Democrats Score in the Rockies
Surveying the results from his office in Missoula, former US Representative Pat Williams said, "When you look at what happened in the West on November 2, it's wildly encouraging. It's a Democratic sweep in Montana, big advances in Colorado, pick-ups everywhere--Democrats winning in places where they haven't won in decades." Williams, a Democrat who left the House eight years ago, has a new catchphrase, "Montana? A Red State? Take Another Look." He's not alone. Democrats in a number of Western states are trying, with somewhat limited success, to call attention to the fact that their region is not nearly as red as the red/blue maps and the pundits would suggest.
There is no one explanation for the improvement of Democratic fortunes in this region. Like any set of election results, those coming out of states like Montana and Colorado are complicated by factors ranging from population shifts to local issues to the relative appeal of particular candidates. But there are signals that can be taken away from the region's results. For Democrats, they may be some of the most instructive lessons to come out of the November 2 voting.
For instance, while many pundits saw in the national election results a signal that Democrats were out of touch with "moral values"--the hot code phrase for opposition to gay marriage and abortion rights--Western Democrats found that one of their big advantages was a growing sense among voters that Republicans had gotten a little too in touch--or, to be more precise, obsessed--with that theme. "The Republican far right has overplayed its hand in the West for more than a decade," says Williams. "I heard a lot of people say that the Republican Party seemed to be more concerned about legislating mores than creating jobs. In Western states, where wages are low, that doesn't make sense." Across the West, Democrats explained their advances at least in part by suggesting that voters had gotten sick and tired of moralizing Republicans. "The Republicans' obsession with narrow cultural issues while the state's looming fiscal crisis was ignored drove a deep wedge between fiscally conservative live-and-let-live Republicans and the neo-conservative extremists with an agenda," explains Denver Post columnist Diane Carman.
Before the election, Susan Good, who in the 1990s served as chair of the Montana Republican Party, told radio listeners in that state to vote for Democratic legislative candidates because the Republican Party had been hijacked by ideologues, who had made it "stagnant." Another Montana Republican, State Senator John Bohlinger, declaring that "somehow we lost our way," jumped party lines to run for lieutenant governor on the Democratic ticket. Charles Johnson, a Statehouse reporter for the Montana Standard newspaper, said, "By most accounts, Montanans loved the bipartisan approach in the ad run by the Democratic team running for governor and lieutenant governor. 'I'm John Bohlinger, I'm a Republican businessman from Billings. And I'm Brian Schweitzer, a Democratic farmer from Whitefish.'" Johnson said it was the most effective ad of the campaign.
The embrace of bipartisanship by Democrats running in a number of Western states played well with voters. But it did not involve an abandonment of principles. Rather, Democrats found old-school Republicans like Bohlinger, whom one Montana newspaper described as "a popular state senator known for his moderate--some would say liberal--views on education and health care," and offered them an opportunity to join in a broad fight against the extreme right-wing forces that have taken charge of most Western Republican parties. There is a huge lesson here for national Democrats and their allies, who failed in the 2004 campaign to make effective use of the many prominent Republicans--and traditionally Republican-leaning newspapers--who said they could not back Bush.