A quarter-century ago, an up-and-coming senator from Colorado by the name of Gary Hart began outlining a Western strategy for the Democratic Party. His dream was to offset the national influence of an increasingly Republican South by building Democratic power in the Western states, which he saw as ripe terrain for such an effort. In 1984 Hart tried to bring this strategy to life by running for his party’s presidential nomination. After a strong early showing, Hart lost the middle rounds of the caucus and primary season before winning almost all the Western states toward the end of the monthslong process. In the end, however, he couldn’t gain quite enough delegates to beat frontrunner Walter Mondale. Mondale, whose core base was the old industrial Midwest, went on to be thoroughly humbled by Reagan in the presidential election that November. Three years later, Hart entered the 1988 campaign as a charismatic frontrunner, only to self-destruct with the now-infamous sex scandal aboard the aptly named boat Monkey Business. Had that campaign not imploded, it’s possible that two decades of rightward Southern drift in US politics would have been avoided.
Five presidential election cycles on, and the Western Strategy is back at the fore of Democratic strategic thinking, with talk of several early Western primaries, and Denver making a serious bid to host the 2008 Democratic convention (the Democratic National Committee will decide early this year). This time around there’s a better-than-even chance that the West will fundamentally alter the regional balance of power within the party. After all, with the exception of Bill Clinton’s triumphs–helped, at least in part, by the third-party presence of Ross Perot–and Jimmy Carter’s victorious 1976 campaign, in presidential elections since 1968 Democrats have failed to break away Southern states from the Republican fold, leaving them grasping for a new source of Electoral College votes.
“We want to hit different regions of the country as well as different populations,” Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Stacie Paxton explained last summer, before the Democrats scored big in the West in the November elections. “There’s already an effort under way, through the ’50 state strategy,’ to ask for votes in every state. In Western states more people are coming our way, but we need to put in the resources to take it over the top and win in these states. You’ll see a lot more interest in Western states: resources, candidates stopping in those states. We’re making investments now so we can be successful in ’06, in ’08 and beyond.”
November’s election results vindicated this strategy. Building on gains in 2004, Democrats picked up four Congressional and Senate seats in the interior West, bolstered by one the number of governorships they control in the region and increased their presence in statehouses. In fact, the results may ultimately presage a political realignment as far-reaching as that following passage of the Voting Rights Act, which saw the decampment of a critical mass of conservative white voters in the South into the GOP and, in turn, the GOP’s remaking of itself increasingly as a party of Southern values. In both the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, the margin between George Bush and Gore/Kerry was within five points in New Mexico (which went narrowly for Gore in 2000) and Nevada and within five points in Colorado in 2004. Many strategists, who tout more than thirty Electoral College permutations that would allow a Democratic victory based primarily on inroads in the West, believe every Western state but Idaho, Utah and Wyoming could fall to a strong progressive-leaning presidential candidate in 2008.
“National candidates really haven’t invested in trying to pick up Electoral College votes in the Mountain West, with the possible exception of New Mexico,” explains Arizona’s Democratic governor, Janet Napolitano. “You need to be there, have a campaign structure, buy media time, have a real serious get-out-the-vote effort. The Democratic Party has to multitask. We have to deal with the South, but we have to win another area of the country; and this is an area where we’re winning elections.” In 2000 all eight of the interior Western states had Republican governors; today, with Bill Ritter’s recent win in Colorado–springing from Senator Ken Salazar’s victory in the state in 2004–five of the eight are run by Democrats.