How Democrats can mine the West

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Ken Salazar is the Democratic senator from Colorado and a host for the Democratic National Convention.

As he accepts his party’s presidential nomination on Aug. 28, standing a mile high at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, Barack Obama will be pressing into a landscape long thought impassable for a Democrat seeking the White House. Colorado has picked a Democrat for president just once in the last 40 years. Nevada, twice. New Mexico, three times.

Yet with the region’s recent political shift from solidly Republican to highly independent, and the Democratic National Convention in Denver, these states are the swing states of 2008. With 19 electoral votes among the three, the results in Florida and Ohio may not matter on the night of Nov. 4.

Winning in the West as a Democrat, though, is far from easy. When I won my U.S. Senate race in Colorado in 2004, Republicans had 190,000 more registered voters than Democrats, and they occupied the governor’s mansion, held a majority in the Legislature and controlled both Senate seats. No other Democrat had been elected statewide in more than a decade.


But the Western political landscape has changed in the last four years. Independent leaders such as Gov. Brian Schweitzer of Montana, Sen. Jon Tester of Montana and Gov. Bill Ritter of Colorado were elected, and the Colorado Legislature has a Democratic majority. Some argue that the shift is the result of the region’s 15% population growth since 2000 and the emergence of unaffiliated voters as the largest voting bloc.

The demographic trends are factors, but to find the real story of Western Democrats’ success, you have to get beyond Denver, Albuquerque and Las Vegas to the farms, fields and rural communities that have been ignored by the White House for the last seven years. These Democrats have found their voice in these areas, developing common-sense solutions to bridge the gap dividing the parties. These are the communities that, in the presidential race, can tip Colorado’s nine electoral votes.

Where I am from in Colorado’s rural San Luis Valley, one of the poorest parts of the country, people are eager for someone who will support family farms, lead a renewable-energy renaissance in rural areas, fight for the middle class and deliver on healthcare reform. They want energetic, responsive, pragmatic leadership.

In many Western communities, the frustration also comes from feeling like an afterthought in Washington’s policies. The resentment toward the administration’s consistent disregard for Western wisdom has reached a boiling point. From federal money grabs of state mineral revenues, to oil and gas development in valuable hunting and fishing areas, to false promises on oil shale, Washington has come to see the West as a means to an end.

In 1980, when Westerners felt they were at the skinny end of Washington’s whip, they turned to Ronald Reagan. Today, facing a different type of Beltway bullying, Westerners are turning to Democrats to stand up for their land, water and way of life.

Those of us who have found success in the West understand that Western values are Democratic values. We are bound by our belief that ours is a nation in progress, where hard work, fueled by hope, can make things better for those who follow.


Our tradition of independence leads us to choose our leaders based on the person rather than the party. We admire independent thinkers, not go-it-alone mavericks. We prefer consensus and compromise to posturing and partisanship. We like outsiders, newcomers and bold thinkers who are able to adjust to the pace of our time and the complexity of its challenges.

Words like “hope,” “change” and “opportunity” have been, for centuries, at the heart of the Western experience. They are words Washington must, and will, hear again. This year, the road to the White House runs through the West.