Howard Dean, former Democratic presidential candidate and now the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, traveled to Montana a few days ago to speak to the Western Democratic Caucus. He found Western Democrats heartened by their recent electoral gains, especially in Colorado and Montana, and he asked them to bring that Western energy to bear in helping the national party shape its message.
We’re way ahead of him: Western Democrats have already been calling for a coordinated Western primary or caucus.
The Democratic National Committee has created a commission to see if changes in the primary calendar can help Democrats choose presidential candidates with greater nationwide appeal. At a meeting in Chicago in May, the commission heard three proposals to accomplish that, all involving the regional clustering of primaries.
The most compelling of these proposals came from a group called Democrats for the West. They backed a plan that had been endorsed last year by the bipartisan Western Governors’ Association, calling for a simultaneous primary or caucus in the eight Mountain West states of Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
Utah’s Republican Gov. Michael Leavitt had pushed this idea hard in 2000. The concept was given new life in 2004, when New Mexico’s Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson persuaded the Western governors’ group to endorse it.
Richardson himself could certainly benefit from a Western primary if he makes a bid — as expected — for the presidency in 2008. But as Richardson has clearly understood from the outset, a regional primary is too big and important an idea to be narrowly focused around the interest of any one individual or party. Because moving primaries around on the calendar usually requires legislative action, a Western primary can only be created by a bipartisan effort across the region.
The Western Governors Association has provided that kind of bipartisan backing in offering staff support to the regional primary effort. The same kind of bipartisanship was evident in the Montana Legislature this last winter, when a Democrat-sponsored bill that would enable Montana to participate in a Western primary passed the House with the enthusiastic endorsement of the Republican Secretary of State. The bill was killed in the state Senate, but it is almost certain to be back in some form before the 2008 primary season. Watch for other Western states to begin exploring similar moves.
Partisan motivations will naturally be at work in all of this. Western Democrats clearly believe that a Western primary could help generate some electoral votes in the region. As Colorado Rep. Mark Udall, D, wrote to the Democratic National Committee’s commission, "In presidential elections, we are often viewed by party leaders, national political pundits and other national "experts" as a "Republican Red Sea" impossible to cross, like a great desert more to be endured than embraced."
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., set the record straight, reminding the commission that "Democrats can win in Western states as evidenced by the recent ballot victories in Montana, Colorado and Nevada." Jerry Brady, an announced Democratic candidate for governor of Idaho told the commission, "Our request for an early, region-wide primary and caucus season is … based on the conviction that the time is right to capitalize on rapid gains already made."
But if Western Democrats are eager for a regional primary, many Western Republicans are also tired of having their states ignored by presidential candidates. Many Republicans also think their party would benefit from the grassroots invigoration a regional primary could generate. While either party may reasonably hope for partisan gain from a regional primary, the real winner will be the Mountain West itself.
A regional primary would motivate all of us who live here to identify the most important regional issues facing us, along with the most promising responses to those issues. Do we want to focus the candidates’ attention on water or energy issues, on public lands or transportation or tribal issues?
Answers to these questions would force candidates for president to stake out clear and convincing positions on the issues we in the region care about. A candidate who wins a substantial number of Western primaries because of his or her stand, say, on energy issues, will have little choice but to follow through on that position with Western-friendly policies once elected.
That’s the kind of clout a maturing West needs. The first step toward gaining that clout is for the Mountain West to work together across state and party lines to initiate a regional caucus or primary.
Daniel Kemmis is the former Democratic speaker of the Montana House of Representatives. He lives in Missoula and is the author of This Sovereign Land: A New Vision for Governing the West.
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