which was filled with presentations such as “Replacing Obamacare after Its Repeal" (a ballot initiative to exempt Colorado from provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act failed in 2010) and “Our Choice: Sharia or the Constitution." What's more, very few speakers at the event--which featured cable news commentators like Dick Morris and Tucker Carlson, as well as former Bush administration official John Bolton--stand out as authorities on the West, or are even from the region at all.

PNW's research has shown that Western voters are looking for politicians who understand and defend their unique way of life. This explains how a state like Montana, which is quite conservative on a number of key national issues, has three Democrats as its most-prominent elected officials. It also explains how a Democrat like Dave Freudenthal could win multiple terms as governor of conservative state like Wyoming. For Western voters, a sense that politicians understand the unique issues affecting their lives is as important as party affiliation and ideology. Indeed, it will take more-nuanced approach than "declaring fidelity" to an ideology to win in the West.

As in years past, PNW expects the winners in 2012 to be the candidates who most-effectively convey that they understand the aspirations, lifestyles and challenges of their constituents, and are working pragmatically to defend their unique interests. While both parties have plenty of opportunity to seize that mantle before next November, we believe the ideals and themes laid out at the Western Conservative Summit are the antithesis of what Western voters are looking for in 2012.