We refer readers to the New York Times Sunday Magazine for the second Sunday in a row, this time because freelancer Mark Sundeen takes a perceptive look at the Mountain West as a lynchpin for Democratic victories, both soon and later. Sundeen’s article “The Big-Sky Dem,” is largely a profile of charismatic Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer. But he shares some interesting insights about the rising importance of the Mountain West in politics:
The Interior West has long been seen by Democrats on election night as simply a disheartening wall of big red blocks. Idaho, Utah and Wyoming haven’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and Montana, Colorado and Arizona have all gone Republican in 9 of the last 10 presidential elections. But below the surface, the map of the West is slowly becoming a little less red and a little more blue. In 2000, Democrats had not a single governor in the interior West states; now they have four. Democrats have gradually been picking up House seats, too. In 1996, they won 4 of 24 House seats in the region. But they’ve managed to pick up 1 or 2 seats in each of the last four elections and have now clawed their way up to 8 of 28. In 2004, the party’s only bright spot besides Montana was Colorado, where Ken Salazar won a Republican Senate seat; his brother, John, picked up a House seat; and the Democrats took control of both state chambers.
“The pan-Western states — in an arc from Ohio, west to Montana and south to Arizona — are where the low-hanging and most-ripe-for-the-plucking electoral fruit for Democrats is to be found,” writes Tom Schaller in “Whistling Past Dixie.” The midterm election outlook seems to support Schaller’s thesis. None of the region’s eight Democratic representatives — the so-called Coyote Caucus — are considered at serious risk in 2006. But 10 of the 20 Republican-held seats are included in the list of 56 potential Democratic pickups compiled by Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. The Democratic Senate candidate in Arizona is putting up a surprising fight against the Republican incumbent, and the race for Nevada governor, an open seat vacated by a Republican, is listed by the Cook Report, an influential Washington political newsletter, as a toss-up.
Not all Democratic strategists agree with the “write-off-the-south” strategy. Sundeen quotes Dave ‘Mudcat’ Saunders on the subject:
As fertile as the West may seem for Democrats, some in the party remain skeptical that it matters much. “The problem with the Democrats is that they can’t count,” Dave (Mudcat) Saunders, a Democratic campaign strategist, told me. Saunders’s book, “Foxes in the Henhouse,” argues that the party would be wrong to focus on the West and ignore the South. He notes that 30 percent of the country’s electoral votes come from the South, and that by 2025 that percentage will be 40. “Georgia and Florida have as many votes as all the West put together,” Saunders points out.
It seems likely that any strategy or national candidates that can win the Mountain West could also find support in the SW and even some support in the South, and perhaps vice-versa. What seems certain, however, is a clear trend favoring Democrats in the Mountain and Southwestern states. Meanwhile, Brian Schweitzer continues to build what he calls a “blue bridge from Alberta to Mexico” an unbroken chain of Democratic governors from Montana to Arizona, and that mission could be accomplished on November 7.