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Blue-ing the West | The Nation

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Blue-ing the West

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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.

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Sasha Abramsky
Sasha Abramsky, who writes regularly for The Nation, is the author of several books, including Inside Obama’s...

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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.

Napolitano, long one of the leading boosters for opening up what might be termed a Western Front for nationally minded Democrats, argues that her party "has to broaden its base geographically and in terms of issues. For the party, it means a new, or a renewed, emphasis on issues predominating in the interior West. Part of that is people want a good quality of life, do not want government to dictate to them how they live their lives. They want good government but not big government. They're looking for pragmatic folks who produce results. How do you move goods and services and people, and preserve open space, and preserve economic opportunity for a growing number of people? You have to make your economies more diverse, be very entrepreneurial, rewarding those who will take a chance--and your public policies need to align with that." Napolitano cites Arizona's investment in high-tech university laboratories, the crafting of tax credits for research and development, the creation of state-backed research funds designed to leverage increased private-sector investment and an emphasis on conservation that protects the treasured open spaces of the West.

Western politicians also believe immigration politics could play to the Democratic Party's advantage, not least because, despite Bush's efforts to moderate his party's stance, during the last year of the outgoing Congress hard-line Republicans hijacked the debate about border security and undocumented workers. "Democrats can come in and say, 'Yes, we want to secure our borders, but we want an immigration policy that works,'" Napolitano avers, explaining why she believes that an increasing number of Hispanic voters in the Southwest will turn to the Democrats as their party in the post-Bush years.

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