Oil and gas changes Mesa County politics

An iconic store on Grand Junction's main drag. (Photo/JoeBehrPalmSprings, Flickr)
An iconic store on Grand Junction's main drag. (Photo/JoeBehrPalmSprings, Flickr)

For Colorado residents living on the Western Slope, being an outdoors enthusiast is not something they do on the weekends: It’s a way of life.

Mesa County, home to 120,000 people in 15 communities including Grand Junction, is home to hunters, fishermen and general nature lovers who see the environment as a part of their identity and their culture. It’s no surprise the oil and natural gas boom that has enveloped the county in recent years is coming with mixed reviews and subtle shifts in the political climate.

Mesa County, and most of the Western Slope, has traditionally been a Republican stronghold. In 2004, Republicans encompassed 45 percent of the electorate while Democrats made up 23 percent and unaffiliated voters accounted for the remaining 32 percent. Fast-forward four years and add a number of new natural gas rigs to the scenic environment, and Republicans have begun to see some ground lost, albeit not much. As of last week, the number of registered Mesa County Republicans was 39,109, or 43 percent of the county’s electorate, down 2 percent from 2004. Democrats have failed to make any gains during the same time accounting for 22 percent of registered voters. The shift does seem to have gone toward the unaffiliateds though, which have risen in numbers since 2004 to 30,472, or 34 percent.

“Registration numbers would say that while both parties have increased their total numbers since the last election, Mesa County is still a very conservative county,” said John Redifer, a professor of political science at Mesa State College in Grand Junction. “I would argue that the change in those percentages is more a reflection of the disgust that some conservative Republicans have with their party and who are instead registering as an unaffiliated rather than moving to the Democrats.”

Before the most recent oil and gas boom on the Western Slope, Mesa County was a different place. The ability of community leaders to attract high-paying jobs that compensated in the $20-an-hour range was difficult, and although there were jobs to be had, they weren’t the kind people could make a middle-class living on. In fact, according to the United States Census data, the average median household income in Mesa County was $35,864 in 1999. After the energy industry came to town the number jumped to $50,953 as of 2007.

A changing landscape

But not everyone in Mesa County has been happy to see the energy boom come to Mesa, including traditionally conservative outdoorsmen, hunters and fishermen who see the encroachment of natural gas rigs on their highly cherished lands as a detriment to their way of life. And, surprisingly, that has created an unlikely phenomenon in Mesa County where some card-carrying members of the National Rifle Association are finding themselves on the same side of political debates as liberal environmentalists.

“There is a lot of concern about how we meet the demands of the new infrastructure of all the growth,” Redifer said. “The school district is asking for a bond this year to build schools and the city is asking for a new sales tax to fund the needed infrastructure to support the new growth. People appreciate the new growth and the jobs that come with it, but they still have to mitigate the impact. So, the question for both parties at the state level has been how you can control that growth while mitigating the impacts. Which party handles that the best in the future will be the party in control.”

Despite the county voting overwhelmingly for Republicans in recent elections, some Democrats are finding a voice in Mesa County. Voters, upset with how the Republican administration has dealt with surface rights of land owners as well as the environmental impact of the oil and gas industry coming to town, have found themselves supporting moderate Democrat candidates in recent years.

State House Rep. Bernie Buescher and county coroner Dr. Dean Havlik are the only locally elected Democrats in Mesa County but other Democrats have fared well in recent elections. Rep. John Salazar, a moderate Democrat and member of the Blue Dog Coalition, won election over Republican Scott Tipton in 2006. Although Salazar didn’t win Mesa County during that election, he was able to garner 47.4 percent of the vote, a slim margin under Tipton’s 49.2 percent. Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter also fared well in Mesa County in 2006, picking up 45.1 percent of the vote compared to his Republican opponent former Rep. Bob Beauprez who captured 49.3 percent.

Although most other Mesa County elections in 2006 overwhelmingly went in favor of Republican candidates, the trend of voters looking for moderate candidates has been seen. In addition to Buescher’s race against Republican Laura Bradford, which was seen as a toss-up at one point but that has since moved towards Buescher’s favor, the race for one of the county commissioner seats between Democrat Dan Robinson, a former prosecutor and school board member, versus Republican incumbent Craig Meis has become competitive recently.

“I think the Republicans are suffering from a couple of things,” Redifer said. “A lot of the unaffiliated voters who tend to lean toward the Republicans have become disenchanted with the conservative social agenda. They agree with some of it but they don’t think the emphasis should be there. On the Western Slope there are some traditional values that some people think the party has forgotten about, like the love of the land and the ability to hunt and fish and be outdoors.”

A new focus on Grand Junction

Despite voter registration numbers that greatly favor the Republican Party, political campaigns at the highest levels have made Grand Junction a focus in 2008. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama visited Grand Junction for a campaign stop last month and his campaign has opened an office in town. Republican vice presidential candidate Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was in Grand Junction this week for a campaign rally that brought in many supporters.

Despite the attention Mesa County — traditionally fly-over country for even statewide candidates — has received this year, observers say there could be other political strategy being employed through the candidate visits to Mesa.

“I think one of the reasons the campaings are coming to Grand Junction is because of its a central location on the Western Slope,” Redifer said. “It is a media market separate from Denver and Colorado Springs that reaches out to the entire Western Slope and it’s a population center. Those candidates who have come here are appealing to more than just Mesa County with their visit. The broader question is the impact they are having on the Western Slope.”

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