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A Blue Tinge in the West

April 25, 2005

Just as Americans have come to accept the idea of a gulf between red and blue states, a grass-roots (or tumbleweed) shift has begun to blur the colors in the Rockies and the Southwest.

The trend is evolutionary, not revolutionary. The GOP remains entrenched in Idaho and Utah. Most state legislatures are Republican and the presidential vote was solid crimson. But statehouse shifts of the last several years are signals of a changing Western political identity and independence. The social conservatism that keeps the South red may not be enough for the West. Old-fashioned individual liberty and Democratic populism are getting a hearing. The national Democratic Party seems interested, but unsure how to get to the new rodeo.

Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico and Arizona have elected Democratic governors, as have the swing states of Oregon and Washington. Democrats picked up a House seat and a Senate seat in Colorado and won both houses of the Legislature. Democrats took the Montana Legislature to go along with their new chief executive.

Even in the presidential contest, Democrat John Kerry had strong showings in New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado. If they had gone to Kerry instead of George W. Bush, Kerry would have won, as noted in a Times report this month by Mark Z. Barabak.

The West, once ignored for its paltry populations, has bulked up as the blue states of the Northeast and Midwest lose residents. Latinos with potential Democratic loyalties are moving in. So are retirees from Democratic states, especially California.

The political factors are many. Nevada is at war with the federal government over the proposed nuclear repository at Yucca Mountain. Environmentalism, once sneered at in the spacious, resource-rich West, is gaining a foothold as tourism and adventure sports gain economic importance. Winning candidates have brought fiscal conservatism, pragmatism and workable ideas to the job, generally leaving ideological baggage behind.

Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, a native farm boy and former U.S. attorney who took office in 2003, persuaded an initially balky Republican Legislature to spend some of this year's $1-billion budget surplus from mineral and energy industry tax revenues instead of socking it all away. The state boosted spending on highways, a wildlife habitat trust fund, bonuses for teachers and community college scholarships.

Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico has won tax cuts, incentives for new jobs and rapport with business interests. Richardson, whose mother is Mexican, appointed two Republicans to his Cabinet along with Indians and Latinos. Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano is strong enough that top Republicans are declining to run against her next year.

These Democrats all appeal more to the broad middle of the political spectrum than the far right or far left.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the new Democratic Party chairman, has been advising Democrats nationwide to cool their rhetoric, if not their beliefs, on hot-button social issues such as abortion.

But what's needed is less a retreat than a recasting of privacy issues (Terri Schiavo's ordeal, for instance) that will resonate with the hands-off individualism of the mountains and deserts.

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