Democrats rise again in the Rockies

 

Election night was a smashing success for Democrats in the Mountain West.  But there's a big difference between the national results and those that came out of the Rockies: Up until now, the Intermountain West was considered home turf for the Republican party. 

This election, of course, wasn't the first time Democrats have had success in the region's eight states.  Over the last six years, Democrats have captured several governors' mansions and a smattering of congressional seats.  But what had been a slow and tentative trickle of Democratic momentum turned into a dam-breaking surge last week.

President-elect Barack Obama carried three mountain states -- Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico -- on his way to a decisive victory.  Arizona might well have ended up his column, too, if it hadn’t been home to John McCain. Democrats also made major congressional gains. Going into the election, the GOP controlled 17 of the region's U.S. House seats, as compared to the Democrats' 11.  Those numbers will flip in January when the new Congress is sworn in, thanks to pickups in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada and two in New Mexico. In the Senate, what was a 12-5 Republican edge has now narrowed to a 9-7 advantage after Democrats took over GOP seats in Colorado and New Mexico.

 A bit of historical context highlights the magnitude of these changes.  For the last 40 years, Republicans have dominated the region. Before last week, no Democratic presidential candidate had won a majority victory in a Rocky Mountain state since Lyndon Johnson's 1964 landslide, in which he carried 44 states and 61 percent of the national popular vote. 

In the 10 elections from 1968 through 2004, the Republican candidate swept the Mountain West seven times, and during that stretch the Democratic candidate carried a mountain state on only eight occasions. Four of those occurred in 1992, when Bill Clinton won Colorado, Montana, Nevada and New Mexico.  In 1996, Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico ended up in his column.  But all of these victories were pluralities, meaning that Clinton failed to surpass the 50 percent threshold, and they were heavily dependent on Ross Perot drawing votes from the GOP candidates.  In 2000, Al Gore won another plurality victory in New Mexico, surpassing George W. Bush by fewer than 400 popular votes. And that was it for Democrats in the Rockies over the last four decades.

Barack Obama's victory was different.  He coasted to easy wins in Colorado, taking 53 percent of the popular vote, 55 percent in Nevada, and 57 percent in New Mexico.

Remarkably, his margin of victory in these mountain states exceeded his national margin of victory.

The congressional wins also highlight the extent to which Democrats are competitive in the region.  Perhaps the biggest surprise was Walt Minnick's election in Idaho's 1st District.  One of the most conservative districts in the country, it had previously sent right-wing lightening rods Steve Symms, Larry Craig, Helen Chenoweth, Butch Otter and Bill Sali to Washington.  That Minnick could be competitive in this district indicates the extent to which Mountain West voters are now willing to give Democratic candidates serious consideration.

Much of the credit for that has to go not to Obama, but to the region's Democratic governors.  By pursuing moderate, economically responsible policies, Western governors such as Arizona's Janet Napolitano, Colorado's Bill Ritter, Montana's Brian Schweitzer and New Mexico's Bill Richardson have helped recast the party's image, partially erasing the stereotypical portrayal of Democrats as irresponsible, tax-and-spend liberals eager for more federal programs.  Their successes helped lay the groundwork for last week's Democratic victories in the region.

The question now is whether Democrats can establish a permanent foothold in the Rockies.  The region might well scurry back to the Republican camp once its voters get a taste of Democratic dominance in Washington.  Winning an election is one thing; governing is another. Now that Democrats control Congress and the White House, Obama's post-partisan rhetoric could fall victim to the kind of liberal policy agenda that inspired the Sagebrush Rebellion in the 1970s and helped Republicans lock down the Mountain West.

If Democrats want to consolidate and build on their recent gains in the Rockies, they'll have to avoid imposing coastal orthodoxy on the region's voters.  Instead, they'll have to remember the secret to their success: finding quality candidates like Minnick, Schweitzer and Napolitano, who are comfortable with and reflect their constituents.

Robert Saldin is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Montana in Missoula.

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