As the midterms quickly approach, the nation’s political mood is shifting. Many pundits who’d predicted a “red wave” in response to the nation’s financial condition are now changing their tunes as a result of declining prices, the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturning the constitutional right to abortion, and the unexpected Senate passage of the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022.

Jennifer Rokala

Given the tightening, politicians running in the midterms desperately need something to help distinguish their campaigns — to show that they have a real understanding of what the American public wants. They need a winning issue that can unite voters across party lines.

Out West, that issue is public land protection.

A new Winning the West poll from the Center for Western Priorities shows that outdoor and public lands issues are critical to motivating Western voters in the swing states of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada.

According to the poll, 81% of voters in these states say that conservation issues will play an influential role in how they choose to vote. The finding holds true across party lines with 87% of Democrats, 81% of Independents, and 73% of Republicans reporting that these issues will impact their vote.

The poll makes it clear that Western candidates in competitive races can benefit by making  the outdoors a priority issue in their campaigns. When looking at hypothetical political candidates, 84% of Westerners say they are more favorable to an elected official who wants to ensure public lands are protected from development, including 89% of Democrats, 83% of Independents, and 78% of Republicans.

Support for conservation is even stronger among voters of color whose party preferences may be shifting. The Winning the West poll found that 92% of Westerners of color report that public lands, parks, and wildlife issues are important to them, and another 81% said that these issues will likely impact their vote. Similarly, 83% of voters of color say they are more favorable to an elected official who wants to ensure public lands are protected from development

Public land conservation always polls well out West, but what’s different this year is voters’ evident frustrations around elected officials’ lack of action on these issues they care so much about.

According to the poll, 77% of Western voters are concerned that politicians in Washington do not understand the way of life in the West and that the decisions being made in D.C. hurt the economy and quality of life in Western and rural areas. When asked to name issues that impact Western states that politicians in D.C. do not understand or pay enough attention to, 29% of voters mention water/drought, 15% mention fire mitigation, and 9% mention climate change/global warming. (It should be noted that this poll was conducted prior to Senate passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, which includes historic investments to combat both climate change and drought, and has been signed into law by President Biden).

Given the months of haggling to tackle climate change that seemed to have reached a dead end as recently as a month ago, it’s no wonder Americans view politicians as out-of-touch.

But the open spaces and breathtaking landscapes of the West can give candidates new ground — literally and figuratively —to campaign on. America’s lands are what unite us as a nation, providing the space for families and friends to come together and celebrate some of our country’s favorite pastimes like hiking. They are the places where generational memories are made.

Despite a moment of high gas prices (which have declined significantly from their June peak) the majority of Western voters still want to protect public lands from oil and gas development. According to the Winning the West poll, 68% of Westerners are concerned about environmental disasters like oil spills that threaten to destroy critical land and water resources, and another 64% agree that oil and gas development on public land should be only allowed with strict limitations and regulations to ensure that our land, wildlife, water, and public safety are protected first and foremost.

Our country is coming into the midterms this year with loads of baggage. It can seem like there is little that Americans agree on these days as party polarization grows over recent Supreme Court cases, cultural issues, and economic concerns.

The direction from voters across all different races, income brackets, and political parties is clear as the Western sky. Voters are passionate about our lands and want to protect the places and spaces that make America special.

The advice to candidates is simple. Get outside and find your voters.

Jennifer Rokala, of Denver, is Executive Director of the Denver-based Center for Western Priorities.

Jennifer Rokala

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @WstrnPriorities