Western Democrats On The Rise

Western Democrats On The Rise

By Reid Wilson - October 15, 2008

Forget the traditionally conservative dress of business Washington. Put away the three-piece suits and Brooks Brothers ties. Instead, break in a new pair of cowboy boots, put on a bolo tie and a Stetson hat. As America's Intermountain West grows at rates much higher than the rest of the country, more gun-toting, cattle-rustling social and fiscal libertarians will head east of the Rockies to join Congress.

But those new members of Congress are more likely to caucus with Democrats than they are to side with Republicans in what may be one of the most dramatic geographic shifts in the coming decade. And though the transition away from the GOP has not been as pronounced as that which has taken place in the Northeast, the move has already begun.

The 1990's were a good decade to be a Republican west of the Rockies. But since President Bush won the White House, Democrats have seen a marked improvement in their Western fortunes. Beginning in 2000, Democrats have picked up three Senate seats, five governor's mansions and twelve House seats in states in the Mountain or Pacific Time Zones.

By contrast, Republicans have picked up just one Senate seat, John Ensign's, and one governor's mansion, when California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger won a recall election in 2003.

That, Republicans fear, is only the beginning of their party's Western woes. In 2008, Democratic candidates are running ahead of Republicans for open Senate seats in Colorado, New Mexico and Alaska. Democrats are targeting at least eight Republican-held House seats too, stretching from Colorado to Arizona to Washington State.

Ensign, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, blamed overspending in Washington for recent GOP losses. "The Intermountain West is more libertarian Republicanism, and they were pretty upset with the spending in Washington," he said.

The newfound Democratic success in the West is affecting the presidential contest as well. Recent polls have showed Barack Obama leading in New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada, three states that gave President Bush their electoral votes in 2004. "The [country's] population center's been moving west," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, himself a westerner. "If you want to become President of the United States, it's through the west."

Already, the region is wielding new power in American politics. Reid, Ensign, Senate Republican Whip Jon Kyl, Senate Democratic Conference Secretary Patty Murray and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi all hail from the West. And the region can inject its own issues into the presidential debate, as it did this summer when John McCain suggested a renegotiation of the Colorado River Compact, a touchy and delicately-handled water agreement that pits several Southwestern states against each other (McCain later backed off that statement).

Ensign agreed with Reid's assessment of the power the battleground West now holds, though he countered by pointing out that his party's ticket consists of two politicians more in tune with Western values. "We have two Westerners running versus an Easterner and a Midwesterner," he said. "In the West, that's a big deal. Both [John McCain and Sarah Palin] understand public lands issues and water issues, things that are huge in the West."

Political observers agree that, like in the Northeast, Democrats have made gains because they have broadened their coalition to include those more supportive of gun and property rights and more open to domestic energy exploration. Western voters aren't just choosing the same liberals who win in urban centers like San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle. Instead, Democrats have presented most Westerners with a new kind of candidate, one more in tune with Western values of limited government intervention in their ways of life. Democratic senators in the Intermountain West, including Montana's Max Baucus and Jon Tester and Colorado's Ken Salazar, are more likely to be photographed firing a gun than quoted trying to ban one, and Salazar, Colorado Governor Bill Ritter and Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano have tough law enforcement backgrounds.

Even Ensign acknowledged that a new kind of Democrat is on the rise. "We had Democrats who ran [successfully] as pro-business, pro-death penalty, pro-gun Democrats," he said (though in the context of suggesting that Colorado Rep. Mark Udall, favored to take over a GOP Senate seat this year, is not that kind of Democrat).

Western ideology "has always been characterized by two separate strands," said Cornell Clayton, a political scientist at Washington State University. Republicans like Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater and Alan Simpson embodied what Clayton called "pragmatic individualism." Democrats Frank Church, Tom Foley and Henry "Scoop" Jackson embodied a more "pragmatic progressivism."

"As the Republican Party has shifted increasingly to social conservatives, the difference between a Ronald Reagan presidency and a George Bush presidency has been huge," Clayton said. "The Republican Party has moved from a Western-based party to a real Southern-based party. It seems to me the gravity is coming out of the South today, and that has turned off a lot of Westerners."

The common theme, in talking with candidates from both parties, is an individualism that comes with the region's history. "The people who went west were kind of maverick pioneer types," said Jill Derby, who is running against Rep. Dean Heller in Nevada's sprawling and overwhelmingly rural Second District. "Independence is respected in the West, and the West is not weighed down by tradition the way that, for instance, the East is."

So far, it has been those who don't take that lesson seriously, dogmatic Republicans who might fit better in the South than in the West, who have lost their seats. And while others, like retiring Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, have built their careers railing against illegal immigration, many Republicans now worry that demagoguing a portion of the electorate that is growing as fast as Hispanic voters are could do irreparable damage to their party.

Trends, explained Democratic pollster Andrew Myers, show the growth of Hispanic voters will continue. "You [will] start to see more Hispanic voters filtering into the electorate. It will make the region bluer and bluer as time goes by," he said. "From a Democratic operative perspective, this means expansion."

This year's presidential primaries and voter registration drives have fueled an incredible surge of new voters in the West, and most have been signing up with the Democratic Party. In Nevada, the country's fastest-growing state, Democrats have added more than 50,000 new voters to the rolls since January. Silver State Republicans have added just over 1,200 to their totals.

Democrats may even be doing better than polls suggest, said Myers, a top strategist for Project New West, which is helping build the party's strength in the region. The new growth "is a challenge to people in my industry. Every day in Nevada you're seeing a couple thousand more" voters.

If those trends continue, which they likely will (Five of the ten fastest-growing states in the Union are a part of the Intermountain West), Democrats could be the big winners. That's because the region is only set to grow. Early population estimates suggest the West will gain four seats -- two in Arizona and one each for Utah and Nevada -- after the 2010 Census.

Democrats have their eyes on more immediate prizes, though. "We intend for this area not only to be a battleground this fall, but to be the margin of victory for the next President of the United States," Napolitano said at a briefing for reporters at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.

Regardless of whether John McCain or Barack Obama becomes the 44th chief executive, one will do so alongside a host of freshmen Democrats in newly-shined cowboy boots and turquoise bolo ties. Given the rapid expansion of the Intermountain West, the region's rising influence will only grow during the next president's term, and beyond.

Reid Wilson is an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at

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