Report Reveals Trend of Winning Candidates Highlighting Outdoor Issues to Connect with Mountain West Voters

Jan 23, 2019

January 23, 2019

Winning the West: Election 2018 analyzes impact of public lands positions on 20 races

DENVER—The Center for Western Priorities released its Winning the West: Election 2018 report, revealing the growing trend of winning candidates highlighting their support for public lands and outdoor issues in order to connect with Mountain West voters in last year’s elections.

Public lands—how they are used, their importance to local economies, and the way they define life in the West—were often featured as a distinguishing issue by winning campaigns. In high-profile races in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, and New Mexico, candidates used outdoor issues to reach swing voters, who polling shows support a balanced approach to managing conservation, recreation, and energy development in the Mountain West. Due to the growing “outdoor voting bloc,” in most competitive states and districts across the region, candidates had to be pro-public lands to win, according to the report.

“The 2018 election proved that support for public lands is now a consensus position for voters in the Mountain West,” said Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities“Candidates who demonstrated their commitment to the outdoors and emphasized public lands issues frequently and consistently won in the West.”

In the campaigns analyzed in the report, winning candidates leveraged public lands to gain support while using the mountains and outdoor spaces of the Mountain West to serve as the backdrop of numerous campaign ads and pro-public lands messages on social media. Of the 22 races tracked throughout the election, 20 featured significant pro-public lands advertising or public lands messaging. Winning candidates highlighted their opposition to the Trump administration’s public lands agenda, including shrinking national monuments, reversing bans on uranium mining near national parks and opening more protected public lands up for private development. By contrast, candidates with extreme anti-public lands or legislative records found themselves out of step with Western voters and were defeated at the polls.

The closely watched race for U.S. Senate in Montana was among 20 races highlighted in the report. In that contest, Democratic Senator Jon Tester—viewed as one of the nation’s most vulnerable incumbents—won re-election on a pro-public lands platform in a state that voted for President Donald Trump by 21 points in 2016. Tester aired multiple television ads and promoted social media content promising to fight and keep “public lands in public hands.” He used his position and record on public lands as a way to connect with local voters and, by contrast, portray his opponent, developer Matt Rosendale, as an outsider without a grasp on what it means to be a Montanan. Tester ended ads and speeches with the frequent refrain: “As long as I’m in the U.S. Senate, Montana is not for sale.”

In the race for New Mexico’s open 2nd Congressional District seat, first-time candidate Xochitl Torres Small won in part by highlighting her career “fighting to protect access to the water we all depend on.” She emphasized her public lands positions throughout the campaign, directly addressing Washington and promising to fight against any decisions that would harm New Mexico’s public lands, water, and national monuments. Her opponent, a Republican state representative with a history of supporting public lands privatization, could not make the same outdoor connection with voters.

During the 2018 election cycle, the Center for Western Priorities’ Winning the West effort partnered with national bipartisan polling firm Gottlieb Strategic Research to conduct public opinion surveys in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, and New Mexico. The polling produced voter models that provide a closer look at the groups who make up an outdoor voting bloc that is gaining influence in close Mountain West elections. Gottlieb Strategic Research also conducted online focus groups and a first-of-its-kind social media analysis that revealed how Western voters incorporate public lands into their online conversations.

With a Trump administration agenda on public lands that is out of step with outdoor voters, the trends and outcomes examined in the report may play an even greater role in future elections. Voter backlash against the efforts to shrink national monuments, open more public lands to mining and drilling, and the damage done to national parks during an extended government shutdown could be severe.

“If candidates highlighting their support for public lands and outdoor issues was an unignorable trend in 2018, it may become a prerequisite for victory in 2020,” said Rokala.

The Center for Western Priorities’ Winning the West campaign is intended to educate candidates and campaigns about how important it is to show strong support for public lands and access to outdoor spaces, particularly among swing voters in battleground Mountain West states. Findings from public opinion research were disseminated through ads that demonstrated the emotional impact of outdoor issues and imagery

For more information, visit To speak with an expert on public lands, contact Aaron Weiss at 720-279-0019 or Sign up for Look West to get daily public lands and energy news sent to your inbox.