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Dems' strides in West may be a serious shift - or just a blip

Published November 19, 2006 12:38 am

The key may be how they handle regional issues in a 'new frontier'
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

WASHINGTON - Jon Tester was raised in Big Sandy, a town of about 700 people in northern Montana, a burly organic farmer who used to butcher livestock.

Now, the flat-topped Tester is senator-elect from the Big Sky State and is being hailed as the type of Democrat who has helped carve away at Republican dominance of the West and who could help make the region a key political battleground in 2008 and beyond.

"There are some inroads being made," says Tester. "This election was obviously a statement about the direction of the country and how people are unhappy about it. But if you combine this election with the previous one, I think there is beginning to be a shift. I think folks are looking for better leadership for the Intermountain West."

After the Republican landslide of 1994, Democrats spent six years in a Western political wilderness. But since 2000, Democrats regionwide have hacked into the Republican majorities.

A Tribune analysis of U.S. House results shows that Democrats have narrowed a 20-point GOP edge in 2000 to a slim 48 percent to 47 percent deficit in 2006. In three states - Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico - Democrats have turned their red states blue, winning a majority in the House races.

In 1996, the eight states in the Rocky Mountain West sent 18 Republicans and four Democrats to the House. When Congress convenes next year, there will be 11 Democrats and 15 Republicans representing the Western districts.

Democrats now control five of the eight governorships and, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, picked up seats in five of the eight legislatures in 2006.

"All the way from Canada to Mexico you're seeing blue," says New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

But it may be too early to tell if it's a movement or a moment that will fade. The 2006 election had a slew of national factors - the Iraq war, congressional corruption and an unpopular president - that boosted Democratic challengers such as Tester and likely cost some incumbents their seats.

Dave Hansen, a former political director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee and a Western field organizer for the Republican National Committee for the past three decades, says 2006 was an anomaly.

"It was an anti-administration election around the country, so I don't buy into the idea that the West is moving Democratic," says Hansen, who ran Sen. Orrin Hatch's 2006 campaign. He says if Democrats govern well, they could sustain their gains. "If they don't, I think the Republicans will have a pretty good election in 2008 and then their story will be there's a trend back to the Republicans."

Some states have proved harder for the Democrats to court, most notably Utah, where Republicans continue to overwhelm, despite a comfortable re-election win by Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson.

"If there's a Democratic stream in the West, it's flowing around Utah," says Kelly Patterson, director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University.

The sheer weight of Republican dominance in the West makes it difficult for the Democratic Party to grow roots and for its candidates to be competitive, he says.

Wayne Holland, chairman of the Utah Democratic Party, said he thinks Utah will come around, but it might take some time. Typically, he says, Utah is about two to three elections behind the trends. But there is hope, he says, that the party can follow the paths cut by Democrats in other states.

To be sure, these Westerners are not your Edward Kennedy Democrats.

Kirk Jowers, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah, tells a story about when Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer came to the university for a weeklong seminar. Jowers met the governor at the airport and apologized for not having arranged a highway patrol escort typical for visiting leaders.

Not to worry, Schweitzer told him, patting his hip. "I've got all the protection I need right here."

This breed of Western Democrat embraces gun rights and frequently are anti-abortion. They are open to balanced oil and gas production and are preaching fiscal restraint.

"The West is the new frontier for the Democratic Party," said Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar. "The Democrats that we have had run for office . . . around the West are pragmatists. They believe in getting to solutions, and they believe that partisanship ought to be put in the back seat to the needs of the people."

A look at the political map makes it clear why Democrats hope to make gains in the West.

The South and Midwest are consistently Republican Country. The Northeast and West coasts are predictable Democratic bastions. It leaves just a handful of true swing states, several of them concentrated along the Rockies.

Furthermore, traditional Democratic stomping grounds, the Rust Belt and Northeast, have been losing House seats, while the West remains one of the fastest-growing regions in the country, with the potential to pick up a handful of House seats after the 2010 census.

"You now have five Western states that are in critical play for 2008," says Denver-based political activist Mike Stratton, referring to Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and, now, Montana. A Democratic presidential candidate who can win two or three of those states will win the White House, he says.

"Now in 2008 what has to happen is the Democratic candidates have to speak to Western issues," said Stratton.

The growing Latino vote also could be pivotal, and both parties are vying for it. In 2004, Republicans made serious inroads, but much of that progress was lost in 2006.

Democrats are already cozying up to the West.

Denver and New York are the frontrunners to host the party's 2008 national convention, with a recent survey by The Denver Post showing that state party chairmen overwhelmingly favor Denver.

And the party, for the first time, will stage an early caucus in Nevada, wedged between the early presidential tests in Iowa and New Hampshire.

But, as important as the politics, Democrats will have to prove they can govern, says Richardson, and insist that Western issues get national consideration.

"The move is to blue," he says, "and we have to capitalize on it."

gehrke@sltrib.com