Land Politics: Enviro-Sportsmen Coalition in '08 Senate Races

08/27/2007 10:31 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Back in 2004, I penned a Washington Monthly article about the Montana gubernatorial race and how Democrat Brian Schweitzer forged a coalition between traditionally progressive conservationists and the traditionally conservative hook-and-bullet crowd through his campaigning on issues like protection of public lands and expanded stream access. At the time, I posited that this new conservation coalition could be key for Democrats in cutting into Republican constituencies -- if they knew how to play land politics properly. Now, it seems like they have another big opportunity here in the Colorado Senate race.

The Grand Junction Sentinel reports that "Sportsmen, a traditionally Republican-leaning voting bloc in Colorado that swung blue in 2006's gubernatorial contest, are warily responding to 2008 Republican U.S. Senate candidate Bob Schaffer's ties to the energy industry." Schaffer is vice president of development for Aspect Energy, which is "a privately held, independent oil and gas exploration and energy investment company." Here's some choice excerpts from the article:

"With Colorado on the cusp of another hunting season, former state wildlife officials and sportsmen said last week the Senate candidates' positions balancing domestic energy production and Colorado's wildlife and open space resources will be crucial in winning their votes next year. The former Fort Collins congressman's position as an energy industry executive, sportsmen said, gives them pause...Kochman said the thought that one candidate might be in bed with the industry could push outdoorsmen to support Schaffer's opponent, 2nd District Congressman Mark Udall, a Boulder County resident with strong ties to the organized environmental movement...Grand Junction resident John Ellenberger, a retired Division of Wildlife big-game manager, said Schaffer's ties to Aspect Energy likely will prove more of an obstacle for the former congressmen than a boost among sportsmen...Ivan James, vice-chairman for legislation for the Colorado Bowhunters Association, said concerns about Schaffer's ties to the energy industry will focus most noticeably in and around the Piceance Basin, which includes Garfield and Mesa counties...James said dense energy development has the potential to ruin the habitat for wildlife in the region."

The piece has some interesting data from Bill Ritter's 2006 run for governor that shows just how important land politics will be in the Colorado senate race:

"Ritter's strong political showing throughout most of the Western Slope and close losses in some predominantly Republican western Colorado counties -- including Mesa County and Delta County -- showed how outdoorsmen can swing traditionally Republican-leaning areas toward candidates with pragmatic positions on natural resources. Ritter lost Delta County to Republican candidate Bob Beauprez by 670 votes. He lost Mesa County -- the home of Beauprez's running mate, Mesa County Commissioner Janet Rowland -- by 1,969 votes. According to a post-election survey compiled by Colorado Conservation Voters and National Wildlife Action, hunters and anglers voted for Ritter over Beauprez by a nine percentage-point margin. The same survey showed that hunters and fishermen trusted Ritter over Beauprez on wildlife protection issues by a nearly 30 percentage-point margin."

For his part, Democratic Senate candidate Mark Udall is already way out in front on these issues. Back in 2005, he authored legislation to strengthen states' ability to protect public lands and the hunting/fishing rights on those lands. This year, he's been fighting to protect the Roan Plateau against unbridled drilling.

The new conservation coalition is something that Republicans have worked to prevent in years past through what we can call "spotted owl tactics" -- that is, trying to make all conservation issues into a competition between protecting the environment or protecting jobs and economic growth. But as the Rocky Mountain region's tourism industry grows and as its major economic selling point increasingly becomes quality of life issues (ie. clean environment, access to natural recreational areas, etc.), Democrats have a clear opportunity to reframe the debate. Udall seems to keenly understand land politics while Schaffer is going to have some tough questions to answer as this campaign moves forward.

But this issue goes beyond just one campaign in one state. The national Democratic Party has opportunities on this set of issues all over the country. If there is one benefit that came out of the awful Bush energy bill, it is that the Bush administration's silly focus on domestic drilling/mining as the solution to all our energy problems has created a political quandary for local Republicans. They are being forced to decide between their energy industry campaign contributors and their local constituents who want better environmental controls and better protection of public land. That wedge is going to play a bigger and bigger role in politics as the campaign season heats up.

Cross-posted from Working Assets