The Mountain West, once GOP turf, is now competitive

The interior West has added new independent and Latino voters who are up for grabs.

steve c. wilson/ap
The trail: Chelsea Clinton campaigned for her mother, Hillary Rodham Clinton, at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Utah holds primaries Feb. 5.

They tend to ham it up: bolo ties and cowboy boots, a gun and a fishing poll never far from hand.

Democrats who've won statewide offices in mountain states often look the part of old West clichés. But they owe their victories to a new reality: The interior West is urban and professional, more focused now on environmental protection and renewable energy development, and swelling with new independent and Latino voters who are up for grabs.

Respect for the "purple mountain majesties" started with Nevada's early caucuses and will culminate in Denver, host of the Democratic National Convention. So far, the region has received more presidential candidate visits than California, with candidates stopping in Colorado ahead of Tuesday's big-state primary blowout.

"Both parties will be battling for [the region]," says Floyd Ciruli, an independent pollster in Colorado. "Democrats have already made lots of inroads [in a historically Republican stronghold], and the trend line is this [area] will be very competitive ... with the national factors being accentuated by these local changes: Hispanic voters, independent voters swinging Democratic, and a new image for the Democratic Party led by moderate statewide elected officials."

For years, this corridor – stretching from Montana and Idaho south to Arizona and New Mexico – has been neglected in national races. Seen in terms of electoral votes, delegates, or congressional seats, the eight mountain states look like molehills. More important, Republicans seemed to have a lock on the region.

Things have changed. Five of the eight governors are Democrats. Republicans retain a 17-to-11 edge on congressional seats, but that's in jeopardy this year, with nine GOP and only two Democratic seats in play, according to Congressional Quarterly. Of the six Senate elections in the region, four are for open seats – all of them formerly held by Republicans.

Successful Democrats have appealed to the region's newcomers, who tend to be independents concerned with growth issues, environmental stewardship, and better schools. "To be successful out here they have been less strongly identified with the party," says Mr. Ciruli.

That's the case with Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat elected in 2004. He favors the death penalty and brags about cutting taxes, and he does it with the folksy swagger of a farmer-turned-governor who carries a gun and takes his dog to work. "I'm a businessman, scientist, and rancher who ran for governor," says Governor Schweitzer in a phone interview.

He describes Montana newcomers as people in their late 40s, upper middle-class or above, who are either business owners or "at such a stage in their career where they can effectively phone it in."

This in-migration has moved the interior West's economy beyond ranching and mining, says Larry Swanson, an economist at the University of Montana in Missoula. "The Rocky Mountain West is very urban in character. It's not growing because of oil and gas and mining; it's growing because its cities are growing."

As a result, the urban vote has become decisive. However, the cities are not Democratic bastions, but tend to be nonpartisan and pragmatic, according to Dr. Swanson's research.

Staples of the old rural politics here no longer work, he says. Education has a higher value now. Conservation is a consensus position, because the environment is key to the new economy. There's enthusiasm around tapping the region's renewable energy potential – something presidential candidates emphasized while campaigning in Nevada.

The Southwest is even more in play because Latino immigrants – who lean Democratic – are now substantial voting populations.

The influx of young, itinerant people has contributed to the doubling of independents across the West in the past six years, says Ciruli. The West is not undergoing a political realignment, Ciruli argues, but reflects independents favoring Democrats for now. Others suggest that the long-term growth in the Hispanic population could tip the region for the Democrats for years to come.

Several presidential candidates can claim some appeal in the West. Sen. John McCain (R) and Sen. Barack Obama (D) both attract independents, while Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) has strong support from Latinos. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) has demonstrated Mormons will organize and vote for him.

A key to success in the region would be to simply show up, experts say. "Go there. [John] Kerry didn't go there. [Al] Gore spent hardly any time there," says Tom Schaller, author of "Whistling Past Dixie," a book arguing that Democrats should look for national gains in the West. "The smartest thing Howard Dean ever did was pick Denver as the convention [site]."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.