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‘06 Election Results May Point to Pivotal ’08 States

This fall’s midterm election won’t only decide which party will control Congress and statehouses around the nation. It also could identify which states may emerge as new battlegrounds in the 2008 presidential race that will effectively begin as soon as the votes are counted in November.

In the last two campaigns, the parties divided the electoral map almost exactly in half. In 2000, George W. Bush won the second-narrowest Electoral College victory since 1800. In 2004, Bush won a smaller share of Electoral College votes than any reelected president except Woodrow Wilson in 1916.

But if the Republican advantage under Bush has been slim, it also has been stable. Only three states switched between parties from the 2000 presidential contest to the 2004 vote. And each of them -- New Mexico, Iowa and New Hampshire -- was a small state that tilted narrowly one way in 2000 and narrowly the other four years later.

Bush carried 29 states twice. Those states are worth 274 Electoral College votes -- four more than needed to win the White House. And, at least through his first term, Bush solidified the Republican grip on that terrain. In 2004, Bush held Democratic challenger Sen. John F. Kerry to 43% of the vote or less in 21 of those 29 states. What’s more, Republicans since 2000 have widened their lead in House and Senate seats from the “red” states that twice backed Bush.

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Those trends frame the overwhelming imperative for Democrats in 2008: expanding the battlefield in the presidential race. Democrats enter the contest with a strong base: The party has now carried 18 “blue” states (plus the District of Columbia) worth 248 Electoral College votes in each of the past four elections. Democrats don’t need many switches from red to blue to regain the White House in 2008. But they will need to find at least some weak points in the red-state citadel Bush has constructed.

That’s where the 2006 elections could offer both parties important clues. “What we can learn this year is ... whether or not the electoral map can be viewed differently in the next election cycle,” said Tad Devine, a veteran Democratic strategist. “We can learn whether two or three more states can legitimately get into play.”

Devine and other Democrats this year are likely to look first at the Southwest. Kerry’s boldest strategic gambit in 2004 was his shift of resources from outer Southern states trending away from the Democrats, such as Arkansas, toward states in the Southwest with growing Latino populations: Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico.

The incursion was, at best, a limited success. Kerry lessened Bush’s margin of victory from 2000 in Colorado and Nevada, but the president held both states. Bush widened his margin in Arizona, and after losing New Mexico by 365 votes in 2000, he won it by about 6,000 in 2004. Pollster Mark Mellman, a top Kerry aide, said the Democrat’s biggest problem across the region was Bush’s improved showing with Latino voters.

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Other signs, though, pointed to more progress for Democrats, especially in Colorado. In 2004, Colorado Democrats elected Ken Salazar to the U.S. Senate and captured both chambers of the Legislature. Last year, in another sign of change, voters approved a referendum loosening the state’s tight tax and spending limitation.

This year, Democrats are hoping to build on that momentum in the race to succeed retiring Republican Gov. Bill Owens. Republicans face a divisive August primary between conservative Marc Holtzman, a former president of the University of Denver, and more moderate U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez; Democrats have unified behind centrist Bill Ritter, a former Denver district attorney.

With Bush’s approval rating sinking, and population growth tilting the debate away from spending restraint toward improving public services, Democrats have a chance to gain control of Colorado’s governorship and Legislature for the first time in nearly 50 years, says veteran Colorado pollster Floyd Ciruli. “It’s just not their issue environment,” he says of the Republicans. “No one is asking for tax cuts. We are talking about how to fund basic services.”

A Ritter victory, says Mellman, would guarantee that Democrats “move Colorado further up the list” as a 2008 target. Other races in the region could also signal whether the congressional logjam over illegal immigration is reversing Bush’s 2004 gains among Latinos.

One to watch on that front is the Arizona Senate contest between Republican incumbent Jon Kyl and Democrat Jim Pederson. Kyl prefers an enforcement-first response to illegal immigration; Pederson (like Arizona’s other senator, Republican John McCain) has backed a broader solution that includes a guest worker program.

Beyond the Southwest, Democrats will be watching Montana, where their party won the governorship and state Senate in 2004. If Democrats oust Republican U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns this fall, the state seems likely to move onto the 2008 Democratic target list. And in Virginia, even a strong showing against Republican Sen. George Allen would encourage Democrats to look harder at competing in that state.

Two mega-states also could send important signals. Jeb Bush’s 2002 gubernatorial landslide in Florida foreshadowed his brother’s easy victory there in 2004. Although Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) seems safe in his reelection bid, another GOP romp in the governor’s race would be an ominous sign for Democrats. And if Democrats can’t win Ohio’s governorship or defeat Republican Sen. Mike DeWine there this fall in the shadow of a state corruption scandal, they probably shouldn’t bet on recapturing the state -- Kerry’s heartbreak hill -- in 2008.

Obviously, the exact list of presidential battlegrounds two years from now will depend largely on the eventual nominees. But the underlying currents in the states matter as well. This November’s results will show both parties where those currents may be changing direction.

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