How the West might be won by Democrats |

How the West might be won by Democrats

L.A. Times-Washington Post News Service
Vail CO Colorado

DENVER, Colorado ” The Democratic National Convention hasn’t been held in Denver for a century, but when the party nominates Barack Obama here this week it will be returning to a region that is key to its hopes of winning the presidency in November.

Buoyed by their success in state and congressional races, Democrats are hoping the Rocky Mountain West can move solidly into their column during this presidential election, making up for the loss of the party’s former base in the south to the Republicans.

During the primary season, the Democrats allowed Nevada to move up its caucus to January, putting its contest in the same month as the traditional kickoff states of Iowa and New Hampshire. They made a point of selecting the city considered the capital of the Rocky Mountain West for their convention to highlight a willingness to expand from their coastal bases. Last week the party held conference calls with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., to stress the importance of the West and it will highlight western officials at convention events.

“The road to the White House runs through the West,” said Salazar, who was elected in 2004.

As recently as 2000, all eight Rocky Mountain states featured Republican governors and their electoral votes usually went to GOP presidential candidates. Now five have Democratic chief executives. Obama has invested significant resources in many of these states and is polling even or ahead of John McCain in Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada, whose total of 19 electoral votes put them on par with battleground states like Ohio.

“There has been a major political realignment in the Rocky Mountain west in the last seven to eight years,” said Daniel Kemmis, director of the Center for the Rocky Mountain West at the University of Montana. “It’s worked its way up the ballot but has not reached the presidential level.”

That’s because for years, Kemmis said, the party was long willing to sacrifice western votes to rally its supporters elsewhere. For example, in 1996 President Clinton won plaudits from environmental groups when he designated huge swaths of southern Utah as a federally protected national monument. Outraged Utahns, angry at another federal intrusion on land management, ousted the Democratic congressman who represented the region.

Like voters all over the country, Westerners make their political decisions largely on issues like the economy, the war and energy. But observers agree that Westerners also are a different breed politically. They tend to be more libertarian in their political outlook and suspicious of the federal government, which is the largest landowner in the region and has a long history of battling with locals over cattle grazing, recreation and development.

“No politician of either party is going to come out here and say `I’m going to raise your taxes and increase social services,” said Daniel Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Western liberals focus on different issues from those of Democrats in the industrial cities that historically have comprised the party’s home turf. They are often more concerned about the environment and lifestyle issues such as growth and transportation than globalization or racial politics.

“Democrats can’t sell New York-style, Massachussets-style union politics out there,” said Tom Schaller, a political science professor at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and author of “Whistling Past Dixie,” which advises Democrats to focus on the West. “They can sell a new environmentally-conscious, pragmatic governing style.”

Western Democrats differ from their coastal counterparts on key issues. Salazar, for example, is a supporter of gun rights, as is Montana’s Democratic governor, Brian Schweitzer. Bill Ritter, Colorado’s governor, opposes abortion rights.

“These guys would be Republicans if they were 500 miles to the east,” said Ken Bickers, a political science professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Conversely, hot-button cultural issues Republicans have used to hammer Democrats in the south and Midwest are less potent in the more live-and-let-live western United States. Colorado, for example was the first state to legalize abortion. Nevada has a law on its books ensuring the procedure will remain legal there should Roe v. Wade be overturned.

To some skeptics, the idea of a political realignment is overblown because Democrats have long been competitive in western local and state politics. Dick Wadhams, chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, noted that his state had 24 years of Democratic governors until 1998 and frequently favors one party, then another.

“This notion that somehow we’re in some unstoppable Democratic trend, I think it’s bunk,” Wadhams said. “Democrats have had a couple of good cycles but that does not mean it is going to maintain itself in 2008 or 2010 and beyond.”

But analysts say Democrats have benefited from demographic changes in the Rocky Mountain states. The fast-growing region has seen an influx of refugees from coastal states like California who have brought more liberal attitudes, as well as a surge in immigration by Hispanics who tend to vote for Democrats.

At the presidential level, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona “have gone from being pretty noncompetitive 20 years ago to becoming contestable,” said Ruy Texeira of the Brookings Institute, co-author of a new report on western politics entitled “The New Swing Region.”(The other mountain states include Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming.)

Texeira noted that the growth in the region is fueled by large cities including Denver and Las Vegas, communities a separate Brookings report refers to as “Mountain Megalopolises.” The newcomers tend to be college graduates who back Democrats. The ranks of the most reliable Republican bloc, white noncollege graduates, are shrinking.

The choice of Denver for the convention site is a striking piece of partisan ambition. The city has not hosted a party convention since 1908; the last time Democrats met in a city west of the Mississippi and east of California was their 1928 gathering in St. Louis.

Democratic party chairman Howard Dean pledged to expand the party’s geographic base and run a “50-state” campaign instead of pouring resources only into traditional Midwestern battlegrounds. Meeting in Denver is seen as part of his strategy.

“Denver is the perfect, perfect host city for the Democrats,” Schaller said. “Colorado is the great Democratic story of the last two cycles.”

In 1998, the only Democrat elected statewide was Salazar, then attorney general. The GOP held the governor’s office and both houses of the legislature. Democrats won back the legislature in 2004 and the governor’s mansion in 2006. Bush won the state by 4 percentage points in 2004, but Denver voters backed Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry by a 40-point margin, equal to that in Chicago and surpassing that in Los Angeles County.

Observers say that in Colorado and other mountain states, Republicans dominated for so long they became over-confident, allowing hungry Democrats to outmaneuver them. Now, with national polls showing the party is favored over Republicans and President Bush’s approval ratings stuck at historic lows, the Democrats have an opportunity to extend their winning streak and capture the presidency.

“If they can’t do it this year,” said Damore of UNLV, “I don’t know when they will.”

Support Local Journalism