In an otherwise dismal election for Democrats, the party fared surprisingly well out west, holding key Senate seats in California, Colorado, Nevada and Washington, and winning governorships in California, Colorado and Oregon.
So why did Democrats do better in places like Colorado and Nevada than Illinois and Pennsylvania? They performed stronger with moderate swing voters and turned out key segments of the Democratic base.
In Nevada, Harry Reid won 65 percent of self-described “moderates” and Michael Bennet in Colorado took 63 percent, compared to 60 percent for Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania and only 50 percent for Alexi Giannoulias in Illinois. These voters alone made up roughly forty percent of the electorate, according to exit polls.
The extremity of Tea Party-backed candidates also boosted Democrats out west. Republicans Mark Kirk in Illinois and Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania were far more polished and on message than Sharron Angle in Nevada or Ken Buck in Colorado. By emphasizing Buck’s extreme record on abortion, for example, Bennet won 56 percent of women voters—a crucial 14 point gender gap in the race. And by hammering her controversial anti-immigrant positions, Reid won 68 percent of Hispanic voters in Nevada—who voted at the same level as in 2008, whereas turnout among core ’08 Obama voters dropped significantly in many other states. “In the West, Tea Party candidates, by and large, lost,” says Jill Hanauer of the Project New West, a Denver-based strategy group.
Nor was there a broader ideological shift to the right. In Colorado, for example, voters rejected three tax-slashing ballot measures, an initiative to block the implementation of healthcare reform and an antichoice proposal to define a fetus as "personhood." That’s not to suggest that everything went great for Democrats in the region. A bunch of Democratic House members lost seats, Republicans held onto governorships in Arizona and Nevada and picked up New Mexico, and Democratic state legislative candidates lost across the board. Still, given the sour national mood, it could’ve been a whole lot worse. Writes Hanauer:
Looking at the West as a whole, Democrats have made significant gains in the past decade. In 2000, Democrats had zero Governors, 3 Senate seats and only 6 of 25 congressional seats. After 2008, they held 5 Governorships, 17 of the 28 seats in Congress and 7 US Senate seats. In 2010, Western Democrats felt the anti incumbent anger, particularly towards Congress and they now hold 10 congressional seats, 2 Governorships and 7 US Senate seats.