Blue-ing the West

Blue-ing the West

Democrats are on the verge of a fundamental shift in the regional balance of political power.


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.

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.

For New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, a much-talked-about potential 2008 presidential candidate, immigration is part of a panoply of issues that should, he says, make his region “fertile territory” for national Democrats. “I’ve long been an advocate that the Democratic Party should emphasize and gravitate to the West,” the Governor argues. Capturing states within his region would, he says, “give us a beachhead. It would make us a national party. Now we’re an East Coast and a West Coast party.”

November’s election suggests that the shift he envisions may already be happening: Such states as Montana are now electing Democratic populists. Moreover, even before November’s election, most of the big cities throughout the region, including Denver, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Boise and Missoula, were already run by Democratic mayors, or by mayors elected in nonpartisan races who openly identify with their state Democratic parties. These politicians have supported a dramatically increased minimum wage, and most have made economic populism a key part of their platform. They have stepped back from coastal Democrats’ rhetoric on gun control–Richardson, who was endorsed by the National Rifle Association in his re-election campaign, is adamant that a candidate’s position on gun control “should never be a litmus test again.” Many have pushed energy conservation and alternative energy proposals as part of a larger Western environmental vision that has created unlikely alliances among hunters, fishermen, ranchers and Sierra Club-type environmentalists. And they have advocated large-scale investments in high-tech public transit systems in an attempt to curb runaway suburban sprawl.

“If you had the right kind of Democrat and took guns off the table,” argues Governor Richardson’s re-election campaign chief, Dave Contarino, “you could even win Montana.”

While Richardson is the most obvious potential beneficiary of a Western tilt in ’08, someone like John Edwards could also reap the fruits of this shift. In much the same way that a Californian, Ronald Reagan, rode to power atop the early Southern GOP wave, a Southern populist untainted by religious fundamentalism could ride the growing Western wave for the Democrats, creating alliances hinted at in Bill Clinton’s two presidential election victories but subsequently lost. “Although a Southerner, he [Edwards] could connect,” argues Boise Mayor David Bieter. For Bieter, winning the West is at least in part an exercise in linguistics rather than a matter of simply fielding regional candidates. “You need to learn to speak to the values of Westerners–it’s a different political language, less ideological and more to people in their homes. The national party can be sort of elitist. The Republicans have been real skilled in taking somebody like Bush, with an absolute silver spoon upbringing, and making him appeal to the common man. And the Democrats have lost that touch.”

In early 2005 Gary Hart–now a professor at the University of Colorado in Denver and described by local political consultant Mike Stratton as the “John the Baptist” of the Western movement–was asked by the chair of the state Democrats to write a memo that could be forwarded to incoming DNC chair Howard Dean, outlining the importance of the interior West to Democratic presidential prospects. Sitting down in his home in Kittredge, Hart typed out two and a half pages, broken down into ten crucial bullet points.

The party, he wrote, needed to pay more attention to Western environmental issues, with locally based environmental policies that didn’t appear to be imposed from afar; it had to look toward a managed growth approach that would allow booming Western economies, increasingly based around high-tech companies in place of traditional resource-extraction industries, to grow while not undermining the high quality of life drawing so many to the region–and that would involve a commitment to invest heavily in public transit, clean-energy initiatives and anti-sprawl housing policies, all initiatives embraced by local Democratic politicians in recent years; it needed to promote a strong national security agenda that would appeal to Westerners long involved, from the earliest days of the cold war, in the country’s military and defense infrastructure; and, finally, its leaders had to do more than pay lip service to the values of Western individualism.

“The religious right,” Hart opined, “preaches values. Democrats, regionally and nationally, should espouse principles, for ourselves and for our country. ‘Values’ have religious overtones. Principles are humanistic and secular.”

Hart’s analysis borrowed significantly from Christopher Caldwell’s influential 1998 article in The Atlantic Monthly, titled “The Southern Captivity of the GOP,” in which Caldwell argued that the Southern flavor of the Republican Party, while providing it with short-term electoral success, was in the long run an Achilles’ heel, with the conservative values espoused by the party faithful ultimately alienating middle-of-the-road suburbanites and Westerners.

The onetime senator’s memo concluded with a prophecy: “The national Democratic Party should look Westward. The South will return to the Democratic Party only when economic downturn requires it. Meanwhile, the West provides the Democratic Party’s greatest opportunity and represents its greatest future. National Party leaders must develop a plan to win the West in the early twenty-first century or risk settling into minority status for many years to come.”

Westerners generally oppose government legislation on sexual morality, are tolerant of medical marijuana (on November 7, in an underreported sideshow to the main election, 44 percent of Nevadans voted in favor of an initiative that proposed legalizing marijuana across the board), dislike the more intrusive aspects of legislation such as the Patriot Act and tend to be less influenced by fundamentalist Baptist churches than are voters in the South. When Gallup conducted a poll last June on what noneconomic issues were of most importance to voters, 7 percent of Southerners said ethical/moral/religious decline worried them most, whereas only 3 percent of those in the coastal and interior Western states responded that way. Westerners were more preoccupied with the emerging energy crisis. In general, they are responding more to issues Democrats have made their own in recent years and are less receptive to the religious issues Republicans have hyped so effectively elsewhere in the country.

“I’m very prochoice,” says Napolitano, recalling her election campaign. “I said, ‘I’m not going to support any laws limiting a woman’s right to choose. End of story. Move on.’ We should be fighting on new ground–like healthcare. There are initiatives like the minimum wage where the Republicans have to fight on our terms rather than the other way around.”

Not too long ago, it would have been hard to imagine the Republicans being successfully painted as big-government advocates by progressive Democrats touting their small-government credentials. But, as a mark of how the Bush presidency has turned things upside down, that is precisely what Western Democratic strategists are now doing.

Whereas Washington, DC, used to intervene against reactionary state policies like the poll tax and educational segregation, these days it is Washington that is proving reactionary on issues ranging from its failure to rein in carbon dioxide emissions to Congress’s repeated rejection of an increase in the minimum wage, from the legislation GOP lawmakers rushed through during the morbid Terri Schiavo spectacle to vast tax giveaways to Big Oil. As important, a Republican administration that touts its conservative credentials has, over the past six years, been busily spending hundreds of billions of dollars more than it brings in each year in tax revenues, running up the largest budget deficit in American history. And increasingly, it is aggrieved politicians and voters in the states who are forming a backlash against this irresponsibility.

In a way, on social issues, Western Democrats, represented by figures like organic-farmer-cum-Senator Jon Tester, are more the party of that iconic Westerner Barry Goldwater than is the big-business- and religious-right-dominated GOP. To an increasing number of desert and mountain Westerners–including socially liberal, economically conservative Californians who have been moving inland in pursuit of cheaper land and open space–it is GOP hard-liners who threaten their way of life most, by imposing policies crafted by rigidly conservative lobbyists and kingmakers inside the Beltway or by equally uncompromising local party apparatchiks.

“The attitude to livability, attention to riverfront trails and parks, and downtown revitalization is clearly something associated with Democratic leadership,” asserts Daniel Kemmis, a senior fellow at the University of Montana’s Center for the Rocky Mountain West, as well as a coordinator for the organization Democrats for the West, dedicated to boosting the party’s fortunes in the region, and a onetime mayor of Missoula. “Over time, the people who are moving to the West and who stay here because they like the feel of these communities, it’s starting to sink in that Democrats seem to deliver more effectively on these issues than Republicans.”

Hoping to capitalize on the new Electoral College calculations, Western Democrats are flexing their muscle as never before. To boost Denver’s chances at hosting the party’s ’08 convention, the city’s convention bid team, as well as Mayor John Hickenlooper–himself a transplant, with a petroleum-exploration and small-business background, from the environs of Philadelphia and then Connecticut–has proposed something unprecedented: that while the convention itself would be held in the Mile High City, the entire Rocky Mountain West would sponsor it. The convention would be billed not as a Denver affair but as a Rocky Mountain West Convention.

“I’ve talked to Napolitano in Arizona, Governor Richardson, [Wyoming] Governor [Dave] Freudenthal and [Montana Governor Brian] Schweitzer. Each has been very enthusiastic,” says Hickenlooper, who recently made a splash by working with the thirty-two mayors who govern the cities of the greater Denver metropolitan area to kickstart the nation’s largest public-transit expansion, 119 miles of light-rail lines throughout the urban region. “A Western convention says something. Democrats in the West have a strong sense of self-responsibility. A Western Democrat is more cautious about ceding power to Washington over our environment. We believe in local control, in the inherent value of open space. We are in many ways pro-business, trying to create opportunity for people, cutting red tape, cutting bureaucracy, making government more efficient.”

Democratic politicians throughout the region have similarly come together to urge the DNC to move Western caucuses and primaries forward. Nevada will now hold a caucus sandwiched between the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary, and momentum is growing in Western policy circles for the creation of a regional super-primary, to be held early in the candidate-selection process.

Daniel Kemmis believes that as many as six or seven Western states will sign up for early primaries. “There’s an increased interest in the idea of a Western presidential primary, trying to coordinate many Western states and have them hold their caucuses and primaries on the same day,” he says. Others are slightly more cautious. “You’d now have four Western states in play at the very start of the nominating schedule,” estimates consultant Mike Stratton. “If the candidates have to come out West early and through ’07 and into the nominating process of ’08; if you have them traipsing out West, they’re going to have to start talking Western issues: water, land, energy, conservation, quality of life. Then the balance of Western independent voters here have a reason to start looking to the Democratic Party and its nominee.”

How would Gary Hart advise Howard Dean on this, as the Western strategy the Coloradan advocated as a young man finally comes of age? “Be very strong on environmental issues,” he argues. “That doesn’t mean give over the agenda to the Sierra Club, but to say on climate change, transportation, urban pollution issues, you’ve got to be very strong and lay out an agenda.” Above all, he says, start speaking with Westerners and not at them. “We’re still a nation of regions and mannerisms. You have to be able to put people at ease, speak in a way they understand and accept.”

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