Few Election Surprises Expected In Western States

As in the United States as a whole, talk of improving public education, curbing the costs of prescription drugs and snuffing out urban sprawl are dominating races up and down the ballot in nearly every western state.

In the 13 states from the Rockies to Hawaii, voters will select nine U.S. Senators, three governors and most of their state legislators this November. Apart from the dozen or so U.S. House races that remain too close to call, observers expect few surprises in the region for either political party.

"I think it's going to be a very incumbent friendly election," said Professor Ted Jelen of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas speaking of his home state. "I expect the turnout to be pretty low for a presidential election year. Neither presidential candidate has caught fire."

"Here as elsewhere, I don't think there is any burning issue that's going to turn the election," said Stuart Elway, a pollster in Washington.

Of the nine western U.S. Senate races, incumbents are running and are ahead in seven. Washington's popular governor, Gary Locke, a Democrat, is considered a heavy favorite for re-election, as is Mike Leavitt, the Republican governor of Utah. In the region's statehouses, just three of 24 chambers could change hands: the senates in Colorado, Oregon and Arizona. In Washington, the November election will settle a tie in the house.

In the contest for president, early polls show most of the west, particularly the mountain states, firmly in the Bush camp. In California, Gore holds a 13-point lead. Although early polls indicated an edge for Bush, observers in Oregon, Washington and Nevada say that their states could still swing either way.

The region's truly white-hot contests are over the multitude of initiatives and referenda that overload western ballots every election season and for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. The national Republican and Democratic parties are engaged in a pitched battle for control of that chamber, which the Republicans now hold by a handful of seats.

Montana

While prosperity drives hopes for better schools in most states, drought-stricken and fire-ravaged Montana is consumed by a more immediate concern: how to outsmart Mother Nature and catch the economic wave the rest of the region is riding.

The recent rash of wildfires has only worsened the effects of a three-year drought that had already stalled economic growth, says Jim Gransbery of the Billings Gazette .

But should Montanans flood the polls this November to send their leaders a message about the economy, they will not have to wade through the usual list of names. Term limits are taking effect, leaving open every statewide office for the first time in more than 100 years.

Generating the most interest is the governor's seat, being vacated by Republican Marc Racicot. Polls taken before the June primary showed Lt. Gov. Judy Martz, also a Republican, ahead of the Democratic state auditor Mark O'Keefe. But, according to Jim Lompach, professor of political science at the University of Montana, O'Keefe has recently picked up more support.

Education Tops The Agenda

From the candidates themselves and from proponents of numerous ballot initiatives in California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona and Colorado, voters in the west are likely to hear more ideas for public education this year than anything else. In several of these states, voters will be asked to approve measures to boost funding for school construction and teachers salaries. In California, "discussions about the schools will play as a very big issue up and down the ballot," said pollster Mark DiCamillo of the Field Institute.

Backed by billionaire venture capitalist Tim Draper, California's Proposition 38 would create the nation's largest and most sweeping school voucher program. If it passes, every child in California -- no matter how wealthy -- could receive $4,000 toward the cost of private school tuition.

A campaign of ads sponsored by the education unions against the proposal have helped erode the measure's early support and it now trails 36 percent to 49 percent, according to the latest Field poll. "I have a healthy respect for well-funded campaigns and the effect they can have on proposition elections in this state," DiCamillo said. "Voters are lining up with the education community on it."

In Washington state, Gov. Gary Locke is likely to try to make education Topic A in his re-election campaign. "He wants to run on education," said David Postman, chief political reporter for the Seattle Times . "Since his last election, it's the first thing out of (his) mouth no matter what he's talking about."

Arizona's Republican Gov. Jane Dee Hull this year rammed an education referendum through the state legislature despite strong opposition from the leadership. If her measure is approved by voters this fall, Arizona's sales tax will rise from 5 percent to 5.6 percent, with the increase going to the public schools.

Other education initiatives on ballots in the west include:

  • Another Arizona measure, similar to one passed by California voters two years ago and paid for by the same supporters, would eliminate bilingual education. Children who do not speak English would instead attend a year-long English immersion program.
  • Washington voters will decide whether to permit charter schools, publicly funded schools that operate free from the oversight of local school boards. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is bankrolling the measure.
  • Oregon's Measure 9 would bar public schools from instruction that encourages or condones homosexuality. A second Oregon initiative would tie teacher pay to student performance.

Prescription Drugs

Particularly in races for the U.S. House and Senate, the high cost of prescription drugs has featured prominently in western races so far this year. Democratic challengers for the Senate in Montana and Nevada are trying to use the issue to gain traction against their Republican opponents. In Montana, where Republican Sen. Conrad Burns is favored in his race against Democrat Brian Schweitzer, and in Nevada, where the Democratic hopeful Ed Bernstein is also fighting an uphill battle, the underdogs have led busloads of seniors on drug-buying trips to Canada and Mexico. Beleaguered U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, a Republican from Washington, has also raised the prescription drug issue, touting his plan to regulate the prices charged by pharmaceutical companies.

Always a controversial figure in Washington, Gorton will face the winner of Washington's September primary between Deborah Senn, the state's insurance commissioner, and former Congresswoman and Internet millionaire Maria Cantwell. Cantwell's ability to spend millions of her own money on television advertising has made her an early favorite in the primary.

But even with the Gorton race so close -- the senator has yet to secure a 50 percent majority in most polls, the Democrats are not likely to pick up a senate seat in the west. In Nevada, where Democrat Richard Bryan is retiring, the Republican, John Ensign, is ahead.

The U.S. House

Republicans, however, cannot be so sanguine about their seats in the House of Representatives, particularly in California. There, as many as six races are dead heats. Another three House races in Washington are too close to call.

"If you had a wave of Democratic victories, they could have an effect in those close races," said Field Institute pollster, Mark DiCamillo. "Just out of California, you could literally gain four or five house seats, which could change the balance of power in Washington."

Particularly vulnerable is James Rogan, a Republican from Glendale, CA, who played a prominent role in the impeachment of President Clinton.

Other election issues to watch in the west include:

  • The Sierra Club in Arizona has sponsored a ballot measure that would require cities to set growth boundaries, beyond which they would not permit development.
  • A similar measure is on the ballot in Colorado. In California, numerous local ballot initiatives will offer cures to the problems of urban sprawl. "The two big issues here are education and growth," said Bruce Merrill of Arizona State University.
  • With opposition growing against California's prison building boom, voters there will also pass judgment on an initiative to sentence drug users guilty of possession to treatment rather than prison time.
  • Another California measure would establish new limits on campaign contributions and spending -- limits which would actually be higher than those approved by voters in an earlier initiative. Oregon voters will also address campaign finance, by deciding whether to approve public funding of statewide political races.
  • Oregon's ballot this year boasts 26 measures, the most since 1914. Almost half concern taxes, with Measure 91 creating the most stir. Perennial anti-tax activist Bill Sizemore has bankrolled an initiative that would allow Oregonians to take a bigger exemption on their state income taxes. Opponents say it will gut revenues by $1 billion.
  • Taxes are also a big issue in Washington. Initiative 722, sponsored by Tim Eyman, the Evergreen state's answer to Bill Sizemore, would limit property taxes and rollback all tax and fee increases imposed since voters approved a sweeping tax cut last year. Another Eyman proposal would derail the state's plans for mass transit by forcing it to spend 90 percent of its transportation budget on roads. In Alaska, a tax initiative, reminiscent of California's infamous Proposition 13, would limit property taxes to one percent of a property's market value. And in Colorado, a citizen's initiative would cut utility, car, income and property taxes by $25 a year, every year.
  • There are a dozen measures on the ballot in Colorado, the most contentious of which would require criminal background checks for gun buyers at gun shows. While it enjoys widespread public support, the gun lobby has already mounted a court challenge against it. Oregon voters will vote on a similar measure. Other citizen-driven initiatives expected to heat up in Colorado would permit the use of marijuana as a medicine and make women wait 24 hours to have an abortion.
  • Nevada's ballot will also ask voters if they want to legalize the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. Another measure, similar to one approved by California voters in March, will bar the state from recognizing same-sex marriages.