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Democrats Score in the Rockies | The Nation

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Democrats Score in the Rockies

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Another huge lesson for the 527 groups that assisted the Kerry campaign and national Democrats has to do with the identification of issues. Democrats in Western states, most of which were not targeted by national campaigns, developed their own sets of issues. In a number of states they emphasized the need for openness in government, which had become a concern during years of wall-to-wall Republican rule that often saw important decisions made in closed caucuses.

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John Nichols
John Nichols
John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated...

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A presidential candidate with a history of beating incumbents, rewriting electoral rules and upsetting political expectations.

Western Democrats also focused a great deal of attention on the threat to water quality posed by environmentally insensitive practices such as coal-bed methane extraction [see Eyal Press, "Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch," October 11]. And they spent a lot of time explaining their positions, developing detailed accounts of why such practices--which were backed by energy-industry lobbyists and their Republican allies--pose a threat to the livelihoods of farmers and ranchers in states like Montana. In Colorado, Democrats pushed renewable energy and water rights initiatives. In states across the region, they embraced the concerns of Native Americans, who have emerged as a powerful and, in many states, reliably Democratic voting bloc.

Along with their own issues, they developed their own kinds of campaigns. A new group, Democrats for the West, served as something of a clearinghouse for ideas and cooperative initiatives--for instance, the Democratic governors of Wyoming and Arizona traveled to Montana to aid Schweitzer's gubernatorial campaign. Campaign techniques varied from state to state but they usually placed a huge emphasis on using volunteers rather than the paid staffers favored by some party and 527 groups that worked the national campaign for the Democrats. In Montana, with a field staff of twenty-one, the state Democratic Party fielded close to 3,000 volunteers for get-out-the-vote efforts. "We reached out early to the pro-choice community, the hunting and fishing community and folks from the labor movement, and we said, 'Look, you've got to be a part of this,'" explained Brad Martin of the Montana Democrats, who came to the party from the public interest research group (PIRG) movement. "We have a strong history of the party being an activist organization, and we really emphasized that in this campaign."

To be sure, there were some home-grown 527 groups, like Forward Colorado, which was formed by four millionaire environmentalists in that state. But Forward Colorado, which is credited with playing a major role in shifting the balance in that state's legislative races, remained close to the ground. The group didn't impose cookie-cutter approaches developed in Washington; rather, it worked closely with local activists to develop messages and mailings targeted for individual districts.

So it was that, on November 2, while national Democrats were wringing their hands after getting wiped out in rural regions of states like Ohio, Democrats in the West were pointing to successes in remote counties. On Colorado's Western Slope, Democrat John Salazar's campaign slogan was "Send a Farmer to Congress." In a district that had elected Republicans in the past, voters followed Salazar's advice. They also backed his brother, Ken Salazar, for the state's US Senate seat. Ken Salazar, who campaigned in his pickup truck and delivered a stump speech that focused on the need to defend the interests of "the forgotten parts of Colorado," ran more than ten points ahead of the national ticket in rural areas. He did so while backing abortion rights and civil unions for gays and lesbians. As Brad Woodhouse, a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman, noted after the election, Salazar "pays homage and respect to the beliefs of rural voters, while also staying true to the core Democratic principles." If there is a single lesson that Democrats and their activist allies need to learn after what was for the most part a 2004 electoral debacle, it is that rural America is still winnable. And they can start by looking west.

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