Democrats’ new drive in red states

Colorado, Virginia, New Mexico, and other states are now in play.

Mary Knox Merrill/Staff
Primary colors: Mississippi delegates Rep. Bennie Thompson (right) and state Sen. David Jordan on the floor of the Democratic convention Tuesday. Democrats hope to win over once reliably red states.

Denver – Four years ago, the Democratic Party in Mississippi was struggling to keep its doors open. Today, party leaders here at the Democratic National Convention in Denver are seriously considering turning the onetime red state blue come November.

With an infusion of enthusiasm and cash from national party during the past four years – the state now has four full-time staff paid by the DNC – Mississippi Democrats won a special election in May 2008, taking a congressional seat that had been reliably Republican for more than a generation. And they believe that’s just for starters.

“We also stand a very good chance this time around to elect a US Senator,” says Rep. Bennie Thompson (D) of Mississippi. “And we may even carry this state for Obama.”

That’s a long shot, but four years ago, the very suggestion would have been dismissed as ridiculous. The Democrats had largely written off the South and much of the West. But today, many of those formerly red states such as Colorado, New Mexico, Virginia, and North Dakota are competitive. And Democrats are working overtime to turn them blue.

The 50-state strategy

They’ve been aided, in part, by the growing national dissatisfaction with eight years of Republican rule and by demographic shifts that have significantly increased Hispanic voters out west and younger white Democrats in the South.

But many diehard Democrats also credit the party’s 2004 decision to ignore conventional wisdom and engage in a 50-state strategy. If nothing else, it revived a moribund party structure in red states that is now poised to take advantage of the national desire for change.
“When you see Democrats winning special elections in Mississippi and Louisiana that went for Bush at a 60 percent clip [four years ago], it’s clear that’s the 50-state strategy paying off,” says Tom Jensen, communications director of Public Policy Polling in Raleigh, N.C. “States like North Dakota and Montana are now legitimately up for grabs.”

In Denver, many of these once ignored red-state Dems are excited, and not just about Barack Obama. Until 2004, delegates from places like Alaska, Mississippi, and Colorado hadn’t seen a Democratic Party chairman in their home state for decades. Suddenly, they began getting regular visits from the new chairman, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. Then, to their shock, he also started sending over money and paid staff members.

Julia Hicks, a delegate from Colorado, beaming in red, white, and blue, says the change in her home state in the past few years has been “phenomenal,” and not just because it snagged the convention.

“We don’t count anyone out,” says Ms. Hicks, a retired professor of black history. “Voter registration here has shot off the scale. We’ve registered Republicans and turned them blue, we’ve registered independents and turned them blue, so yeah, we can turn this state blue.”

Demographic shifts in the West are helping. And in its own way, so has the Republican Party. In 2005, Republicans made a national issue out of keeping Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman in a coma for more than 15 years, on life support – against the wishes of her husband.

“That may have pushed this fundamentalist, right-wing religious part of the Republican message just one step too far for the more libertarian kind of conservatives in the Western part of the country,” says Guy Molyneux, partner at Hart Research, a Democratic polling firm in Washington, D.C.

Far from Washington

Obama’s post-partisan message also resonates here. “Voters in the West are probably less attached to the two political parties and feel a little further from Washington [and] the political fights that go on here,” says Mr. Molyneux from his office in  Washington.

The effort to put pragmatism before partisanship is also resonating down South. Virginia delegate and state senator John Miller traces his red state turning purple back to 2001, when Mark Warner was elected governor there. The then-governor reached out to independents and Republicans, successfully cut the deficit, and improved governance so much that the state government won awards.

But there are many Republicans who believe Democrats are overestimating their chances this November. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney insists that when Western voters look beyond the fanfare in Denver, they’ll stay reliably red.

“The people in the intermountain West, as they focus on the issues they care about, will recognize that Senator McCain is right for America and Barack Obama, as well-meaning as he is, is wrong for America,” Mr. Romney said at a Monitor breakfast here Tuesday.

At the very least, the Democrats’ 50-state strategy has brought the party message to places it was rarely heard before. And this election’s outcome could determine whether this is the beginning of another big realignment of the country’s political map, like the one in the 1960s and ’70s that turned the once reliably Democratic south into a Republican stronghold.

“I don’t think it will be quite as dramatic as that, but you are seeing a realignment underway in the Western states and in the upper South,” says Mr. Jensen.

And if many Democrats have their druthers, those changes will be just the beginning. Says Mississippi state Senator David Jordon, “I’ve come up against incredible odds my whole life and I don’t believe in writing anything off ... we’re not giving up anything here, we’re going to do the best we can with what we have.”

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