The Bush administration's aggressive drive to promote oil and gas drilling on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains has sparked growing anger here among traditional Republican constituents who say that the stepped-up push for energy development is sullying some of the country's most majestic landscape.
The emerging backlash from ranchers and sportsmen, which is occurring despite an economic boom driven by drilling, is threatening GOP primacy in at least one corner of what has been a solidly Republican West. Long the most reliably conservative expanse of a state that has gone red in six of the past seven presidential contests, Colorado's western third shows evidence of the "purpling" that has made Colorado look increasingly like a swing state.
Support from the western slope was seen as pivotal in the elections of Democrats Bill Ritter as governor last year and Sen. Ken Salazar in 2004, the same year Salazar's older brother, Rep. John Salazar, was elected to Congress from a western Colorado district that had given 66 percent of its vote to the Republican candidate four years earlier. All three Democrats found support in GOP enclaves while calling for "balance" in energy extraction.
"I can only speak for myself and I'm a registered Republican, but last year I voted a straight Democratic ticket. First time in my life," said Bob Elderkin, 68, who heads the town of Rifle's chapter of the Colorado Mule Deer Association, a hunting group that has made common cause with environmentalists against drilling. "The Republicans have kind of lost touch with reality."
As the administration is learning, all the industrial money in the world won't get you elected when you turn off your own supporters, and the quickest way to do it is to let energy companies foul the air, water and soil where they live.