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Magazine / POLITICS

Dems Lose Footing In The Mountain West

Amid a fierce backlash, western Democrats risk being forced to give back some of their recent gains.

September 19, 2009

DENVER -- When the elected officials attending a summit of Mountain state Democrats gathered onstage for a group photo last month, they had to crowd elbow to elbow to make room for everyone. If Project New West, the Democratic research and polling firm that organized the gathering, had taken a similar class picture a few years ago, there would have been a lot more room to spread out.

For Democrats, the Mountain West has been one of this decade's towering success stories. After the 2000 election, Republicans dominated the region's eight states at every level. But since 2004, Democrats have steadily gained ground in both state and federal elections, especially in the rapidly growing southwestern states of Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., wasn't exaggerating at the summit when he declared, "Western Democrats have enjoyed stunning successes over the last three elections."

Now, however, amid a fierce conservative backlash against President Obama's agenda, Democrats face an escalating challenge to defend those advances in 2010. All signs show the momentum shifting toward Republicans in a region that has traditionally resisted the sort of assertive federal initiatives that Obama has offered on issues from the economic stimulus to health care. "Here in the West, there is a really strong concern about overly intrusive government policies," said Nicole McCleskey, a New Mexico-based Republican pollster. "I think there's a sense that maybe we overcorrected a little in the last election, we maybe went too far to that [Democratic] side, and now we are seeing the bounce-back."

 

Over the long term, the demographic and economic trends reshaping the region could still bolster Democrats if Republicans don't adapt to them more successfully than they have so far. But the unease in these states about Obama's first months, unease that echoes his party's difficulties here during Bill Clinton's presidency, raises questions about Democrats' ability to maintain their support in the Mountain West while pursuing a national agenda that inflames the region's historic suspicion of Washington.

Although an economic recovery could strengthen the Democratic position for 2010, it would be unlikely to erase the ideological concerns about Obama's direction that have mobilized conservatives and unsettled independents across the region. "After the huge surge and taking almost every conceivable seat [in this region], Democrats are now playing defense in an environment that is much less supportive for them than two or four years ago," says Floyd Ciruli, an independent Denver-based pollster.

Remaking The Region

From the 1970s through the early 1990s, the Mountain states produced some of the nation's most iconoclastic and innovative Democratic politicians, from Sens. Gary Hart and Tim Wirth of Colorado to Gov. Bruce Babbitt of Arizona. Although each followed a slightly different electoral formula, they all generally offered voters a mix of staunch environmentalism; libertarian instincts on social issues (which translated into resistance to restrictions on either abortion or gun ownership); fiscal discipline; and openness to government reforms that challenged traditional liberal orthodoxy.

As late as 1993, Democrats remained very competitive in the region, holding five of its eight governorships, six of its 16 Senate seats, and 11 of its 24 House seats (although only two each of its state House and Senate chambers). But through the 1990s, the Mountain states moved right, as Republicans successfully appealed to the region's traditional resistance to taxes and government spending. The nationwide 1994 Republican landslide triggered by Clinton's chaotic first two years in the White House buried Democrats in these states.

Mountain state Democrats reached their low ebb in 2000, when George W. Bush carried all of the region's states except New Mexico and won a cumulative 58 percent of its popular vote. After that election, Republicans held all eight governorships, 13 of the 16 Senate seats, and three-fourths of the region's House seats -- as well as three-fourths of its state House and Senate chambers.

The GOP's grip began to loosen in 2002, when Democrats captured the governorships of Arizona, New Mexico, and Wyoming. In 2004, when Bush was sweeping all eight states, Democrats won a Senate seat and a House seat in Colorado (by brothers Ken and John Salazar, respectively), took the Montana governorship, and seized control of both legislative chambers in Colorado and Montana.

The Democratic march across the region accelerated as Bush's popularity plummeted during his second term. In 2006, Democrats elected centrist Bill Ritter as Colorado governor, flipped a Senate seat in Montana, and picked up two House seats in Arizona and one in Colorado. In 2008, they added two more Senate seats (with the election of cousins Mark Udall of Colorado and Tom Udall of New Mexico), six more House seats, and control of two more state legislative chambers. That same year, Obama comfortably carried Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico, came close in Montana, and won a combined 48.5 percent of the region's votes, far more than Al Gore in 2000 or John Kerry in 2004.

In just eight years, the Democrats had remade the region's political topography. After the 2008 election, Democrats controlled 17 of its 28 U.S. House seats; five of its eight governorships (although the parties reverted to a 4-4 split after Obama appointed Arizona's Janet Napolitano as Homeland Security secretary and she was succeeded by Republican Secretary of State Jan Brewer); seven of its 16 Senate seats; and exactly half of its state legislative chambers. Across each of the region's southwestern states, Democrats virtually matched or raced past Republicans on the voter-registration rolls.

So successfully did Democrats chisel away at Republican dominance that many of their party's strategists now see the Mountain states as the long-term replacement for the Southern Electoral College votes and congressional seats that Democrats have lost since the 1960s. The Democrats' gains on this flinty terrain may well prove hard to hold, however.

"It is pretty blue right now, but it's not at all locked down. And it is very hard work to keep it purple," says Jim Carpenter, Colorado Gov. Ritter's chief of staff. Carpenter was speaking only of Colorado but could easily have been describing the Democrats' situation from Arizona to Montana.

Caught Off Guard

Common threads run through the Democrats' advances during this decade in the Mountain West, especially across the four southwestern states. One is the changing demography. Andrew Myers, a Democratic pollster who has worked for Project New West, says that "upscale college-educated voters and Hispanics," two groups that are growing across the region, played pivotal roles.

Hispanics are steadily rising as a percentage of the population in the four southwestern states that have swung toward the Denocrats. And in each of them, their share of the vote jumped between 2004 and 2008. Hispanic voters' affinity for the Democratic Party increased during Bush's second term when congressional Republicans balked at creating a new path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

Extending a dynamic that began on the coasts during the 1990s, well-educated, socially moderate white-collar workers in the Mountain West also moved toward the Democrats. These voters increased across the region as urbanization redrew, with concrete and asphalt, a landscape famous for its unfenced open spaces. In a study last year, Robert Lang, research director of the Brookings Institution's new Mountain West Center at the University of Nevada (Las Vegas), found that five vast urban expanses in the five states in the southern half of the Mountain West are now home to more than 80 percent of those states' combined population.

These "megapolitan" areas include and radiate from Albuquerque, Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City, and they have become fertile ground for Democrats. Crowded with independent voters, the vast suburban Denver counties of Arapahoe and Jefferson, for instance, reliably voted Republican from the 1990s through early in this decade. But they backed Ken Salazar in 2004 and gave Ritter landslide margins in 2006; last year, Mark Udall carried the two counties by more than twice Salazar's margins, and Obama became the first Democratic presidential nominee since Lyndon Johnson to win them. During those years, Democrats also posted gains in the other four megalopolises (including Phoenix and Salt Lake City, which were long conservative strongholds).

Many analysts believe that the explosive growth of these metro areas rewrote the region's political agenda in a manner that caught Republicans off guard. The GOP had prospered so much by emphasizing opposition to taxes and government spending that it failed to respond to the demands for government services -- for schools, roads, public transportation, protection of open spaces -- spurred by unrelenting population increases and heightening density. "The Republican leaders from the 1990s were not addressing those issues," says Project New West President Jill Hanauer. That dynamic was captured most powerfully in the 2006 Colorado governor's race, when Ritter won in part because -- unlike his Republican rival -- he supported loosening a constraint on spending written into the state constitution in the 1990s.

Ritter, like other Mountain state Democrats, also profited from being identified with the renewable-energy industry. And in a region with an enduring strain of frontier tolerance, Democrats appeared to benefit as well from Bush's tying the GOP to a Southern-accented, evangelical-inflected social conservatism.

Today, though, with Bush gone and Obama in the White House, warning lights are blinking for Democrats across the Mountain states. Five of the eight states ranked among the 10 where Obama's job-approval ratings were lowest when Gallup combined the results of its daily tracking surveys through June; at that point, the president's approval rating was lower in Colorado than in any other state he carried last year. More-recent surveys have also recorded poor approval ratings for Ritter and Sen. Michael Bennet, the Denver school superintendent whom Ritter appointed earlier this year to serve the remainder of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's Senate term. Ritter is up for re-election next year; Bennet is expected to run for a full term. Meanwhile, in Nevada, Senate Majority Leader Reid, who's also up for re-election in 2010, posted startlingly anemic numbers against his potential GOP challengers in a Las Vegas Review-Journal poll last month.

The economy is part of the problem for Democrats. Unemployment in all of the Mountain states, except Nevada, is running below the national average. But the region's rapid growth earlier in the decade left it unusually exposed to the collapse in housing prices. Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, and Utah all rank among the 10 states with the highest proportion of foreclosures, according to RealtyTrac, a firm that tracks housing trends.

A Noisy Reawakening

The most immediate threat for Democrats, though, may be less economic than ideological. Mountain state Democrats benefited earlier in this decade from linking activist government to such kitchen-table concerns as schools and traffic, but Obama's agenda on everything from health care to climate change has ignited more ideologically charged debates about Washington's role and reach. And that has revived a grassroots anti-Washington constituency that was largely dormant during the Democratic advance.

That reawakening was noisily evident during a series of crowded town halls that Bennet held in small communities west of Denver one day in late August. Although many supporters of Obama's health care ideas also turned out, most of the people in the audiences that Bennet faced in Frisco and Bristol opposed them -- with a ferocity that supporters did not come close to matching. "This is nothing more than a grab of control over our lives, and we don't want it," one woman screamed at the senator in Bristol. Strategists in both parties think that the intensity audible last month -- "the guns of August" -- could foreshadow a surge of conservative turnout in the 2010 election.

Just as ominous for Democrats are signs that the independent voters who flocked to the party in 2006 and 2008 may be growing uneasy with the cost and sweep of Obama's plans. "I don't think there is any doubt that those unaffiliated voters who swung so heavily to Obama in 2008 ... are very concerned about the substance of his presidency," says Dick Wadhams, chairman of Colorado's Republican Party. Ciruli, the independent Denver pollster concurs, saying, "Those unaffiliated voters are now in a very ambivalent position and are trending at least somewhat against the president."

Republican strategists see these role-of-government issues as key to their prospects across the Mountain states next year, especially in federal races. "That is going to be huge in the next election," McCleskey predicts. None of the three Republican senators (John McCain of Arizona, Mike Crapo of Idaho, and Robert Bennett of Utah) on next year's ballot appear headed for serious general election contests, although Bennett is battling a potentially credible primary challenge on his right from Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.

But two Democratic senators could face rougher rides. In Colorado, Michael Bennet this week was squeezed on two fronts. On Tuesday, former Lt. Gov Jane Norton, the most prominent Republican yet mentioned as a possible challenger, formally entered the race. The next day, Andrew Romanoff, a skillful former speaker of the Colorado House, announced that he will challenge Bennet in the Democratic primary. In Nevada, Reid is stockpiling cash, and his stature as majority leader provides him a measure of protection. But Reid's leadership role also binds him to the national Democratic agenda generating such turbulence across the region.

In the House, Republicans are eyeing an extended list of Democratic targets, led by Idaho's Walt Minnick, Colorado's Betsy Markey, and New Mexico's Harry Teague, all freshmen in GOP-leaning districts. "With one-party dominance in Washington, it will be difficult for any Democratic incumbent to portray him- or herself as a moderate ... particularly in the West, where fiscal matters traditionally rank high [for voters]," says Ken Spain, communications director of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

The region's marquee state-level race in 2010 will be Colorado Gov. Ritter's re-election bid. Although Ritter can point to progress on his signature issues of transportation, alternative energy, and education, he has had a rocky term marked by conflict not only with traditional antagonists (the oil industry) but also with allies (organized labor, for example). Further hampered by a state budget shortfall, the governor has already drawn two formidable GOP challengers: state Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, and former U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, whom Penry once served as a congressional aide.

Weakened GOP governors will provide Democrats opportunities in Arizona and Nevada, although their prospects in the latter are complicated by the decision of Reid's son, Rory Reid, who is Clark County Commission chairman, to seek the Democratic nomination. The younger Reid is the favorite in that race, but some local analysts believe that he and his father will be hurt if they appear on the same general election ballot next year. "Rory has complicated this process for Harry and not helped himself," said Eric Herzik, a University of Nevada (Reno) political scientist. The GOP's gubernatorial prospects in Nevada improved on Tuesday when former federal Judge Brian Sandoval announced that he is challenging scandal-plagued incumbent Jim Gibbons in the party's primary. Gibbons might simply opt not to seek another term.

An economic recovery would undoubtedly provide some balm for Mountain state Democrats. But many seem aware that an upturn alone might be insufficient to preserve their gains in the region, given the ideological edge to the backlash. Asked what Congress could do to most strengthen his position heading into the 2010 election, Bennet unhesitatingly offered two ideas: pass a health care reform bill "that's paid for" and then demonstrate "a persuasive commitment, as we emerge from this recession, to pay down our deficit and debt."

Demography Versus Ideology

This confluence of state and national currents has many Mountain state Democrats bracing for a difficult election year. Yet party strategists remain optimistic that the region's expanding Hispanic and white-collar populations will strengthen their party's position over time if Republicans don't reach out more effectively beyond their rural-leaning base of conservative whites. "There's going to be a speed bump," said Myers, the Democratic pollster, "but the Republican coalition is a diminishing coalition in this region. Long-term, demographically, they've got problems."

Considerable evidence supports that argument, especially in presidential election years, when key groups now favoring Democrats (Hispanics and young people, for instance) tend to vote in larger numbers. However, the resistance that the Democratic health care plans provoked this summer in the Mountain West could point to an offsetting structural problem: It's not clear that Democrats can hold the region's swing voters and avoid an uprising from conservatives while attempting to implement their party's national priorities. Democrats, after all, also lost ground across these states during Clinton's presidency, and their gains since 2002 came as they were resisting Bush's ideas -- not spotlighting their own. "The Democratic image here was moderate when compared against an incredibly conservative image of George Bush," Ciruli says. "But are Democrats [seen as] moderates against the image of an incredibly aggressive Democratic agenda?"

The 2010 contests, given all the peculiarities of midterm elections, are not likely to definitively answer the question of whether the demographic forces boosting Democrats in these states outweigh their ideological challenges. Probably not until the 2012 presidential election will it be clear whether the Democrats in the Mountain West have merely hit a speed bump -- or something more.

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