On Obama's coattails

 

Westerners inspired by Barack Obama have a right to feel giddy these days: The history-making wave that swept the Democrat into the presidency Nov. 4 had a lot of impact around the region. It lifted a surprising number of other Democrats into offices that had long been held by Republicans, many of whom were seen as obstacles to change. The winning Democrats promise to be better on protecting the environment, more supportive of clean energy and more even-handed on immigration and other Western issues.

Obama took six of the 11 Western states, spreading the Democrats' apparent majority inland from the West Coast to include Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico. He did it with a record-breaking $1 billion national campaign war chest, including hundreds of millions spent by unions on his behalf -- a huge financial advantage over his Republican opponent, John McCain -- and by running the most determined Democratic presidential campaign ever in the West.

In Colorado, the Obama campaign had 51 field offices -- many in conservative rural areas -- and the spark provided by the Democratic National Convention in Denver. Obama himself made calls to potential Colorado voters from a field office in a Denver suburb. Just a few days before the election, he drew more than 100,000 people -- said to be the biggest political crowd in Colorado history -- to a Denver speech.

In Nevada, where Democrats scheduled a primary in early February to spark enthusiasm, Obama made 20 visits in all, including three to the mining community of Elko, where he spoke in the town park and accepted a shirt bearing the name of the high-school football team (the Elko Indians). Nevada State Sen. Dina Titus, a political science professor, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that she won a U.S. House seat thanks in part to Obama's ground game, "the best she'd seen in 20 years of politics."

In New Mexico, the Obama campaign opened nearly 40 field offices. In out-of-the-way Montana -- where Obama came within a few percentage points of a rare Democratic win -- he opened 19 and made five campaign visits, and his campaign dispatched Los Angeles Lakers basketball star Derek Fisher to speaking engagements on the Blackfeet Reservation.

Obama received more votes than the last Democratic candidate for president, John Kerry, in 404 of the 413 counties in the West, indicating that a new order may be taking command of the region's politics. That impression was reinforced on the congressional level: Western Democrats took three Senate seats that had been Republican (in Colorado, New Mexico and Oregon). They took at least six House seats from Western Republicans, while losing no Democratic seats in either chamber of Congress.

Democrats also gained more seats on public utilities commissions in Montana and Arizona, with candidates who vow to put more emphasis on development of wind and solar energy.

But Obama's hopeful message, his call for fundamental change and unification, will meet resistance in the West from here on out, especially on the level of local politics.