Since last month's midterm elections, Democrats have fallen all over themselves trumpeting their party's gains in the Mountain West as the harbinger of a new political landscape. Many have suggested that the GOP now amounts to little more than a regional party with scant appeal outside the South.
But a reality check is in order before writing the Republicans' obituary in the Rocky Mountains. This year's Democratic gains in the region — long considered a GOP stronghold — owed more to continuity since 2002 than the larger trends that swept the party back into power on Capitol Hill. If Democrats continue to read too much into last month's elections, they risk halting their momentum in the Rockies.
By the end of Bill Clinton's presidency, Democrats could scarcely have done worse in the eight states — Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming — comprising the Mountain West. They held no governorships, only three of 16 Senate seats, and just six of 25 House seats. But since then the party has consistently improved its standing. In fact, until last month, this all came while Republicans were winning nearly everywhere else.
In 2002, Democrats took three Mountain West governors' mansions and gained a House seat. Two years later, Republicans enjoyed another national victory but Democrats made surprising gains in the Rockies, adding one governor, one senator, and one U.S. Representative. And of course in November, this time in concert with national trends, Democrats added the Colorado governorship, a Montana senate seat, and three House seats, while narrowly missing two others. Most everyone agrees that the last three elections have cast a decidedly purple haze over the once reddest of regions.
Does this mean the Mountain West has taken an ideological left turn and rejected Republicans? Almost certainly not. The most staunchly Republican region of the country for decades, it gave President Bush his biggest margins of victory in 2004, and its electorate tends to identify itself as conservative.
But the recent Democratic gains indicate that the right kind of Democrat can be successful. The danger now is that Democrats will read too much into their national victory and see it as a mandate for their activists7; agenda. Make no mistake, traditional liberalism as offered in the policy prescriptions and candidates based on both coasts will not fly in the Rockies.
Instead, Democrats should stick with what works in the region. This means continuing to question the Beltway elites and Berkeley bloggers currently taking credit for the party's victory. It means continuing to choose moderate candidates reflecting the Mountain West's values. The party's successful candidates in recent years share traits that need to be kept in mind.
First, successful Mountain West Democrats demonstrate cultural authenticity. This is part of the appeal of Montana's outdoorsman Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Colorado's farmer-turned-congressman John Salazar. They dress in blue jeans and cowboy hats just as often as suits and ties. And, unlike John Kerry sporting fresh-off-the-rack hunter orange in 2004, it doesn't appear artificial or forced.
Second, successful Mountain West Democrats embrace a respectful middle-class populism without being condescending. Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords draws on her experience running the family business when she speaks of creating an even playing field for workers. Similarly, newly elected Montana Sen. Jon Tester advocates only a partial reinstatement of the estate tax and would carve out an exemption to allow small businesses to stay in the family. Both also make a sincere effort to take rural concerns and people of faith seriously, something not always true of national Democrats.
Third, in line with their region's historical roots, successful Rocky Mountain Democrats have an independent streak. Unlike their counterparts in the socially conservative South, Mountain West Democrats can stake out conservative positions in areas that play to the region's libertarian origins without abandoning core Democratic values. Schweitzer, for instance, flaunted his National Rifle Association "A1" rating in 2004, and had a simple gun control policy: "You control your gun and I'll control mine."
Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar's active support during Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez's confirmation infuriated Democrats, but was mostly popular back home where few criminals get coddled. Similarly, before she took the statehouse, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano's legal career was largely dedicated to defending the death penalty.
In the last four years, Democrats have enjoyed increased signs of life in a once forgotten region. And with the parties so closely divided, every seat is crucial. But Democrats shouldn't forget what successful candidates in the region learned in 2002: Be a Westerner first.
Robert Saldin is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley's Institute of Governmental Studies and a fellow at the University of Virginia's Miller Center.
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