Who’s lining up behind the strategy? A good number of Democrats, both Western and coastal. Schaller makes the West a prominent part of his national Democratic strategy in Whistling Past Dixie. Liberal writer Paul Waldman includes it in Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn from Conservative Success, while Sager frets about it in The Elephant in the Room. Bloggers, from Markos Moulitsas at DailyKos to David Sirota at the Huffington Post, are particularly enraptured with the idea. Kari Chisholm, a political consultant in Portland, published an editorial following the 2004 election in The Oregonian newspaper blasting the candidacy of an East Coast liberal like John Kerry. Chisholm advised the national Democratic Party: “Let us look west. In the mountains and ranchlands of the West, there are Democrats who understand real America. Out here, far from the nation’s capital, there are Democrats who understand skepticism of the federal government. Out here, Americans will find Democrats comfortable in jeans and boots. In the West, we can find Democrats able to speak plainly in the language of real America.” It was a bit melodramatic, but the outpouring of affirmations inspired Chisholm to launch WesternDemocrat, a blog praising Western strategy and noting its successes and failures.
Politicians are backing the idea, too. Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean and former Chairman Terry McAuliffe have stated their support for westward expansion. The New West Project, launched with much fanfare in December 2006, has current politicians like Colorado Senator Ken Salazar and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson on board, with the goal of developing a regional lefty strategy. A similar group, Democrats for the West (headed by retired politicians like former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb and former U.S. Senator/Nevada Governor Richard Bryan), has been working toward the same goals since 2004.
The loose coalition has already had some success in pushing its agenda, the first major coup being the July 2006 announcement that Nevada would be holding an early caucus—after Iowa’s caucus, but before the New Hampshire primary—in hopes of forcing candidates to talk about Western issues. (New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah have also banded together for the Rocky Mountain Primary, to be held a few weeks later.) The second major win, of course, was Denver’s victory over longtime Democratic stronghold New York City for the Democratic National Convention.
The Purpling Of Colorado
Skeptics point out that Colorado has voted for a Democratic presidential candidate only twice in the past 50 years. The most recent victory, Bill Clinton in 1992, was a gift from Ross Perot, who wrangled votes that otherwise would have gone to George H.W. Bush. (Clinton only won 40 percent of the Colorado popular vote.) Before the 2004 election, the Republicans were entrenched on the state level—they held the governor’s mansion, both Senate seats, five of seven House seats, and controlled the Legislature. Colorado, it seemed, was redder than Howard Dean’s face on the campaign trail.
Then, two moderate Colorado Republican incumbents—Congressman Scott McInnis and Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell—decided to step down, opening the door for the Democrats. A blistering primary left Pete Coors wounded, and at a time when Colorado Republicans outnumbered Democrats by 176,000 voters, former State Attorney General Ken Salazar walloped Coors by 100,000 votes. Lower down on the ballot, Salazar’s brother John won McInnis’ old House seat in western Colorado, and the Democrats took control of both houses in the state Legislature for the first time since 1974. It seemed that Coloradans, while unwilling to vote for a Democrat nationally, were more than happy to vote for them locally.
Afterward, a stunned Joe Stengel, the former state House majority leader, told National Public Radio, “Our party has basically made the party platform ‘guns, God, and gays,’ and that wasn’t a winning message this election cycle, when we should have been talking about jobs, the economy, and health care.” Colorado voters, it seemed, had grown tired of the budget shortfalls and inflammatory, socially conservative rhetoric of the Republican-controlled Legislature. “The social-conservative wing has grown more dominant, both in terms of numbers and in interest, than some of the [traditional Republicans] have been able to tolerate,” says Denver-based political analyst Eric Sondermann. Even Marilyn Musgrave (gay-marriage foe) and Tom Tancredo (illegal-immigration crusader) saw their victory percentages drop, an unusual development for two incumbents in crimson-red districts. “[Musgrave and Tancredo] represent their viewpoints sincerely,” Sondermann adds. “But those aren’t faces that appeal to centrist suburban voters.”