The use and protection of public lands and other outdoor issues did not receive a lot of airtime in the national debate leading up to the 2018 election. But in the Mountain West, we saw a different story unfold.
Our Winning the West: Election 2018 report reveals the growing trend of winning candidates in competitive races in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, and New Mexico who leveraged pro-public lands messages, positions, and imagery at the federal, state, and local level in order to connect with voters in the Mountain West.
We found of the 22 races tracked throughout the election, 20 featured significant pro-public lands advertising or public lands messaging.
Winning candidates used the mountains and outdoor spaces of the Mountain West to serve as the backdrop of numerous campaign ads and pro-public lands messages on social media. They openly discussed public lands—how they are used, their importance to local economies, and the way they define life in the West—to connect with the growing “outdoor voting bloc.” Candidates like three-term U.S. Senator Jon Tester of Montana and newcomer Representative Xochitl Torres Small of New Mexico showed us Winning in the West means respecting and protecting public lands.
The closely watched race for U.S. Senate in Montana was among 20 races highlighted in the report. In that contest, Democratic Senator Tester—viewed as one of the nation’s most vulnerable incumbents—won re-election on a pro-public lands platform in a state that voted for President Donald Trump by 21 points in 2016. Tester aired multiple television ads and promoted social media content promising to fight and keep “developers’ hands off our public lands.” He used his position and record on public lands as a way to connect with local voters and, by contrast, portray his opponent, developer Matt Rosendale, as an outsider without a grasp on what it means to be a Montanan. Tester ended ads and speeches with the frequent refrain: “As long as I’m in the U.S. Senate, Montana is not for sale.”
In the race for New Mexico’s open 2nd Congressional District seat, first-time candidate Xochitl Torres Small won in part by highlighting her career “fighting to protect access to the water we all depend on.” She emphasized her public lands positions throughout the campaign, directly addressing Washington and promising to fight against any decisions that would harm New Mexico’s public lands, water, and national monuments. Her opponent, a state representative with a history of supporting public lands privatization, could not make the same outdoor connection with voters.
Winning candidates also regularly rejected the Trump administration’s public lands agenda, including shrinking national monuments, reversing bans on uranium mining near national parks, and opening more protected public lands up for private development. By contrast, candidates with extreme anti-public lands or legislative records found themselves out of step with Western voters and were defeated at the polls.
Learn more about the unignorable trend of candidates highlighting support for public lands and outdoor issues in 2018 at WinningTheWest2018.org. A compilation video created by The Center for Western Priorities shows the ways in which Mountain West candidates, like Tester and Torres Small, used outdoor issues to tell a story with their state’s public lands as a backdrop.
The Center for Western Priorities is available to provide briefings on the increased trend in the 2018 election and importance of a pro-public lands message to winning Western votes.
Jennifer Rokala is the Executive Director of the Center for Western Priorities. Prior to joining CWP, Jen served as the State Director for U.S. Senator Mark Udall of Colorado. Jen grew up in Colorado and is a graduate of the University of Colorado, Boulder. As a native of the West, Jen has always been passionate about protecting our public lands. Her favorite national park in Colorado is the Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve.