CHEYENNE WELLS, Colo. -- The Old West has decided it is fed up with the New West.
At Nan's convenience store here in eastern Colorado, where the front door tells visitors that "Gun Control Is Hitting Your Target," the farmers, crop sprayers, mechanics and retirees who gather for morning coffee say they have had enough of the state and its Democratic leaders. They bristle at gun control laws and marijuana shops, green energy policies and steps to embrace gay marriage and illegal immigrants.
"I would've never believed the state of Colorado would become this liberal," said Lyle Miller, who owns the convenience store. "I'm afraid for my grandchildren. I want them to have the same heritage I had."
So in November, this rural county and 10 others will hold a quixotic vote on whether to secede from Colorado and work to form their own state, one that would cherish the farm towns and conservative ideals that people here say have been lost in Denver's glassy downtown lofts or Aspen's million-dollar ski condos. It would be called New Colorado, or maybe North Colorado -- a prairie bulwark against the demographic changes and urbanization that are reshaping politics and life across this and other Western states.
"People think this is a radical idea," said Jeffrey Hare, a leader of the 51st State Initiative, which supports secession. "It's really not. What we're attempting to do is restore liberty."
Many residents and politicians, even those frustrated with the direction of Colorado's politics, have criticized the secession movement. What would happen to state highways? State parks? Water and irrigation rights? Is it even possible to build a new state government from scratch?
The push for a 51st state faces almost insurmountable hurdles. Even if counties from Cheyenne to Elbert to Sedgwick do decide to shear away from Colorado, the state must then vote to allow them to leave. After that, Congress would have to agree to admit a new state - something it has not done for a breakaway since West Virginia, in 1863.
Some residents say the idea just sounds absurd.
"It's supposed to be United States, not split-up states," said George Kemp, who runs a well-water business here.
Supporters say they also favor annexation into Wyoming, or a plan to give each county one state senator, which would give overwhelming political weight to sparsely populated, rural areas. Beyond the logistics, they say, the urge to break free and scratch out a more perfect union runs as deep as an aquifer in American life, and has often been more complex than a breach between liberals and conservatives.
The early 1900s brought a vision for the state of Texlahoma, according to Michael J. Trinklein, who wrote "Lost States," a book about statehood proposals. In 1939, pieces of South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming pushed to become Absaroka. Today, discontented residents in western Maryland, Michigan's Upper Peninsula and the mountains of southern Oregon and Northern California are agitating for their own states. And in Illinois, two rural lawmakers have floated the idea of giving the boot to Chicago.
Much of this frustration stems from complaints that rural areas, whether in Keweenaw, Mich., or Yuma, Colo., have lost their voice in state governments as cities and suburbs grow while rural areas wither. For Colorado, that shift has helped send more Democrats to the Legislature and to Washington, and put the state in President Barack Obama's column in the last two elections.
Here in Cheyenne County, where 82 percent of people voted for Mitt Romney last year, residents say they feel like their state changed on them. There have never been more than about 3,700 people here, and the last two decades have brought sharp population declines as children moved away and the descendants of homesteading families died off. The county's population is now 1,870, about one resident per square mile.
Oil fields and resurgent prices for wheat and beef have helped the local economy - the unemployment rate is only 3.9 percent - but residents complain that lawmakers in Denver overlook the county when it comes time to finance schools and roads. The future of Keefe Memorial Hospital, the only medical center for 40 miles, is so tenuous that this spring it asked children to color pictures based on the theme "What if the Hospital Closed?"
"We're the bastard stepchild," said Victor Weed, a retired banker. "It doesn't matter what goes on out here. Our voice is too small."
People here in Cheyenne Wells, an atoll of ranch homes and grain-storage bins on an ocean of wheat, cite a list of complaints about what they call burdensome state rules. There was the $40,000 refueling pad that a crop-spraying company had to build. The higher power costs that farmers expect under new clean-power laws. The state inspectors who are leery of the empty fuel tanks under Miller's cafe.
But the push for a New Colorado did not take hold until Colorado's lawmakers, reeling from mass shootings at an Aurora movie theater and a Connecticut elementary school, passed the state's first new gun control laws in a decade. The laws required background checks on private gun sales and limited magazine capacities, and drew scathing opposition from Republicans and rural conservatives.
As more and more counties voted to put secession on the ballot, gun advocates elsewhere in Colorado fought a successful recall campaign to unseat two Democrats who had supported the firearms laws. And 55 sheriffs filed a federal lawsuit claiming that the new gun laws violated the Second Amendment.
Democrats have dismissed the recalls as low-turnout elections that did not reflect the views of most Coloradans and say secession is just a sideshow. But analysts say the efforts reveal a widening rift between rural and urban Colorado. The breach could pose political problems for the Democratic governor, John W. Hickenlooper, as he runs for re-election next year. He has vowed to chart a more moderate course when the Legislature comes back into session.
"There are enough people that feel their views and their opinions aren't being considered that I think that's a serious problem, and I take it very seriously," Hickenlooper said in an interview with KOA radio.
For conservative politicians like Rod Pelton, a county commissioner in Cheyenne, that sentiment comes too late. Pelton's family moved here from Kansas during the Dust Bowl, and he now grows wheat and dryland corn. The alert tone on his cellphone is a gun loading and firing, and he believes in the possibility of New Colorado, no matter how long it takes. "There's going to be a revolution of some kind," he said. "This is the peaceful way to go about it."
By JACK HEALY
The New York Times