In The Atlantic last year, Ryan Sager, author of the book “The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party,” noted that Republicans were suddenly finding themselves losing elections in the Rocky Mountain states. Today Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico and Wyoming all have Democratic governors.  Mr. Sager attributes the sudden Democratic surge in the “Purple Mountains” to religious conservatives gaining control of the policy debate within the Republican Party. In Mr. Sager’s view, the GOP has lost the libertarian-leaning conservative voters whose politics tend to mirror the rugged individualism of those he suspects inhabit the region. ~Brendan Miniter

Put the emphasis on “suspects.”  Show me someone from the urban parts of the modern West and I will show you someone more likely to consider himself a “centrist” or an “independent” than he is likely to consider himself a ruggedly individualistic libertarian.  The trouble I have with people who talk about Republicans losing “the libertarian West” is that I am not sure they have ever been to some parts of the West, since they seem to think that people living in “the mountains” of the West are all Scots-Irish backwoodsmen just itching to shoot the revenuers and flatlanders. 

Take, for instance, the place of New Mexico (or even Colorado) in the list of current Democratic governors.  This is supposed to be some indication of Republican weakness in these states today, when a Democratic governor in New Mexico since the Depression is historically far more the norm than the exception.  It is true that since 1975 there have been two Republican governors, Carruthers and Johnson, for a total of twelve years, but there have been four Democratic governors in Apodaca, Anaya, King and Richardson for what will be a total of twenty years.  Just look at the death-grip Democrats have had on the statehouse for seventy years and you will understand that any Republican statewide victories in New Mexico are rather remarkable achievements in themselves.  (As some of us like to joke back home, with the demise of the PRI’s lock on power in Mexico, the New Mexico Democrats in our legislature are probably now the longest-ruling one-party system on earth.) The state continues to change, but it remains one of the three minority-majority states in the country and thus serves as a natural habitat of Democrats.  Of all the states on this list, the one that absolutely doesn’t need the scapegoating of religious conservatives to explain Democratic success is New Mexico. 

New Mexico is still a default Democratic state and typically goes for Republican presidential candidates only when that candidate wins nationally.  Were it not for the odd make-up of Albuquerque with its heavy core of professionals, scientists and military personnel, the GOP would get routinely trounced in every statewide election.  Perhaps ironically, it seems to be the heavy footprint of the federal government in Albuquerque that gives the Republicans a fighting chance.  How do you suppose “libertarian-leaning” candidates would do in a state that is heavily dependent on the federal government for a sizeable part of its economy?  Probably not very well at all.

This brings me a bigger problem with Mr. Sager’s entire thesis.  How can evangelicals be costing Republicans support in the mountain West unless evangelicals are increasingly prominent in local GOP politics and the Republicans there are failing?  The supposed “Southern” and “religious” character of Republican politics elsewhere should not have any obvious effect on whether people in another part of the country vote for “moderate,” pro-business, pro-Pentagon Republicans (think Heather Wilson).  In New Mexico, there are certainly evangelicals in the state GOP, but they seem to have unusually limited influence on the selection of nominees for statewide office or even for House members outside of their heavier concentration in southeastern New Mexico.  In other words, it might be true that the GOP is now struggling in this part of the country more than it was, but the supposed cause (too much religion!) seems to have nothing to do with it.

It seems almost certain that the intense evangelical culture of parts of Colorado has served as a boost to Republican prospects in the state.  This deserves closer scrutiny, but I wonder if the concern over the GOP losing the “libertarian West” (a “libertarian West” that includes Colorado Springs!) is not a bad case of alarmism based on a very few electoral defeats.  Consider that the only Colorado House losses in a very bad year were in open seats with weak Republican candidates.  Marilyn Musgrave (CO-04), whose seat was endangered late in the cycle, certainly represents the social and religious conservative wing of her party, but managed to survive and win re-election.  Beauprez ran a less than thrilling campaign, which was obviously insufficient in the year of the Democratic wave, but a lot more analysis would need to be done to determine why he lost before we can credit sweeping theories of religious conservatism dooming the party’s chances.