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Democrats like the view from the Rocky Mountains

NEWS ANALYSIS

Obama and the party gained political ground in the region in November's election. They hope Cabinet nominees Napolitano and Salazar can help that influence grow.

January 20, 2009|Mark Z. Barabak

For generations, seekers have come West to find fortune and reinvent themselves. Now, it's the Democrats' turn.

With an eye on 2012 and beyond, the party and its leader, Barack Obama, are working to fasten their grip on the White House and expand Democratic support by adding the Rocky Mountain region to the party's base, alongside California, Oregon and Washington.

An important step is the Cabinet appointments of Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano and Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar and, especially, the style of politics they bring to the Obama administration.

Napolitano was chosen to lead the Homeland Security Department, giving her direct oversight of border issues. Salazar was appointed Interior secretary, making him, effectively, the landlord in chief for a region with vast stretches of federally controlled land.

Both are practical, problem-solving centrists stamped from the mold of successful Western Democrats: tough on crime, friendly toward business and wary of Washington. (A third Western governor fashioned of the same stuff, New Mexico's Bill Richardson, was picked as Commerce secretary but stepped aside because of a federal corruption investigation.)

"The West has been a test tube for Democrats," said Jim Messina, an Obama strategist who came up through Montana politics and will bring firsthand knowledge of the region to the White House as deputy chief of staff. "That's where the Democratic comeback really started."

As recently as 2000, there were no Democratic governors in the Rocky Mountain West. Today there are five, including Montana's Brian Schweitzer, the new head of the Democratic Governors Assn. In the same period, Western Democrats went from three to seven seats in the U.S. Senate -- including one held by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada -- and from five to 17 U.S. House seats.

Democrats like Schweitzer and Salazar won, in part, by distancing themselves from the national party and its liberal image. But in 2008 they were key Obama supporters, luring him to campaign in their states and assuring constituents about the youthful outsider.

Obama campaigned harder in the Rocky Mountain region than any Democrat in memory, and his reward was three states that Republicans won in 2004: Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada. He nearly won Montana -- which Democrats lost four years ago by 20 percentage points -- and probably would have carried Arizona if its U.S. senator, John McCain, had not been the GOP nominee.

But Obama did more than show up. The Democrat explicitly appealed to Western sensibilities, pledging a hands-off stance on guns, touting regional technologies like wind and solar power, and emphasizing the importance of local decision-making on federal land issues. He sent an important early signal by opposing a rewrite of the nation's 1872 Mining Law, a matter of great practical and symbolic importance.

Advocates say the law is antiquated and allows companies to destroy wilderness and pay a pittance in royalties. Defenders of the mining industry view the legislation as an attack on rural economies and the Western lifestyle, and a prime example of outside meddling.

"To Westerners, the land is a place where we live and play," said Daniel Kemmis, a regional policy analyst and the former mayor of Missoula, Mont. "But it's also the place we earn our livelihood, so the relationship is a complex one."

Of Obama's Cabinet picks, the most significant may be Salazar. As Interior secretary, the Coloradan will oversee issues such as water rights, land use, energy development and others touching directly on the daily lives -- and livelihoods -- of millions of Westerners.

The post traditionally goes to someone from the region, but Obama shunned a favorite of liberals and many Democratic interest groups, Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), choosing instead a middle-of-the-roader who once declared, "I'm not a puppet for either party."

Oil and mining companies were pleased, environmentalists and others less so.

"The West has moved from an extractive, hang-'em-high cowboy culture to one that is economically diverse, demographically rainbow and politically moderate-to-left," said Pat Williams, a former Montana congressman and fellow at the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Missoula. "I just don't know that the president-elect's Cabinet choices reflect the new West."

But many say Salazar and Napolitano are just the sort of Democrats who can help the party solidify its gains, precisely because neither is viewed as a typical partisan.

"There's a kind of liberalism associated with Democrats nationally," said New Mexico pollster Brian Sanderoff. "Those aren't the kind of Democrats who succeed in the Rocky Mountain region."

A look at the last Democratic administration may be instructive.

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