“Flyover Country.” I’d probably call it an overused term if I hadn’t opened this paragraph with it. Nevertheless, much of the area we live in along the Rockies would clearly fall into this geographic region of relatively sparse population and darn nice scenery. One would only need to look at a nighttime photograph of the North American continent to see there is definitely some space between the bright spots out here.
Even with the ever-lengthening political season, the aspiring leaders of the free world have a finite amount of time to reach potential supporters and win their vote (and their donations). This means they need as much bang for their buck as they can get, and have to reach both the population centers and/or the states with the early primaries. This gives them votes and money and the all-important delegates for the national conventions in the summer.
In Montana, our relatively late primary (June) combined with our relatively low population density (one million folks in the fourth largest state in the Union) and proportionately few electoral votes (three) makes us a pretty uninviting target for the bare-knuckle combat of presidential politics.
That doesn’t mean we’re completely ignored. I remember listening to both Bush 41 and Bill Clinton speak at Rocky Mountain College in Billings during the summer and fall of 1992. Regardless, the numbers would indicate a fairly low electoral value on Montana and other Mountain West states – but I’m not as convinced that holds water when you take into account the practical views of those living in this easy-to-ignore region.
I would say in order to attract the Montana voter, one must first understand the political landscape and look at the political history of the state through a lens larger than the last cycle or two. The emergence of Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer as one of the most popular Chief Executives in the Nation – the first Democrat in sixteen years to occupy the Capitol in Helena — and the recent ousting of three-term Republican Senator Conrad Burns would indicate at face value a shift from red to blue using the political color wheel.
However, a recent conversation with a political veteran in Helena reminded me of Montana’s strong democratic roots. Senator Conrad Burns was only the second Republican ever elected to the U.S. Senate from Montana – and the only one ever re-elected [since the adoption of the 17th Amendment providing for direct election of Senators by the people rather than the legislature]. One shouldn’t forget the deep union roots of Montana, and the strength of the labor and trade unions in the state, not to mention Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, Burton K. Wheeler, Pat Williams, Max Baucus and a host of other prominent Democrats over the last century. Still, I think it would be fair to say Montana (and much of the west) has a strong independent and populist streak that has no qualms against breaking free of the traditional framework of Democrat or Republican.
I would like to think of ‘our’ views as a microcosm of the national temperature, and there are a few the things I would rattle off as important to those of us in the shadow of the Rockies. I realize this list is neither exhaustive nor completely accurate, but that’s also what makes the Mountain West a special place. We have plenty of room for individuals who like to set their own mold:
• Take care of yourself and your family, and if you have the means – take care of your neighbor.
• The government serves a needed purpose, but it also needs to be controlled.
• In this region, if you lose your water you die – so protect it. The same goes for the land because if you’re not making your living from it directly, the person paying you probably is.
• Hunting and fishing are a way of life, and so is enjoying the wide-open space we live in. As long as you don’t wreck it for me and my family, we can all continue to use it.
• Say what you believe, and do what you say, because panderers and empty suits get rooted out pretty quick.
• You can disagree without being disagreeable.
• A look in the eye and a handshake is still a binding contract – so give it the respect it deserves.
• Spirituality, or the lack thereof, is an individual choice and should be kept that way.
• ‘Personal responsibility’ still means something.
• Stand for the National Anthem, sing along if you can (even badly) and remember that the ‘Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave’ is about all of us.
Yes, I’m aware I’ve gone a bit off subject. Blame it on my train-of-thought writing. Now where was I? Oh right, as far as potential Presidents go and how they can get the attention of the west? Try asking us. Carve a little time out of those busy schedules between coasts and put in to a few of our nice towns over the next few months and ask us what we think. Talk about issues that impact me and my family like access to affordable health insurance, or the self-employment tax I pay as a small business owner. What about ways to utilize renewable resources to wean us off the teat of foreign oil? I’d note that it’s not enough to just mention the challenges we face as a Nation – a Chief Executive should have a plan, and the action steps necessary to implement that plan with the understanding of the vastness of our nation not only in geography but in culture.
Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down in a room with former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, briefly introduce myself and shake his hand, and listen to him address a small group of Montana political pundits and business owners on some specific issues. He had some interesting observations on health care access and affordability, and after he explained how he and the Massachusetts legislature had addressed the issue, he went in an unexpected direction. Refreshingly, he stated it was far from being a perfect solution (and I have to admit I liked the forthright statement) but perhaps there were parts of it that would work for other states. Heck, maybe some legislature or Governor would improve on it and even more states could find success in solving this health care problem without relying on a one-size-fits-all federal solution.
This apparent interest in solutions being found outside the beltway, and what seemed a genuine request for input from a non-target state was a good move from the Romney campaign. I would say any candidate would be wise to follow his lead regardless of political affiliation. Sure, some of it is the psychological stroke of being paid attention to, but it’s also the hope that with enough inquiries into the Mountain West, these men and women who strive to be leader of the free world would have a better grasp of common sense and the aforementioned western values. Maybe some of it would rub off – that probably wouldn’t hurt either.
Editor’s note: JP Pendleton’s weekly blogs are part of a new feature on NewWest.Net/Politics called “Diary of a Mad Voter,” a group blog, published in partnership with the Denver Post’s Politics West intended give a glimpse into the hearts and minds of several independent-minded voters and thinkers in the Rocky Mountain West in the ’08 election cycle. Check back this week at www.newwest.net/madvoter.