As Utahns head to the polls Tuesday, they’re not the only Westerners facing a big decision. But while Utah has been a reliably red state for decades — a Democrat has not represented Utah in the Senate since the 1970s — other nearby Senate seats are up for grabs, making the West crucial in the battle over control of the Senate.

Not far from where the Colorado River flows into California, a local watering hole in this tiny recreation mecca in western Arizona transformed into America’s political epicenter this spring. Behind the run-down bar, four dozen folding tables were dragged into a gravel parking lot and draped with alternating red, white and blue tablecloths. A stage went up, a giant American flag flanking it. So many other American flags dotted the premises — on tables, on T-shirts and hanging vertically from a crane overhead — that when the audience stood for the national anthem, uncorked beers in hand, everyone was facing different directions.

Then Kari Lake took the stage, and everyone’s attention turned to the woman who has quickly become the most recognizable Republican in Arizona since she traded a career as a Phoenix news anchor for one in politics. She ran for governor in 2022 and lost a close race to Arizona’s Democratic secretary of state. Lake refused to concede, however, claiming election fraud, and filed a series of lawsuits. When the courts offered little reprieve, she decided to run again.

This time, she’s the front-runner for her party’s nomination for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Kyrsten Sinema, the eccentric Democrat-turned-independent who is not running for reelection. Lake views this as a race that goes beyond Arizona. But she needs to convince Arizona voters of that first. Sporting jeans and well-polished cowboy boots, she told her Lake Havasu City audience to pay attention. “Guess what?” she asks. “The road to the White House and the road to the Senate majority goes right through Arizona. We are the most consequential, important state in this upcoming election. Do you understand that?”

One man offered a half-enthusiastic cheer. The rest of the crowd seemed unenthused, as if Lake were simply regurgitating a well-rehearsed talking point. The bit about Arizona deciding the White House is, by this point in an election year, common parlance — just about every pundit in America has dubbed Arizona one of a handful of swing states that could decide whether Joe Biden or Donald Trump occupies the Oval Office for the next four years. But Lake’s real pitch about why her race matters hasn’t seemed to gain much traction. This group of Lake Havasu, Arizona, voters — coupled with Americans in other far-flung parts of Arizona, Nevada and Montana — could well decide the fate of the U.S. Senate this fall.

At present, Democrats hold a slim 51-49 majority in the Senate. This year, 23 of those seats are up for election. At the time of this writing, the Cook Political Report projected 15 of those seats would remain with Democrats, while West Virginia is expected to flip to Republicans with the retirement of Sen. Joe Manchin, whose recent decision to leave the party and become independent has fueled speculation he may run for reelection after all. Four others “lean Democrat,” including the race in Arizona, where Congressman Ruben Gallego, a progressive Democrat with deep ties throughout the state, hopes to succeed Sinema. Of the remaining three “toss-up” races, two are in the West: Montana, where three-term Democratic Sen. Jon Tester faces a reelection challenge from Tim Sheehy, an ex-Navy SEAL; and Nevada, where mild-mannered Democratic Sen. Jacky Rosen seeks a second term against Sam Brown, a retired Army captain. As they have for months, the three races in the West could again shift from leaning to toss-up and vice versa as Election Day approaches.

Democrats and Republicans will spend the next several months defining Senate races across the country as “critical” in many ways. If Democrats can hold on to a seat in Wisconsin, Biden should win that key battleground, too. The same is true in Pennsylvania. But it’s the Western states — the races in Arizona, Nevada and Montana — that could determine who controls the Senate. If Democrats hold on to all three, they remain in control. If Republicans manage to win even two of them, the new year could open with a Republican-controlled Senate.

And that’s not only crucial for the political parties. Voters can be reminded of how a Republican-led Senate during the Trump administration led a conservative transformation of the federal court system, including the U.S. Supreme Court. For better or for worse, depending on your politics, it has been a check on the House of Representatives and the White House agendas. And for voters who have a more provincial perspective on their Senate races, the upper chamber’s ability to legislate for them is only as effective as its political makeup.

“Senate races in the Western states really could usher in, if they go in a Republican direction, a sea change in vital issues like land use, water rights, economic development and even labor rights,” says Wendy Schiller, director of the A. Alfred Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy at Brown University and scholar on the U.S. Senate.

Despite the high stakes, it’s no easy task to convince people that their votes matter. In this kitschy outpost on the California border, where Arizonans and sun-craving tourists mix amid the hum of Jet Skis and wake boats, voters seem oblivious — not to the key role they could play in who wins the White House, but that they will also choose which party controls what has long been called the world’s greatest deliberative body.

This election could mark the first time since 1952 that both chambers of Congress change hands in a presidential year.

No one is certain where that impressive title came from — the credit usually goes to President James Buchanan — but it is perhaps the best descriptor of what the chamber has become. The Constitution’s framers seemed to craft it to that end, prioritizing debate and deliberation. Weeks of discussion went into how representation in Congress would be awarded. Would it be proportional, based on states’ populations, or would it be equal, as the Articles of Confederation called for? Eventually, the framers settled on a compromise: The House of Representatives would be a larger body, and a state’s delegation would fluctuate in size, proportional to its population. The Senate, however, would be a smaller body, where each state would receive an equal number of representatives — two.

At its best, the Senate provides a forum for the priorities of each state to be recognized and heard. “The fact that the Senate has kept its original rules of debate and procedure substantially unchanged, is very significant,” Woodrow Wilson said in 1907. “It is a place of individual voices.”

Those individual voices often change the trajectory of the country — from creating Social Security to enacting civil rights to reforming criminal justice. In recent years, the Senate secured a conservative Supreme Court majority; shepherded historic legislation on infrastructure and clean energy; approved large funding packages for businesses and individuals during the Covid-19 pandemic; and oversaw aid to foreign allies in war. Oftentimes, the House of Representatives or the White House gets credit, or blame, for these milestones. But the true power to legislate, nominate judges and negotiate the federal budget lies with the Senate.

The party with majority control of the Senate decides what the group’s legislative priorities will be. As the West deals with drought and conservation issues, this year’s elections determine whether Republican or Democratic voices are louder. As population growth reshapes the West, a Republican majority could lead to a surge of deregulation and tax restructuring; a Democratic majority could continue its emphasis on domestic manufacturing and clean energy.

The West has been here before. Just two years ago, in the 2022 midterm elections, Democrats secured a one-seat Senate majority by clinching a win in Nevada. Less than a month later, Arizona’s Sinema announced she’d be leaving the Democratic Party and becoming an independent, putting the majority’s influence in flux.

The 1952 election carries shades of the present. Going into that fall, Democrats maintained a narrow two-seat majority in the Senate, but the country’s involvement in unrest around the world — particularly the Korean War — and the nascent Cold War led to widespread discontent with President Harry S. Truman’s Democratic White House. Truman decided not to run for reelection, leading to Republican victories across the board. The victory in the Senate was cemented by flipping two key seats in Western states: Arizona and Wyoming.

Both were surprise victories. In Wyoming, Republican Gov. Frank Barrett entered the race late and knocked off a three-term incumbent. And in Arizona, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Ernest McFarland faced a challenge from Barry Goldwater, a fiery member of the Phoenix City Council with little political cachet. When a friend asked Goldwater why he thought he could pull off the upset, Goldwater demurred. “I think a guy running for office who says exactly what he really thinks would astound a hell of a lot of people around the country.” Eisenhower went on to carry Arizona by double digits, and Goldwater deemed himself “the greatest coattail rider in history.” Never since have both chambers of Congress changed hands in a presidential year.

But 2024, in many ways, is different. It’s possible that each state’s voters split their respective tickets, by supporting a Senate candidate of one party and a presidential candidate of another. And thanks to three distinct races in three very unique states, each could go either way — and take control of the Senate with them.

Voters seem oblivious — not to the key role they could play in who wins the White House, but that they will also choose which party controls what has long been called the world’s greatest deliberative body.

In Montana, with its huge land mass but small population — there are more cows than people across the state — Tester’s reelection to a fourth term has a small-town feel. A farmer and butcher, Tester is missing three fingers on his left hand because of an accident in a meat grinder. And while Montana is a red state, Tester, an old-school Democrat, is fairly popular due to his pragmatism. It helps that in a small state, he spends a lot of time with his constituents. “Voters will say they know Jon Tester, they like Jon Tester, they trust Jon Tester,” says Schiller. “Tester manages to withstand the winds of polarization and nationalization of these elections because of his individual reputation, and the relationships he’s forged with residents of Montana.”

Where Tester derives strength from his genuineness, his challenger, Sheehy, can’t seem to get out of his own way. He claimed a gunshot wound in his arm came from his time in Afghanistan, but he later backtracked, saying it came from falling on a hike at Glacier National Park. (He later changed the story again, telling a park ranger he inadvertently shot himself in the arm.) And in an effort to play up Montana’s hominess, he claimed that there are more bears than people in the state — a fact that experts dispute. Still, early polls show Tester and Sheehy neck and neck: A March poll from J.L. Partners shows Sheehy up by three points, and another from Emerson College has Tester up by two percentage points. Both results are within the margin of error.

It’s a veteran-versus-incumbent showdown in Nevada, too. Republican Brown, who received the Purple Heart for his service in Afghanistan, is challenging first-term Democrat Rosen, a former computer programmer with no political experience before her election to the House in 2016. Before entering politics, Rosen served as president of Congregation Ner Tamid, Nevada’s largest reform synagogue, making her the first former synagogue president ever elected to the Senate. She has been one of the staunchest allies to Israel in the Senate since the October 7 Hamas attack, and her Republican opponent largely walks in lockstep. But the similarities mostly end there: In addition to preparing for a showdown with Rosen, Brown spent much of the primary mitigating infighting among MAGA Republicans, seeking support from Trump and his allies.

Whether Rosen or Brown prevails will be because they ride the coattails of their state’s party organizations, bolstered in an election year. The state’s powerful tourism-related labor unions, especially the Culinary Workers Union, are critical to delivering the vote for Democrats in Nevada; in both 2016 and 2020, Trump and the Republican National Committee built extensive ground operations in the state. “Nevada, to me, represents probably the best bellwether of the organizational capacity of the two parties,” says Schiller.

It will be a bellwether of the strength of Trump and Biden’s candidacies, too. Nevada is a key swing state, as it has been in every presidential race since 2008.

Nevada isn’t the only swing state in the West. Arizona will help determine the presidency, too. But the Senate race there is also crucial, where a Lake-Gallego showdown has the same external makeup as the elections in Nevada and Montana: a firebrand Republican taking on an establishment Democrat.

Gallego has represented Arizona in the U.S. House since 2015. He “neatly personifies some of the state’s emerging demographic trends,” writes Tom Zoellner, an Arizona-born journalist. He’s young, progressive, Hispanic and an out-of-towner — he moved here from the Midwest in 2006. “Since territorial days, a big part of Arizona’s pitch to the rest of the country is how friendly it is to newcomers, despite the heat and cactus thorns,” writes Zoellner. “You can move here cold and get plugged in fast.” Gallego, 44, has quickly become one of the most prominent Democrats in the state.

Lake seeks redemption after her 2022 loss in the gubernatorial race that she won’t accept. She’s managed to burn bridges within and without the GOP, helping to force the resignation of the former state party chair and install an election denier in his stead. She’s continued her claims of election fraud in her 2022 gubernatorial race, leading to a defamation lawsuit filed by a top election official in Maricopa County. But the far-right schtick may be coming home to roost: After a controversial abortion ruling shook Arizona in the spring, Lake began to moderate her message on abortion, hoping to win over a wider swath of moderate voters. “The thing that gives her a chance is that Ruben Gallego is perceived to be quite far-left, and Arizona is not a far-left state,” says Tyler Montague, a Phoenix-area political strategist.

“This is a well-known thing in Nevada, at this point — that Nevada is a consistent toss-up state. It’s a consistent battleground,” says Kenneth Miller, assistant professor of political science at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. But are Nevadans used to being key voters in determining the fate of the Senate? “I’m not so sure,” Miller says.

Lake Havasu is known for its oddities. The town gets its name from a body of water created by Parker’s Dam, 20 miles to the south, backing up the Colorado River to form a particularly wide, lake-like inlet just below the town. The city’s main attraction is the old London Bridge — the same bridge that once crossed the Thames but was purchased and shipped here brick-by-brick by local tycoon Robert McCulloch in the early 1970s.

The true power to legislate, nominate judges and oversee the federal budget lies with the Senate.

Another oddity in Lake Havasu — and perhaps in other parts of Arizona and Nevada and Montana — is that voters don’t seem to understand or care about the impact they have in deciding the fate of the U.S. Senate, and in turn, deciding the federal government’s priorities. Candidates, like Lake, are trying their best. The stakes are high, she told the rally’s attendees, and voters can’t afford to stay home: The road to the Senate runs through Arizona.

“We are ground zero,” Lake says. “Everything that’s going on, Arizona is right there in the middle of it.”


Many seemed well aware of Arizona’s crucial status in selecting the next occupant of the White House. Even at this rally for the Senate race, Biden got far more boos than Gallego. That may be the strategy Senate campaigns are forced to use, says Montague: Hitch your wagon to your party’s presidential nominee, and hope that residual momentum from the presidential race carries over. “Senate races rank below presidential races in the minds of voters,” he notes, “but they are still ‘top of the ballot’ and voters are paying attention.”

It is easy to sell voters on why the other party is bad, and why the other party’s presidential candidate — or Senate candidate — will destroy America. It is more difficult to explain why the Senate, as an institution, is important, and why their vote will make a difference. When I asked attendees what they thought of Arizona’s role in determining control of the Senate, I got mostly blank stares.

“This election’s going to determine the way the state goes,” Tony M., a 54-year-old man hovering near the bar at the back of the lot, tells me. (He declined to share his last name.) But what about control of the Senate, where landmark debates over water, jobs and growth will shape the country’s coming years? He shook his head. “No one’s talking about that.”

This story appears in the July/August 2024 issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.

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