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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Western Swing

I promised last week to offer some observations comparing and contrasting the situation facing Democrats in the red-state South and West. But first it’s useful to take a closer look at two western states where down-ballot Democrats did especially well on November 2, despite a losing performance by the presidential ticket.
I did a short post about Colorado a few days ago, noting that Democrats won a Senate seat, and a House seat, and captured both chambers of the state legislature even though Bush won by eight points. Most Dems in Washington know about the successful Senate candidate, attorney general Ken Salazar, because, after all, he was the only Democrat to win in the nine Senate contests considered toss-ups in October. And it’s Salazar’s brother, John, who picked up that House seat in a relatively conservative area of the state. Both Salazars ran well ahead of the Kerry-Edwards ticket in the rural communities that have been trending so sharply Republican all over the country, and both found ways to neutralize cultural issues.
But the state legislative gains made in Colorado by Democrats cannot be attributed to the Salazar name and appeal. Anyone interested in the future of Democrats in the West should check out this article by Colorado DLC chief Jim Gibson that covers the full story.
Meanwhile, up the Rockies in Montana, Democrats pulled off a similar triumph despite an even heavier Bush landslide. There’s been some national buzz about winning gubernatorial candidate Brian Schweitzer. But as in Colorado, Democratic gains went far down the ballot, as Democrats won all but one statewide race, and while taking back control of one chamber of the legislature while achieving a tie in the other.
The Montana swing was partly made possible by the fact that the statewide election cycle coincided with the presidential cycle, which gave Democrats the opportunity to gain more attention for state-level issues than would otherwise be the case, at a time when long-dominant Montana Republicans were screwing up on a host of issues. But as the Schweitzer article I linked to above points out, Democrats there did a very shrewd thing: identifying GOP public lands management in Helena and Washington with policies that offend not only environmental activists, but also the state’s massive numbers of hunters and anglers. This is an approach that might work in other parts of the West, where public lands management is an issue of continuing and overriding importance to an extent hard to comprehend back East.
As in Colorado, Democrats in Montana aggressively and effectively neutralized GOP cultural wedge issues by linking their policy agendas to a clear values message, and by appealing directly to culturally traditionalist voters. Long-time DLC activists have probably heard Montana’s State Auditor, John Morrison, speak on this subject at one event or another. At the DLC training event in Colorado I attended last week, I heard Morrison make another valuable observation about the intersection of values and policy in the West. Noting that there is relatively little fear in Montana about the possibility of a terrorist attack, he said Montanans’ strong support for the war on terror is based on the feeling that “America should kick butt where there are butts that need kicking.” Given the fondness of Westerners for very large motor vehicles, that’s a line that would probably fit on a bumper sticker througout most of the Rocky Mountain region.

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