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Democrats Push for a New Frontier

The West is the party's land of opportunity to reverse its failures and stake a political claim.

April 18, 2005|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

DENVER — In a year of crushing disappointment, Colorado was a bright spot for the Democrats in 2004. Here on the front porch of the Rocky Mountains, the party gained a House seat, elected a U.S. senator and won control of the state Legislature for the first time in 44 years.

Now, more than a century after newspaperman Horace Greeley passed on his famous advice -- "Go West, young man" -- Democrats are paying new heed to those words.

The South is increasingly Republican. Democratic states of the East and Midwest are steadily losing electoral clout to the Sun Belt. So a number of Democrats are urging their party to emulate generations of pioneers who sought their fortune in the rugged landscape across the Great Divide.

If the party is to win back the White House, they say, Democrats must work to reverse their fortunes in New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado and Arizona, and build on other recent gains they achieved in the West.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday April 23, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 63 words Type of Material: Correction
Democrats' strategies -- An article in Monday's Section A about Democrats running for office in the West said Nevada and New Mexico had two of the four closest presidential contests in November. The article should have said that among states won by President Bush, Nevada and New Mexico gave him two of his four narrowest margins over Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts.

"The math simply isn't there if we keep winning the same 10 states," said Chris Gates, who headed the Colorado Democratic Party during the 2004 campaign. "We need to get past ... thinking if you don't live on either coast you're a Republican."

To some extent, the focus is driven by Democrats' desperation. As Charles Cook, a Washington campaign analyst, put it: "You can't keep getting hosed in the South and the Rockies and expect to win."

But Democrats have reason for hope. In the Pacific West, California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii continue to lean their way in presidential politics. In addition to the party's strong 2004 showing in the Colorado Legislature, Democrats elected a governor in Montana and took control of the House and Senate in Helena, the first time they won either chamber in a decade.

The party also now has governors in Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming. Overall, Democrats gained 31 legislative seats across the West in 2004, but the party continued to lose ground in the South.

At the presidential level, the West accounted for six of the 10 states where Democratic nominee John F. Kerry topped Al Gore's 2000 performance.

New Mexico and Nevada -- which President Bush carried by less than 1 percentage point and 2.6 percentage points, respectively -- had two of the four tightest contests in November.

"Given the closeness of the presidential vote in New Mexico, Nevada and even Colorado" -- where Kerry won 47% of the vote -- "we don't need to make great inroads," said Paul Harstad, a Democratic strategist in Boulder who has done extensive polling throughout the West. "We need to make incremental inroads."

But that may not be so easy. For all their success, Democrats are burdened in Colorado and elsewhere in the region by the image of the national party, which many Westerners continue to associate with higher taxes, a weak defense and hostility toward a culture that associates guns and sport utility vehicles with recreation, not destruction.

When Montanans think of Democratic outsiders, they figure, "First thing they're gonna do is break your door down and take your gun," said Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat whose campaign spots, promoting his "A" rating from the National Rifle Assn., showed him in hunting gear and toting a rifle through the forest.

Schweitzer did not just distance himself from the national party last year, he even outflanked his Republican opponent by running to his right on certain issues -- the same strategy pursued by Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado, another of the Democrats' 2004 success stories. (For Schweitzer the main issue was access to public lands for hunting and fishing. For Salazar, the state attorney general, it was the death penalty.)

"Perceptions of the Democrats were not just created in the last four years. They were created over the last 40 years," said Matthew Dowd, a senior strategist for Bush's reelection campaign. For that reason, he said, though Democrats may be increasingly competitive in parts of the West, the party faces an "uphill battle" in trying to realign the region.

But Democrats believe they have two trends working in their favor: increased suburbanization and the surging Latino population.

The new residents of the rapidly growing communities along Colorado's scenic Front Range, or telecommuting from Montana's Big Sky Country, are no longer the sort who fled the conservatism of Orange County and other areas in the early 1990s.

Increasingly, experts say, they are people coming to the region for the quality of life, bringing with them a greater tolerance on social issues and a less allergic reaction to government spending.

Floyd Ciruli, a longtime Colorado pollster, pointed to the overwhelming passage in November of a measure to boost sales taxes in the Denver metropolitan area to pay for a massive expansion of public transit.

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