Is the Rocky Mountain West on the verge of a major political realignment? Might Democrats become the majority party in the region during this decade — and then maintain that position well into the century? Given the extent to which the Interior West has become Republican territory, this seems at first to be the wildest kind of pipe dream.
Many of us can remember the days of Democratic giants like Frank Church, Mike Mansfield, and the Brothers Udall. They provided leadership that seemed to match the West’s inspiring landscapes. But those days had all but ended by the mid-’80s, as the region became steadily more Republican.
In fact, by the time of the last presidential election, the Rockies had become very nearly a one-party region. New Mexico squeaked into the Gore column in 2000 by fewer than 400 votes, while every other state in the region supported Bush. The new century opened with Democratic governors on the Pacific coast and along the Mississippi, but none in the 1,000-mile-wide swath in between. Today, there are three Democratic U.S. senators out of 18 Senate seats in the Rocky Mountain West, including Alaska. Less than a quarter of the congressional seats are held by Democrats, while 15 out of 18 of those states’ legislative houses are controlled by Republicans.
Yet the time may well be right for a political shift. The 2002 election sent Democrats to the governor’s mansions in New Mexico, Arizona and Wyoming. Democrats also made substantial gains in legislative seats in Montana and Idaho. Montana Democrats are now within striking distance of retaking at least one house of the legislature for the first time in over a decade.
Going into the 2004 election, Western Democrats have high hopes of continuing this swing. In Colorado, Democrats are poised to recapture the U.S. Senate seat they lost so painfully in 1995, when Ben Nighthorse Campbell abruptly switched parties. Campbell’s defection seemed to symbolize the free-fall of the Democratic Party in the West. As Campbell retires, leaving his party in some confusion, the Senate seat that seemed an emblem of Democratic decline could herald the party’s resurgence.
Meanwhile, Alaska Democrats are feeling confident that former Gov. Tony Knowles will unseat Lisa Murkowski, whose father, Frank Murkowski, appointed her to fill out his Senate term when he was elected Governor in 2002. Democrats are equally sanguine about winning the governorships in Utah and Montana this November.
For Western Democrats, these prospects are like the sight of water after nearly two decades in the political desert. The question is whether this incipient swing of the pendulum will be the beginning of a sustained political realignment, or whether it will prove to be a short-term vibration around the status quo.
From this moment of possibility has risen "Democrats for the West," a coalition of Democratic leaders from eight Interior West states and Alaska. Democratic elders, including former Interior Secretaries Stewart Udall and Cecil Andrus, have issued a challenge to fellow Democrats to begin working together to create sustainable Democratic majorities across the West. This Democrats for the West initiative comes at a moment when the region is undergoing historical changes of such magnitude that a political shift is entirely possible.
For over a decade, the West’s population has grown faster than that of any other region in the country. That growth has brought substantial challenges to the region and its communities, but substantial opportunities as well. This unusually dynamic region can realize the potential of this historical moment, however, only if it is guided by progressive, creative, inclusive political leadership. While there is a handful of Western Republicans who may be capable of providing that kind of leadership, it is far easier to picture a robust, forward-moving West under Democratic leadership, with the Republican Party taking a good long turn in the role of loyal opposition.
Political parties don’t often see their mission in terms of changing history. Their mission is to elect members of their party to office. But in a situation like that now existing in the West, the chance to work a lasting change in the political landscape is too significant to be ignored. But Democratic leaders must look beyond the next election to the long-term future of the region and the Party, if the opportunity is not to be lost.
Perhaps the most dangerous pitfall for Western Democrats would be to forfeit potential by saying, "We’ve actually been right all along, and this is the year that, if we just organize a little better and work a little harder, our message will finally prevail." Democratic pollsters keep telling their candidates, for example, that "jobs and the economy" are the main issues on voters’ minds. This leads Democrats to repackage the "Jobs, Jobs, Jobs" and "Balancing Jobs and the Environment" slogans they have been promoting for as long as anyone can remember. Guided by the same poll results, Republicans spout almost identical and equally threadbare slogans.
The strategy may produce some short-term Democratic victories – not because voters will suddenly recognize the wisdom of the old slogans, but simply because of growing signs of Republican failure. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, almost anyone with an R behind their name could defeat almost anyone with a D. This "R Factor" eventually led to the election of some astonishingly inept officeholders, like Governors J. Fife Symington III of Arizona, who resigned in 1997 after being convicted of seven counts of fraud, and Judy Martz in Montana, who chose not to seek re-election this year when her approval ratings began to approach single digits.
This weakening of Republican credibility has been exacerbated by the fact that Republicans have often been able to win in the West by using a demagoguery that appeals to many Westerners, but has not proven to be effective as a governing platform. Washington-bashing slogans continue to win votes in many parts of the rural West, as does the demonizing of "tax-and-spend liberals" and "radical environmentalists." But Republican policies have done nothing at all to slow the decline of most rural Western communities, and that kind of "all hat, no cows" rhetoric is bound eventually to wear thin.
Also, much of the relentless Republican rhetoric has been underwritten by large corporate interests, which are then rewarded with policies that make things worse for the very constituencies that keep Republicans in office. The Cheney-Bush connections to Big Energy have raised the ire of ranchers afflicted by coalbed methane development from which they derive scant benefits and substantial headaches (HCN, 6/9/03: Why I fight: The coming gas explosion in the West). Utility executives could make gigantic short-term gains from Republican-inspired utility deregulation in Montana, but utility customers, many of whom have consistently voted Republican, have been left holding a very costly bag.
Such Republican failures create a golden opportunity for Democrats to make short-term electoral gains. But it won’t build sustainable Democratic majorities in the West. Even if you elect Democrats to statewide offices or give them majorities in legislative assemblies here and there, they will fail the West just as badly as Republicans have failed it — if they have nothing new to say about the region’s new circumstances.
That means the Party has to move candidates toward meaningful, effective governing platforms, not sound-bite platforms driven by focus groups. These platforms must address the best aspirations of a substantial majority of Westerners.
What would such a governing platform look like? We might start with the word "aspiration" itself. The reason that Westerners still quote Wallace Stegner so often about the West being the "native home of hope" is simply because that phrase continues to feel fundamentally true. People still come to the West and still stay in the West in a hopeful pursuit of opportunity. The phenomenal growth in the West’s population is the result of people seeking places where they can prosper, not just economically, but in every other way as well — places where their talents can unfold, where their families can thrive, where they can feel as if their communities are getting steadily better instead of steadily worse. These are the hopes that bring people to the West and keep them here, and these are the aspirations that must be mobilized by any party seeking to govern the West in the coming decades.
The fact is that today’s West is practically bursting at the seams with creative, constructive, can-do democratic energy. All across the West, people are working with one another to make their communities more livable, more attractive, more prosperous. They get together in land trusts or to support bond issues to preserve the open space so fundamental to our Western identity. They work together on trail systems, streamside restoration projects, performing arts centers, grass banks, music festivals, farmers’ markets, skateboard parks, health clinics for the uninsured, downtown revitalization, and on and on and on.
Yet the Democratic Party has become so accustomed to thinking in terms of its standard constituency politics (minorities, labor, environmentalists, women, etc.) that this amazing Democratic bonanza almost never shows up on the Party’s radar screen. Democrats need to be there, seeking out these engaged citizens, asking them how the Democratic Party can help them do their democratic work.
Signs of this kind of adaptive Democratic resurgence are beginning to occur, especially in the cities of the West. Consider Idaho, the most Republican state in the nation. Nothing in recent memory has invigorated Idaho Democrats like last fall’s election of Democrat David Bieter, a former state legislator, as Boise’s new mayor. Bieter’s campaign had benefited from an earlier, small "d" democratic effort in which Boise civic leaders and activists had worked together to pass a bond to protect open space. While a few of those open space advocates no doubt voted for one of Bieter’s three Republican opponents in the mayor’s race, there is little doubt that the energy that passed that bond issue helped put Bieter in the mayor’s office.
Two weeks after his inauguration in January, Bieter made the short journey from City Hall back to the state capitol, to address his former colleagues in the Idaho House of Representatives. He began by joking about how good it felt to have that still overwhelmingly Republican body welcome a Democrat with a standing ovation. Then Bieter outlined what a new Idaho might look like. While he did not explicitly contrast Democratic to Republican visions, the contrast was never far beneath the surface.
Bieter spoke, for example, about the threat which worsening air pollution from urban sprawl could pose to Boise’s economic future. He spoke even more passionately about the crucial importance of quality education to the prosperity of an entrepreneurial city like Boise. He reminded his former colleagues that "our historical status as a predominantly rural state is fast fading; in the very near future, a majority of your constituents will be decidedly urban."
Bieter pulled no punches about what his and other Idaho cities needed to create the prosperity that only world-class cities can provide. "Boise must have clean air … mass transit, mixed-use development," he insisted, and went on to call for greater annexation powers and local-option taxing authority.
The chance of Dave Bieter getting any of these things from a Republican legislature are next to nonexistent, as he certainly knows. But the simple fact is that Bieter is describing precisely where Boise’s (and Idaho’s and the West’s) prosperity now lies — in making its cities work for people and for businesses. The fact is that Bieter, a Democrat, is now the mayor of the largest city in the most Republican state in the nation, and that he is there because he mobilized an essentially small "d" democratic constituency with a progressive platform that addresses the changing conditions of his city and of the West in general.
Bieter joins Democratic mayors like John Hickenlooper in Denver and Rocky Anderson in Salt Lake City in bringing new ideas, new energy, and a genuinely progressive approach to the major challenges and opportunities facing cities in the Rockies. In the coming years, watch for the success that Democratic legislators, working with Democratic mayors and council members, will have in revitalizing the economies of cities and their surrounding regions across the West, as they implement progressive policies like downtown revitalization, open space protection, trail development, light rail and effective growth management. If Democrats are to put real flesh on the bones of old slogans, it is here that they need to look to do it.
At the same time, Western Democrats must avoid the trap of the exclusively urban strategy. One conceivable strategy for building Democratic majorities in the West would be, in effect, to wait until the rural West dies out and then reapportion your way to victory. This can be a seductive strategy, but Democrats are not likely to win sustainable majorities in the West without reclaiming some of the rural populist base they have almost totally abandoned. Ken Salazar will not win a U.S. Senate seat with Colorado Front Range votes alone; he needs to reclaim Democratic ground on the Western Slope. By the same token, Scott Matheson will not win Utah’s governorship in Salt Lake City alone; he has to represent the interests of rural Utah.
To build such broad-based governing majorities, Western Democrats are going to have to come to grips with what might be called the "Curse of National Environmentalism." Western Democrats have been branded with the tag of "radical environmentalism," underscoring the fact that, for too long, they have let Republicans and non-Westerners define what the D after a candidate’s name stands for.
This challenge was graphically illustrated by a recent poll in which Montanans were asked for their reaction to endorsements of candidates by various interest groups. According to this poll, 27 percent of respondents said they would be inclined to support a candidate backed by environmental groups, while 53 percent would be less inclined to support a candidate (almost always a Democrat) with that endorsement.
Some Western Democratic candidates — particularly those in urban districts — can take advantage of these numbers. But too many Democrats are saddled with the public perception that their party stands for a brand of environmentalism that comes at the West from the outside. What is so frustrating to many Western environmentalists is that this distrust of environmental groups stands in startling contrast to the high value that Westerners continue to place on actual, on-the-ground environmental amenities and protections.
The greatest promise for Democrats for the West may lie in presenting their candidates as being genuinely for — not against — the West that so many Westerners identify with. Democrats can and should speak to the fact that the West’s inspiring landscapes are not just visually important to Westerners — they are part of who we are. Westerners are strongly committed to protecting and conserving those landscapes, but they want to do it in a democratic way — that is, a way being shaped by the people who have made the West their home.
While there are perhaps a few Western environmentalists who simply don’t care how much their cattle-free or zero-cut positions hurt Democratic candidates, most are open to working with ranchers, farmers and timber communities not only to save rural ways of life, but to enable them to flourish. Democrats should stand for putting Westerners to work repairing the damage we’ve inflicted on these landscapes over the decades. And Democrats should actively encourage those quintessentially democratic collaborations among ranchers, loggers and environmentalists which are already preserving working communities within working landscapes. This is democracy at its best, and the Democratic Party should be there asking how it can help these Western Democrats protect and preserve the places and the ways of life they value so highly.
Democrats can become the governing party in the West only by earning it, and the best way to earn it is to live up to the Democrats for the West title. Democracy is what the Democratic Party has always been about, and the West has always been democratic country. Democrats will prove that they are indeed for the West by articulating and then implementing a genuinely Western vision that Westerners can identify with, feel good about, and use to create the West they would choose.
Daniel Kemmis is the former Democratic Minority Leader and Speaker of the Montana House of Representatives, and former Mayor of Missoula. He is the author of This Sovereign Land: A New Vision for Governing the West.
The following sidebar article accompanies this feature story:
- Republicans need to claim the environmental middle ground
Democrats for the West c/o Idaho State Democratic Party, P.O. Box 445, 988 S. Longmont, Ste. 110, Boise, ID 83706, 208-336-1815