Coastal Democrats and representatives from big cities may not like the pro-gun-ownership arguments or understand the emotional allure of the shooting range, but unlike in the 1990s, in the post-2004 environment a growing number are unwilling to go out on a limb and risk alienating potential party supporters over this issue. Last year Kerry put on camouflage gear and paraded with his guns on a duck hunt; yet he was hobbled by the perception that his party still advocated a one-size-fits-all national gun-control strategy. In the lead-in to the 2008 elections, it is that perception that these Second Amendment Democrats want to squash. Once Democrats are able to reassure Westerners that they will not take their guns away, say pro-gun lobbyists such as the self-proclaimed "ultra liberal" Linda Siegle, then, and only then, can they return to the issues of reining in sales of assault weapons, expanding background checks on buyers and passing laws requiring parents to keep weapons locked away so children can't access them--issues even most gun supporters sympathize with.
And, as issues dear to Western culture take center stage in the remaking of the Democratic Party, so Western politicians are also rising to the fore. Not only did Nevada Senator Harry Reid recently ascend as Senate minority leader but Governor Richardson is widely talked about as a leading contender for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
Richardson is one of four Democrats to win Mountain West governorships since 2000, all in states--Arizona, Wyoming, Montana and New Mexico--that voted for Bush in 2004. Last year Democrats won back control over the Colorado and Montana legislatures; held on to power in New Mexico (where there are 1.5 registered Democrats for every Republican); and made significant inroads in Nevada, where a minimum-wage initiative was passed over strong Republican opposition.
In other words, at the local level Western Democrats have found a winning formula during the Bush presidency, stressing issues like health insurance, the environment, quality of life, careful management of scarce water resources and investment in high-tech job creation. Howard Dean's challenge is to craft a national agenda that resonates with Westerners in the same way; that creates a vibrant coastal/urban-interior/rural coalition of interests; and that challenges the GOP on the bread-and-butter issues that the governing oligarchs are most vulnerable on while neutralizing GOP attempts to divert attention by focusing on wedge issues such as guns.
True, in 2000 Al Gore was far more of a gun-control advocate than Kerry was in 2004; and Gore won New Mexico while Kerry lost it. But Gore won during a time of peace, riding on Clinton's coattails. He won despite his position on guns, not because of it. Could he have won in 2004? Doubtful. On the other hand, could a convincingly pro-gun Democrat have won the state in 2004? Possibly.
"The Democrats could stand to modify their stance," says Doug "Jack Diamond" Kunz, a retired security systems electrician and cowboy shooting enthusiast. Unlike most of his friends on the Albuquerque shooting range, Kunz voted for Kerry in 2004, but he did so with strong reservations about the party's gun policies. "I'm in the middle where common sense resides," he says. "No, we shouldn't have total gun control. On the other hand, I don't believe we need to have fancy assault weapons."
One longtime inside player in Santa Fe, a larger-than-life shmoozer whose family has been at the forefront of state politics for close to half a century, always as Democrats, admitted to voting for Bush in 2004 because of the gun issue. If word got out on how he voted, he says half joking, "my dad would probably shoot me between the eyes. The one thing the Republicans have done real well is to cultivate local gun networks--through the NRA, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Ducks Unlimited, Trout Unlimited. You've got to get to the sportsmen. The Republicans have been real good at working through these institutions at a grassroots level. That's where it's got to start."
It would take only a few thousand such voters to change their votes in New Mexico and Nevada for a Democratic presidential candidate to win both those states; and while Colorado and Montana are harder nuts to crack, they are certainly on the party's radar. Win three of these four states, or win two of them plus Iowa, and the Democrats have an Electoral College majority again.