Is the GOP the Party of the American West?

Republican leaders’ embrace of social conservatism has alienated themselves from many

Tom Morel

The Republican Party has a Western problem.

For several decades, the Republican Party (also known as the Grand Old Party, or GOP) won the Mountain West handily, consistently carrying Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho and often winning Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado in presidential and senatorial elections.

Today, Republican politicians are struggling to hold conservative icon Barry Goldwater’s senate seat in Arizona and, according to the Real Clear Politics polling aggregate, President Trump will lose half of the Mountain West states (Colorado, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico) in the 2020 election.

If Republicans wish to remain dominant in these rapidly growing Western states, they must abandon populist conservatism and welcome the Hispanic population as a key tenet of a new GOP.

Republican leaders’ embrace of social conservatism has alienated them from many Western voters.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the Party of Lincoln allowed Evangelists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson to dictate their social agenda of condemning same-sex partnerships and legislating Christian morality. In vehement dissent, the trailblazing Goldwater denounced the Religious Right as illegitimate conservatives and “political preachers” in a 1981 Senate speech.

In other words, the Republican Party’s welcome of the “Moral Majority” weakened their position as a protector of civil liberties, because the Evangelist movement opposes individual rights like freedom of marriage and religion.

Goldwater was right: the efforts by Falwell, Robertson and their “moralistic” colleagues to “make a religious organization” out of the GOP is antithetical to the libertarian-infused conservatism prominent in the Mountain West.

Ultimately, Western conservative-leaning voters pay the price as their party drifts right — and it continues to cost them electoral wins as the American West leaves the Party of Goldwater. The libertarian and independent Western voter has no home in its former party.

The current president’s Republican Party juxtaposes that of Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan.

For instance, Trump’s criticism and revision of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) sharply contradict the free market capitalism preached by Republicans for decades. NAFTA was the brainchild of Reagan, conceived during his 1980 presidential bid, polished by President George H.W. Bush, and signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, according to CNN.

The rejection of globalism and free enterprise represents a greater shift in Republican politics — an outward dismissal of the limited government principles that (in part) drove American settlers to Western states over a century ago. The West’s “can do” spirit has allured Americans seeking refuge from high taxes, stagnating regulation and government micro-management of people’s personal lives and decisions.

President Trump’s protectionist economic and political message sharply contrasts Western optimism, which puts him out-of-line with many voters who prioritize individual liberty and believe that America’s best days are ahead. The Republican Party’s Western problem predates the president, but his repudiation of free trade (and in turn, the free market) and pessimistic outlook on the United States’ future puts him out of step in the home of Senators John McCain and Pete Domenici.

The Party of Trump has estranged itself from Latino voters, a voting bloc critical to the American West and the GOP’s political future.

In 2004, President George W. Bush won 44% of the Hispanic vote, compared to Senator John Kerry’s 53% — and the president carried every interior Western state according to the New York Times. In 2016, Trump won a paltry 29%, costing him Nevada, New Mexico, and nearly Arizona as stated by the New York Times. By the 2018 midterm elections, the Los Angeles Times reported that Democrats won 69% of Latino voters.

Trump famously accused Mexican immigrants of “bringing drugs” and “crime,” and of being “rapists” during his 2016 campaign, as noted by Time Magazine. By staking this caustic and fallacious claim, the presidential candidate alienated himself and his party from America’s largest ethnic minority population, costing Republicans the votes they needed to win the Mountain West.

Republicans used to reach out to Latino voters.

In a 1984 interview, Senator Paul Laxalt of Nevada argued that Hispanic people “have the (same) values and philosophies” as the GOP and claimed that his party was “too WASPish,” costing them support. Laxalt’s close friend, President Reagan, agreed and granted amnesty in 1986 to three million illegal immigrants who had entered the US before 1982 as reported by National Public Radio.

Reagan and his vice president won every Western state by double-digits in their respective presidential elections from 1980-88 according to the New York Times.

If Republicans hope to control the Mountain West, they must understand that the Latino population is an increasingly powerful demographic — and extend the olive branch that their current party leader, the president, will not.

The American West is fundamentally independent. Its citizens, by and large, are not wed to a stifling political ideology — they respect individual rights. Nevertheless, the GOP’s shift from libertarianism towards social conservatism and their harsh rhetoric and immigration stances have cost them votes in many Western states.

If Republicans continue along their populist path, they will be left with far fewer voters. California, the home state of Reagan and Nixon, left the Republican Party over twenty years ago, in large part over strict anti-immigrant legislation. With the Party of Trump’s language and positions, the interior West will likely follow suit.