The meandering 9-hour drive from Denver to Jackson Hole, Wyoming - which I completed yesterday - takes you through one strand of the Rocky Mountain West's sprawling oil and gas web. You start seeing oil rigs in Weld County just north of Denver, then a little while later you hit Sinclair, Wyoming - a refinery town named after the gas station franchise that dots the West, a town that sits in the middle of Carbon County (yes, a county quite literally named after the emission that is heating our planet). From there, it's right on up through America's very own Cloud City - Sublette County, better known as a natural gas colony (sans Lando Calrissian, of course).
The drive will remind even the most casual observer of what I found in reporting THE UPRISING: Namely, the politics of oil, gas and taxes are a volatile mix in a region that will likely decide the 2008 election and the most important policies after the race is over. Here's a quick look at three of the states that are on the front line:
Colorado: As Channel 2 reports, John McCain was in Colorado this week, confirming the centrality of the Rocky Mountain West in the presidential campaign. The state, though, will also be central in the fight to control the U.S. Senate, as there's a fevered battle being waged by Mark Udall (D) and Bob Schaffer (R) to replace retiring Sen. Wayne Allard (R). Overlaying both races is energy and taxes. As the Grand Junction Sentinel reports, a superheated initiative to raise taxes on oil and gas companies will be on the ballot. Schaffer has been trying to pretend his career as an oil executive is somehow a political benefit at a time of $4 gas, but Udall has (finally) started hitting back.
Wyoming: Though probably not a presidential swing state, Wyoming will play host to a hugely important U.S. House race, after Democratic candidate Gary Trauner almost stole this seat from the GOP in 2006. Trauner is running again, and the politics of drilling are changing here. As I reported in the New York Times magazine, there have been some local uprisings against the natural gas industry in some of the most conservative parts of this very conservative state.
Montana: Big Sky country has oil and gas, too, but where it will really impact national politics is after the campaign, in the form of Sen. Max Baucus (D). As MSNBC today reports, Baucus (who The Nation has called "K Street's Favorite Democrat") will be in a position to either help or hinder the next president's tax agenda. Based on his record supporting the Bush tax policies, Baucus is more likely to be a help to President John McCain's right-wing tax policies than to President Barack Obama's progressive proposals. As I told MSNBC in the story, "I don't expect Baucus to play a very progressive role...in fact, Baucus could play a destructive role. He is potentially as big an obstacle to real tax reform as any rank-and-file Republican.'"
The national press corps and operatives in D.C. may continue to treat the intermountain West as political Siberia. We've gotten used to big-name pundits parachuting in here, portraying themselves as courageous explorers for even coming here, writing fact-deprived stories in the way zoologists describe their encounters with exotic species (my most recent favorite of these is the Wall Street Journal's dispatch this week implying that newcomers to Montana lean liberal, when anyone who has worked in that state for more than 5 minutes will show you the data proving the exact opposite).
But here's hoping that the Democratic convention in Denver will force a more serious look at this region - one that goes beyond the cartoonishly silly (and inaccurate) stereotypes of red-versus-blue, enviros-versus-workers, etc. After all, amid the picturesque mountains and open spaces, this is where the fight over two critical economic issues - energy and taxes - is going to be most intensely waged.
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