Imagine a parallel universe where, instead of crying in their beer as the election results rolled in on November 2, Democrats were raising microbrews in toasts to their unprecedented success. Now, stop imagining and focus on the Rocky Mountain West, a region that trended so Republican in the 1990s that a popular joke suggested gays and lesbians were afraid to come out of the closet for fear of being thought to be Democrats. This year the Democrats got the last laugh. While those so-simplistic-as-to-be-useless maps of partisan breakdowns in the presidential race paint the region as hopelessly Republican–feeding the sense that wide expanses of America are lost forever to the Democratic Party–Dan Petegorsky of the Western States Center invites a closer look, which reveals that “the ‘red’ label on the presidential map contrasts sharply with the state-level results.”
On the same day that George W. Bush was winning nationally and Republicans were increasing their majorities in Congress, Democrats in the eight states of the Rocky Mountain West were winning state and local contests at a rate not seen in decades and offering valuable lessons for the national Democratic Party, organized labor and progressive activist groups that are sorely in need of new models for campaigning. “Before the pundits write this off as the year when nothing seemed to work right for the Democrats,” says Montana Democratic Party executive director Brad Martin, “there is a Western story that needs to be told.”
Actually, there are several stories. Shifting demographics, local issues and the extent to which the presidential contest was fought out on the ground had varying influences on state results. But there were some constants: Western Democrats tended to abandon the national party’s template and focus on local issues, they relied far more heavily on volunteers than paid staff and they worked much, much harder–and with considerable success–to attract rural voters.
The one other constant was good news. Here’s just a little of what happened in the Rocky Mountain West on November 2:
§ Montana elected its first Democratic governor in twenty years. The new governor, rancher Brian Schweitzer, joins Democratic chief executives in Arizona, New Mexico and Wyoming. Montana Democrats also took back the offices of state attorney general, auditor and superintendent of public instruction. A victory in a key state Public Service Commission race gave Democrats control of Montana’s chief regulatory body. They shifted control of the State Senate from 29-21 Republican to 27-23 Democrat. And they came within one vote of taking control of the Montana House. The Democratic delegation includes eight Native Americans, several of whom were set to assume leadership positions in their respective legislative chambers.
§ Colorado Democrats won both a US Senate seat and a US House seat that had been held by Republicans. They also reversed Republican majorities in the state House and Senate to take control of both chambers for the first time in forty-four years, and installed the state’s first female State Senate president, a female majority leader in the state House and an African-American Senate president pro tem. The newly empowered Democrats immediately signaled to conservative Republican Governor Bill Owens that he had better select a moderate to replace outgoing Attorney General Ken Salazar–the Democrat who won the state’s US Senate seat. The new Democratic Senate majority leader, Ken Gordon, said that to win legislative approval for his nominee, Owens would have to appoint someone with “mainstream values.” Asked to define that term, Gordon said, “Not John Ashcroft.”
§ Even in the states with the heaviest patterns of Republican voting in the region–and, as it happens, the nation–Democrats scored both symbolic victories and sweet successes. In Wyoming, US House candidate Ted Ladd, whose name never appeared on lists of targeted Democratic challengers, took 42 percent of the vote, the best percentage for a Democratic Congressional candidate in fourteen years. Idaho elected its first openly lesbian legislator, Nicole LeFavour, an environmental activist who easily claimed a Boise seat in the State House. And the Salt Lake Tribune declared on the day after the election, “While the nation and most of Utah tilt further to the right, Salt Lake County is solidifying as a bastion for the left.” The new county mayor and the three at-large county council members are all Democrats. The local government wins are part of a trend throughout the region, where Democrats in recent years have taken charge of mayoral posts in Billings, Boise, Denver, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and Santa Fe.