Can the West influence the presidential contest?

Dan Kemmis and Bob Brown

After months of quiet, there’s been a burst of activity around the idea of a coordinated Western presidential primary. Just in the last few weeks, one of the season’s first presidential candidate debates was held in Carson City, Nev., a prelude to that state’s Jan. 19 Democratic caucus; Nevada Democrats dropped plans for a presidential debate on Fox News but may sponsor a candidate forum; Idaho Democrats moved their caucus to Feb. 5 to align with primaries in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah; Nevada Republicans moved their caucus to Feb. 7; Utah’s Legislature appropriated an additional $2.5 million to keep their primary on Feb. 5; and both the Colorado and Montana legislatures are considering moving their delegate selection to Feb. 5.Let’s start with the two states where decisions are still to be made. Should Montana and Colorado move their primaries or caucuses to the same date as most of their neighbors?The strongest argument against making that move is the nationwide stampede under way to schedule primaries and caucuses on Feb. 5. At latest count, at least 20 states had already made the move, or were seriously considering it, among them, heavyweights like California, New York, New Jersey, Florida and Illinois. What we are seeing is the culmination of a process of front-end-loading the primary calendar that has been gaining momentum for years and is now reaching a climax. The system is collapsing on itself and will almost certainly be reformed before the 2012 election cycle, either by the national parties or by Congress. Meanwhile, the Rocky Mountain states would be well advised to stick to their original plan and line up as many of their primaries and caucuses as possible on Feb. 5.Why? With so many big states now moving to that same date, won’t small Western states (which, let’s face it, we all are) still get swamped and ignored? Yes, we will – if we act simply as individual states – but if we can participate like one big state, it’s a different story. As a region, we carry weight. The eight states of the Rockies have 44 electoral votes among them – 13 more than New York and three more than Ohio and Illinois combined. The region wields corresponding clout in terms of delegates to the national conventions. So it makes at least as much sense for the West to move to the front of the primary line as it makes for Florida or New Jersey to move there, but only on the condition that candidates appeal for our support as Westerners, not simply as Montanans or Coloradoans.The challenge of doing that became apparent in Carson City, where all the Democratic candidates except Barack Obama came West, and none of them said a word about Western issues. Several Western state Democratic parties have invited the candidates to Reno in August, in a laudable effort to focus on Western issues. Now that the Nevada Democrats have dumped Fox News, with its national focus, as a co-sponsor of the August debate, there may be an even better opportunity to highlight regional issues.How could that work? Western Democrats were planning a “Western Roundup” in Reno in conjunction with the August debate. They should go ahead with those plans to bring Democrats together from all over the region, and encourage the Democratic presidential candidates to focus on Western issues. Western Republicans could do the same in one of the states where they have scheduled an early primary or caucus.Big regional gatherings like this would be the equivalent of national labor or manufacturer conventions, which candidates do attend, and where they expect to address the issues of greatest concern to the audience. With good coverage from media, such events would give Westerners an unprecedented opportunity to hear where candidates stand on everything from the management of our public lands to the development of alternative energy, and vote accordingly. The more of these occasions we can organize, the better the candidates will get to know our issues – and the better we will know their positions on them.While those events are being organized, we need to sort out what our most important issues are – maybe even work up alternative ways of addressing the issues that would appeal to candidates of different parties – and then devise as many ways as possible to put those questions to the candidates.Daniel Kemmis and Bob Brown, contributors to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (, are senior fellows at the University of Montana’s O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Missoula, Mont. Dan Kemmis is a former Democratic mayor of Missoula and speaker of the Montana House of Representatives; Bob Brown is a former Republican secretary of state and president of the Montana Senate.