From the roofless patio atop the extraordinary World Market Center, sixteen floors of swirls and triangles, pastel orange concrete mixed with shimmering glass, one can see a truly epic panorama of the American West. To the east is a Frank Gehry building, a curvaceous metal fantasy that houses a brain research center. To the south is the Las Vegas Strip, announced at its northern point by the soaring Stratosphere. Surrounding the center is the urban sprawl of Sin City. And surrounding that sprawl are the orange rock mountains. The sky, most of the time, is a brilliant blue; the air, desert dry.
Such was the visual backdrop to this year’s Project New West Summit, which brought together Democratic politicians and progressive advocacy groups from the Rocky Mountain West for three days of discussions, beginning October 16.
But despite the splendor of the view, the reality it encompasses is far from rosy. Nevada has roughly 14 percent unemployment, the country’s highest foreclosure rate, a cataclysmically low high school graduation rate, poor public health data and an array of other signs of an economy in deep distress. On the surface, the casinos are still thriving; below the surface, many laid-off casino employees and construction workers are living in destitution.
While Nevada is an extreme case, many of its problems are replicated to some degree throughout the West. Arizona’s housing market crashed almost as severely as did Nevada’s. New Mexico’s poverty rates are among the worst in the nation. Idaho’s wages are depressed. And so on.
In 2008, the economic malaise helped push much of this region into Barack Obama’s camp in the presidential election, and contributed to the Democratic victories in both houses of Congress. Increasingly urban—the combined population of Phoenix, Denver, Las Vegas, Albuquerque and Salt Lake City has grown by 38 percent since 2000, according to research carried out by University of Nevada in Las Vegas sociologists—and increasingly an ethnic pastiche, the interior West was no longer a reliably conservative voting bloc.
But in 2010, despite the urbanizing trends, that same malaise played to the Republicans’ advantage. With fewer people voting, and with those who did vote disproportionately allied with the GOP, Democrats in the region lost many Congressional seats and statehouses.
Although political leaders tout the region’s moderation and pragmatism—its resistance to extremes, its ability to negotiate workable budgets even in the face of partisan sparring—the Tea Party organized early and fiercely in the West. The anti-tax rebellions that have morphed into an anti-government monster also originated largely in the West, as have recent swells of anti-immigrant sentiment. (The Tea Party did, however, receive a bloody nose in Nevada, Colorado and Washington, where extreme GOP candidates fell to Democratic incumbents in 2010 Senate races.)
Yet amid the nastiness, many of the country’s most innovative environmental and water management measures are coming out of the West. Colorado, for example, recently passed legislation converting all state-run coal power plants to natural gas. Many of the region’s states have, via the initiative process, raised their minimum wages in recent years. Changing demographics are giving more power to cities and to progressive Democrats. And despite all the hardship there’s still a can-do optimism that’s fairly pervasive in the region. The historian Wallace Stegner once noted that the West is "the native home of hope,” and while that emotion has taken quite a beating in recent years, it hasn’t entirely vanished.
As the 2012 elections approach, both parties are furiously jockeying for position. If the Democrats can turn out their votes in sufficient numbers, Western strategists believe, the party could regain many of the House seats it lost in last year’s GOP landslide, while holding the Senate and retaining the White House. If the Democrats fail to do so, the GOP could enjoy an electoral sweep.
The stakes could hardly be higher: For many residents in the region, the battle for 2012 is about basic economic survival. Yet the contours of what the Western fight will look like are still being drawn.
“Now more than ever,” averred Project New West president Jill Hanauer, “the nation should look west for new ideas. We vote for the person, not the party; the policy position and leadership, not the ideology.” For generations, she continued, people in the West have cherished both their communities and their independence, creating a politics suspicious of centralized government but determined to innovate at a local level.
Some of Project New West’s rhetoric is Pollyannaish, a hyperbolic declaration of Western exceptionalism and progressivism. It is also, however, an appeal to the better angels in the American system—the belief that change is something to be embraced rather than feared, and that the country thrives through reinvention.
Repeatedly, summit participants—such as Senators Harry Reid, Tom and Mark Udall, and Mike Bennet, as well as influential House members like Colorado’s Diana DeGette—emphasized the need to generate clean energy and biotech jobs, to educate more people up to and beyond the college level, and to secure federal investment in large-scale infrastructure projects. Such investment, they argued, was the only way to bring impoverished and technologically underserved rural areas into a more prosperous era, and to generate large-scale clean-energy projects capable of competing with fossil fuels and the nuclear industry.
Such a concerted effort to kick-start the region’s economy was, they also argued, the surest way to bring Western independent voters back to the Democratic Party in large enough numbers to secure Obama’s re-election. Since independents will likely choose America’s next president, this is hardly an insignificant task.
“The West is the focus of the presidential election,” Colorado Senator Mike Bennet told The Nation, and “Colorado is a critically important state.” If Obama wins Colorado’s nine Electoral College votes, he can afford to lose Ohio; if he wins Colorado plus New Mexico, Nevada, Montana and Arizona—admittedly a long shot—the president could, in theory, be re-elected even without the large battleground states of Ohio and Florida. Winning the West is also crucial to securing control of the Senate: if Democrats hope to retain their Senate majority in 2012, they will have to hold seats in New Mexico, Montana and elsewhere.
Beyond the area’s pre-eminent role in 2012 strategic thinking, its importance is increasing with each election cycle. According to Census figures, the West is experiencing rapid population growth. Nowhere is this more the case than in Nevada, which has the fastest rate of growth in the country. For the first 119 years of the state’s existence it had one Congressman; now the state has four. As a result, the party that puts down the deepest roots in the region will reap dividends for decades to come.
Progressive Western strategists grouped around the Project New West leadership, as well as many political leaders, think they see a way to do this: emphasize a combination of environmentally sensitive and pro-growth policies; talk about education; push public investments in roads, bridges and water pipelines; and reach out to the “minority” voters who increasingly constitute majorities.
These strategists also think that the GOP line in the sand on barring tax hikes for millionaires isn’t playing well here. Polling shows the public is deeply dissatisfied with the preservation of tax benefits for the wealthiest few at the expense of basic social insurance and safety net programs for the many. Banner-waving protesters congregated near the Market Center during the Project New West summit, and Occupy Wall Street groups have sprouted up across the region in recent weeks. Conceivably, such protests could bring out the West’s progressive voters in 2012 in much the same way that the Tea Party brought conservatives to the polls in 2010.
“It’s encouraging to see people who are so frustrated with this attack on the middle class and working class,” says New Mexico Congressman Ben Ray Luján, of the rash of protests that erupted around the West in mid-October. “They’ve had it. Enough is enough. I hope it encourages a larger conversation.”
For New Mexico Congressman Martin Heinrich, who is running to become the Democratic nominee for one of the state’s Senate seats, the issue of fairness is now center-stage. “People recognize we’re going to have to do really difficult things, and some will be unpleasant. But they don’t think what’s been done is fair. When tax increases for millionaires are off the table but Medicaid cuts are on, that’s not fair.”
Tapping into that innate sense of fairness just might be the Democrats’ best shot come 2012. The Project New West participants recognized this. Now, as they head back to their districts, they must formulate a message capable of articulating the basic sense that things are fundamentally unfair—and to do so in a way that will build new, progressive electoral coalitions.
It’s an important job. The West could be America’s firewall against GOP extremism.