In a year of crushing disappointment, Colorado was a bright spot for the Democrats in 2004. Here on the front porch of the Rocky Mountains, the party gained a House seat, elected a U.S. senator and won control of the state Legislature for the first time in 44 years.
Now, more than a century after newspaperman Horace Greeley passed on his famous advice -- “Go West, young man” -- Democrats are paying new heed to those words.
The South is increasingly Republican. Democratic states of the East and Midwest are steadily losing electoral clout to the Sun Belt. So a number of Democrats are urging their party to emulate generations of pioneers who sought their fortune in the rugged landscape across the Great Divide.
If the party is to win back the White House, they say, Democrats must work to reverse their fortunes in New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado and Arizona, and build on other recent gains they achieved in the West.
“The math simply isn’t there if we keep winning the same 10 states,” said Chris Gates, who headed the Colorado Democratic Party during the 2004 campaign. “We need to get past ... thinking if you don’t live on either coast you’re a Republican.”
To some extent, the focus is driven by Democrats’ desperation. As Charles Cook, a Washington campaign analyst, put it: “You can’t keep getting hosed in the South and the Rockies and expect to win.”
But Democrats have reason for hope. In the Pacific West, California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii continue to lean their way in presidential politics. In addition to the party’s strong 2004 showing in the Colorado Legislature, Democrats elected a governor in Montana and took control of the House and Senate in Helena, the first time they won either chamber in a decade.
The party also now has governors in Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming. Overall, Democrats gained 31 legislative seats across the West in 2004, but the party continued to lose ground in the South.
At the presidential level, the West accounted for six of the 10 states where Democratic nominee John F. Kerry topped Al Gore’s 2000 performance.
New Mexico and Nevada -- which President Bush carried by less than 1 percentage point and 2.6 percentage points, respectively -- had two of the four tightest contests in November.
“Given the closeness of the presidential vote in New Mexico, Nevada and even Colorado” -- where Kerry won 47% of the vote -- “we don’t need to make great inroads,” said Paul Harstad, a Democratic strategist in Boulder who has done extensive polling throughout the West. “We need to make incremental inroads.”
But that may not be so easy. For all their success, Democrats are burdened in Colorado and elsewhere in the region by the image of the national party, which many Westerners continue to associate with higher taxes, a weak defense and hostility toward a culture that associates guns and sport utility vehicles with recreation, not destruction.
When Montanans think of Democratic outsiders, they figure, “First thing they’re gonna do is break your door down and take your gun,” said Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat whose campaign spots, promoting his “A” rating from the National Rifle Assn., showed him in hunting gear and toting a rifle through the forest.
Schweitzer did not just distance himself from the national party last year, he even outflanked his Republican opponent by running to his right on certain issues -- the same strategy pursued by Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado, another of the Democrats’ 2004 success stories. (For Schweitzer the main issue was access to public lands for hunting and fishing. For Salazar, the state attorney general, it was the death penalty.)
“Perceptions of the Democrats were not just created in the last four years. They were created over the last 40 years,” said Matthew Dowd, a senior strategist for Bush’s reelection campaign. For that reason, he said, though Democrats may be increasingly competitive in parts of the West, the party faces an “uphill battle” in trying to realign the region.
But Democrats believe they have two trends working in their favor: increased suburbanization and the surging Latino population.
The new residents of the rapidly growing communities along Colorado’s scenic Front Range, or telecommuting from Montana’s Big Sky Country, are no longer the sort who fled the conservatism of Orange County and other areas in the early 1990s.
Increasingly, experts say, they are people coming to the region for the quality of life, bringing with them a greater tolerance on social issues and a less allergic reaction to government spending.
Floyd Ciruli, a longtime Colorado pollster, pointed to the overwhelming passage in November of a measure to boost sales taxes in the Denver metropolitan area to pay for a massive expansion of public transit.
“These are voters in play who don’t have any particular attachment to a party,” said Ciruli. In fact, in several Western states -- including California -- the ranks of political independents are rapidly swelling at the expense of both major parties.
If there is an opening for Democrats, several political analysts say, it is in the social issues that animate the Republican Party base but collide with the Western ethos of live and let live.
“The main chance Democrats have is if the Republicans become perceived, even more so than they are now, as the party of morality and not the party of low taxes,” said Ted G. Jelen, a political scientist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Arizona, traditionally a Republican state, has a Democratic governor, Janet Napolitano, who was elected in 2002 when many GOP voters crossed over rather than support Matt Salmon, a staunch social conservative who campaigned on a pledge to put God back into government.
Here in Colorado, Democrats won control of the Legislature in November in part by presenting themselves as problem solvers who were focused on concerns such as the state budget, while portraying Republicans as extremists obsessed with issues like same-sex marriage. Republicans ascribed most of the Democratic gains to that party’s edge in money and machinery, not issues.
“We were caught napping,” said Sean Duffy, communications director for GOP Gov. Bill Owens. “If we do the mechanics, we’ll be fine.”
Another reason for Democrats’ optimism is the rapid growth of the Latino population throughout the West.
Census figures show that from 2000 to 2003, the most recent year surveyed, Arizona’s Latino population grew by more than 250,000; Colorado and Nevada gained roughly 100,000 Latino residents apiece; and New Mexico’s Latino population increased by about 45,000.
Democrats look to California, where the increased Latino vote helped fuel a surge in party support over the last decade, and believe they can replicate that success elsewhere across the region.
“We’ve always had the majority,” said New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who is Latino.
He suggested the party could build on that base by reaching beyond traditional issues such as immigration to discuss “mainstream issues like education and public safety, as the Latino vote becomes more mainstream.”
Others are skeptical, however, of any near-term benefit for Democrats.
They cite the young age and immigrant status of many Latinos, which means it will be years before they can vote. They also point to the absence of an incendiary -- such as Proposition 187, California’s controversial 1994 anti-illegal immigration initiative -- to rally Latinos to the Democratic side.
Bush has worked hard since the 2000 campaign to improve the GOP’s image among Latinos, to the point of alienating some of his conservative supporters.
“One of the assumptions that Democrats are making is that demographics are changing but politics is static,” said Dowd, the reelection strategist.
“But the president and the Republican Party obviously have seen the need to adopt to changing dynamics, which is why the president has done exceedingly well among the Latino population.”
In 2004, Bush carried 45% of the Latino vote nationally, according to a Los Angeles Times exit poll, the best performance of any Republican since President Reagan won 46% support in his 1984 reelection from a much smaller and more conservative Latino electorate.
A closer look reveals subtleties within the Latino vote that help explain Bush’s inroads. In New Mexico, for example, researcher Brian Sanderoff found Kerry won by substantial margins among “progressive” Latinos but did not run nearly as well among the state’s rural Latinos, who were more conservative. “That suggests the so-called ‘values issues’ hurt Kerry,” said Sanderoff, a nonpartisan pollster in Albuquerque.
Part of the frustration for Western Democrats is a feeling the national party had written off the region until Kerry made a big push last fall -- and a fear presidential candidates will do so again after Kerry failed.
To remedy that, an effort is underway to create a regional Super Tuesday primary in 2008, which would force candidates to spend more time campaigning in sight of the Rockies and the desert plains.
By involving Westerners earlier in the nominating process, “there’s a greater likelihood they’ll be more supportive of Democrats,” said Mike Stratton, a veteran party strategist who chaired Salazar’s campaign.
But showing up is just a start. Democrats need to talk in a “Western voice” that resonates with voters and lays to rest old stereotypes, said Pat Williams, a Montana congressman for 18 years until retiring in 1997.
Williams, a fellow at the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West, a policy center at the University of Montana, said when it came to environmental issues, he “seldom mentioned the word ‘wilderness’ because that denoted the national government setting aside huge pieces of a state. Instead, I always talked about clean places to fish, hunt and camp.”
Gov. Schweitzer is blunter still. Seated in the governor’s modest office in Helena, he is the very image of Western informality in bluejeans and a loosely fitted bolo tie.
“Don’t dress like a lawyer,” he counsels his fellow Democrats. “Don’t talk like a lawyer. And be prepared to go out and meet people and answer their questions straight. Don’t wiggle around and sort of be with them and sort of be against them.... I think most people don’t spend the time to figure what all the issues are all about. They want to know you have a heart and a backbone.”
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Democrats face a formidable task making headway in presidential races in the mountain and desert West. Since 1964’s near sweep of the eight states, Democratic candidates have had little success. In the individual state contests, they have won 15 of 73. How the states break down, 1964-2004:
*--* State carried Republican Democrat (races won) *--*
*--* Arizona 10 1 Colorado 9 2 Idaho 10 1 Montana 9 2 Nevada 8 3 New Mexico 7 4 Utah 10 1 Wyoming 10 1
Percent of cumulative vote won by Democratic candidates, 1964-2004:
*--* Arizona 39.70% Colorado 42.20% Idaho 31.40% Montana 39.90% Nevada 41.80% New Mexico 45.40% Utah 29.60% Wyoming 34.20%
The total electoral votes in the eight states has increased one-third since 1964, when the Democrats enjoyed dominance.
Electoral votes won:
*--* 1964 2004 *--*
*--* Democrats: 28 0 Republicans: 5 44 TOTAL 33 44 *--*
Source: uselectionatlas.org. - Graphics reporting by Tom Reinken