Cowgirl on a Horse west western

Candidates will tell us they’ve seen the mountaintops, the big sky, how they embody the pioneer spirit and how they’ve done things barely short of roping and humanely branding their own free-range, non-GMO cattle. These are Democrats, after all.

Talk of the West is Colorado’s aloha; it means different things to different people, leaning a lot on context. On the national political stage, however, Western values are mumble words. They deliver virtually nothing.

Politicians and operatives in these parts talk about it all the time: Western values. It constitutes our seat at the identity-politics table, but your guess at what it means is as good as anybody's.

You’ll be hearing about this Western ethos even more in the months ahead as nine Democratic candidates for president -- including two from Colorado -- hail from this dynamic region.

Sun sets outside Mancos, Colo.

The sun sets over Mancos.

Why? Because the West has never been seen as one thing or one place, not like the solid South, or the left coast of California, also known as President Trump’s Western liberals. The West we’re talking about, however, sticks together on practically nothing.

When governors and local leaders got together in Salt Lake City on May 30 to sign a pact to promote and export the West’s natural gas,  for example, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis took a pass on signing. Why? He’s neutral on endorsing an energy commodity, he told me. The politics around renewable energy, jobs and tax revenue drive the wedge a lot deeper than that across the West, however.

It doesn’t stop at the big issues. Colorado bickers with New Mexico over who has the best chili peppers. Oregon and Colorado are pot pioneers, but Portland and Denver have only that in common; they're as different as Nobu sushi and Long John Silver's.

Whose West are they talking about? The one that’s a John Ford's panoramic backdrop for John Wayne, or Red Rocks as a backdrop for Phish?

Because of its recent shift to the left, it’s doubtful Colorado will be swing state next year. Democrats in the legislature want the state’s Electoral College votes to go to the winner of the national popular vote, giving candidates and parties even less reason to spend time and money in the fly-over West.

In 2016, John Hickenlooper was vetted as a vice presidential choice for Hillary Clinton. Operatives told me how the ticket needed a moderate from the West, a folksy governor who likes good old American beer, no less.

Instead she picked a senator and former housing lawyer from Virginia, and America picked a billionaire (allegedly) from the Big Apple whose place in the West ends at the Aspen city limits.

Now Hickenlooper is taking his own shot at the top job at the White House, and it hasn’t really taken off. Sen. Michael Bennet, like the former governor, was polling at 0% after his first debate. It’s hard to win from that far back in the pack. The same can be said of Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

A Western governor at the corner where the Democratic Party has set up shop -- tacitly embracing some form of socialism -- is in an odd market, no matter how much Inslee hawks climate change.

Hickenlooper’s history of cooperation with the oil and gas industry in Colorado isn’t a good fit with the Green New Deal.

Democrats, however, haven’t nominated a candidate from the West for president beyond George McGovern in 1972, and McGovern was so liberal he lost his home state of South Dakota by 9 percentage points. Before Hillary Clinton, he was the last Democratic presidential candidate to lose in Pueblo.

Leaders in the West could point to the growth in population and commerce, though the details beneath that common ground tends to divide us more than unite us.

But a few people are trying.

My colleague Vince Bzdek was right when he wrote recently in the Colorado Springs Gazette (and Colorado Politics) that it’s time to put a Westerner in the White House.

He quoted Hickenlooper: “There’s a history of collaboration out here. There were a heck of a lot more barn-raisings than there ever were shootouts.”

Maybe, maybe not, governor.

The West was won by those who had nothing else to fight for except finding fortune and living out from under the yoke of Eastern society.

The federal government says at least 20,000 people died along the Oregon Trail, alone. Most died from horrid illnesses caused by bad sanitation and often quite literally falling off of the wagon. But for perspective, that’s about 10 bodies per mile from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon's Willamette Valley.

Westerners have always stood more apart than together in the ever-changing wilderness of politics, commerce, environment and overpopulation. 

Getting the West together on a core set of common beliefs is a caricature worthy of a Buffalo Bill show.

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