When I took a leave of absence from my job in Washington in 2000 to work in the Montana Senate race, I didn't have much clue what I was in for. Growing up on the East Coast, I thought of the Intermountain West as a huge, far-off, mysterious place of square states and cattle herds - and like many people on the coasts, I didn't know much else.
In the years since that first campaign, I have been working in and reporting on the West, telling people what I say in my new nationally syndicated newspaper column today: That this region is the most politically misunderstood place in America.
Many people scoffed at my writing, saying the West was a backwater - one that would remain a Republican stronghold forever. That is, until the last few years when many Democratic strategists in Washington realized that the West has become a political swing region - one that could decide the direction of national politics for the next generation.
Sadly, when you read the typical national reporter's occasional article about the West or watch national politicians drop in for a visit, you sense either condescension, stereotyping - or both. The West is still portrayed as a weird hinterland whose politics supposedly adhere to Washington, D.C.'s inaccurate notions of lockstep "red state" behavior.
But as I say in the column, the West defies the professional pundits' portrayals. On issues from national security to energy to the role of government, the Rocky Mountain region's nuances are far more complex than "red state" stereotypes - just like most places in America. And as this region prepares to vote on February 5th and then take center stage in the general election, the candidates who ignore the fictions and appreciates these nuances are the candidates who will likely win here.
As the only nationally syndicated newspaper columnist living in and reporting regularly on this region, I felt it was particularly important to write this piece before Tuesday's voting because the West is only going to become more prominent in American politics as this election year progresses. That prominence, I believe, will either allow inaccurate stereotypes to flourish, or let the more complex realities shine through. I hope it is the latter.
Go read the whole column here. If you'd like to see my column regularly in your local paper, use this directory to find the contact info for your local editorial page editors. Get get in touch with them and point them to my Creators Syndicate site.