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The electoral college map is morphing

Times Staff Writer

Even as the first potential candidates move toward the starting line, the ground may be shifting in the 2008 race for the White House.

This month’s midterm election highlighted cracks in an electoral landscape that had been unusually stable.

Democrats have been hurt by the inability of their recent presidential candidates to wage competitive campaigns across a vast swath of the country. But the party emerged from this year’s vote confident that in 2008, it can compete on a much wider playing field -- especially in the West and several states on the fringe of the South.

“If you look at the results from ’06, you see a lot of states that Democrats may be able to take ... if they can swing the center the way they did” this year, said Ruy Teixeira, a public opinion analyst at the liberal Center for American Progress think tank.

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Many Republicans acknowledge that the midterm results mean they may be forced to strenuously defend states such as Colorado and Virginia in 2008, which the party’s recent presidential nominees considered safely in their camp.

But they also insisted that a Democratic presidential nominee would probably find it difficult to steer as moderate a course as Democrats who triumphed this year in GOP-leaning states, such as Gov.-elect Bill Ritter in Colorado and Sen.-elect Jim Webb in Virginia.

What both sides agree on is that after few shifts in the electoral map this decade -- only three states changed hands between the presidential races of 2000 and 2004 -- the sweeping Democratic gains in 2006 raise the possibility that fresh battlegrounds and alignments will determine the White House winner.

“It makes 2008 a fascinating chessboard to look at,” said Republican strategist Tom Rath, an advisor to likely GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney, Massachusetts’ governor.

Stability has been the watchword in the race for the White House, not only in President Bush’s two campaigns, but in the two elections won by Bill Clinton in the 1990s. Thirty-four states have supported the same party in each of the last four elections, the highest level in decades.

On balance, this hardening division has hurt Democrats more than Republicans. Although Democrats have won 18 states (and the District of Columbia) worth 248 electoral college votes in four consecutive elections, they have struggled since 2000 to challenge Republicans for much terrain beyond that base.

By the end of the 2004 campaign, for instance, Democrat John F. Kerry was seriously contesting only three states beyond the 18 solidly Democratic ones, leaving him few options to reach the 270 electoral votes needed to win.

“You usually lose presidential elections by being painted into an electoral college corner,” said Democratic strategist Tad Devine.

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Many Democrats believe the 2006 results expanded their options for reaching an electoral college majority in 2008.

Republicans suffered erosion in the outer South that may signal new Democratic opportunities. For instance, a resounding victory by Democrat Mike Beebe in the Arkansas governor’s race could put that state high on the party’s target list for 2008. And Republicans acknowledge that Webb’s victory in Virginia over GOP Sen. George Allen -- coming a year after Democrat Timothy M. Kaine’s convincing win in the gubernatorial race -- is likely to put that state’s 13 electoral college votes in play.

Ohio, which backed Bush twice, presents a more complex picture: Democrats scored big gains there this year, but they benefited from local scandals unlikely to matter as much in 2008. Still, Democratic challenger Sherrod Brown ran well in culturally conservative rural areas with a populist tough-on-trade message in swamping Republican Sen. Mike DeWine. That message, Brown argued after the election, offers “a bridge between rural and urban voters” that could allow the Democratic presidential nominee to win the state two years from now.

Democrats achieved mixed results Nov. 7 in another targeted region: the Mountain West, which Bush swept in 2004.

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Big reelection margins for Democratic Govs. Bill Richardson in New Mexico and Janet Napolitano in Arizona were offset by GOP victories in the Arizona Senate race and in a high-profile New Mexico House contest. Democrats also lost several close races in Nevada, including the governorship.

In two states in the region, though, the trends are favorable for Democrats.

In Montana, Democrat Jon Tester ousted Republican Sen. Conrad Burns just two years after Democrat Brian Schweitzer won the governorship.

More important, Colorado emerged next to Virginia as the top new target for Democrats. A party nominee who could hold all the states Kerry won in 2004 and add just those two states would obtain an electoral college majority.

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In Colorado in 2004, Democrats captured both chambers of the Legislature and got Ken Salazar elected to the U.S. Senate. This year, Ritter won the governorship in a landslide -- helped by commanding margins in the vote-rich Denver suburbs that propelled Bush’s two victories in the state.

Elsewhere, the midterm results underscored the challenge a GOP presidential nominee is likely to confront in the Democrats’ largest regional stronghold: the 11 Eastern states, from Maryland through Maine. Republican support disintegrated across the region, as Democrats gained two Senate and 12 House seats, along with three governorships.

Especially discouraging for the GOP was the breadth of Republican Sen. Rick Santorum’s loss to Democrat Bob Casey Jr. Two years ago, Bush pressed hard for Pennsylvania, losing it by only 3 percentage points. This year, Casey beat Santorum by 18 percentage points, routing him in the four affluent suburban counties surrounding Philadelphia.

John Brabender, Santorum’s media consultant, said the results suggested that the GOP would not be able to seriously compete for Pennsylvania in 2008 unless it nominated “a different kind of Republican” seen as more independent and less ideological than Santorum or Bush.

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The GOP’s lock on its regional stronghold -- the South -- seemed undiminished by the midterm vote. Even with the national winds so strongly at their back, Democrats made only minimal inroads there.

Most important for the GOP may have been Republican Charlie Crist’s solid victory in the Florida gubernatorial race.

Crist enjoyed comfortable margins in the key swing counties along the Interstate 4 corridor from Orlando to Tampa that Bush carried in 2004 en route to his easy victory in the state. Crist’s showing suggests the state will remain difficult for Democrats in 2008.

The most intriguing question for Republicans may be whether California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s smashing reelection means that a sufficiently moderate GOP presidential nominee could bid for the state’s 55 electoral votes.

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That would upend the presidential playing field in a single stroke. But Dan Schnur, a San Francisco-based GOP analyst, noted that Schwarzenegger’s victory required him to embrace moderate positions on social and environmental issues and offer himself as a conciliator, committed to compromise with Democrats. And those would not be easy positions to adopt for any candidate hoping to prevail in a GOP nominating process dominated by conservatives.

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ronald.brownstein@latimes.com

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Begin text of infobox

34 - Number of states that have supported the same party

in each of the last four presidential elections.

248 - Number of electoral votes that Democrats have been able to count on in those four elections. But since 2000, they have struggled to challenge Republicans for states beyond that base.

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270 - Number of electoral votes needed to win the presidency.


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