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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

How the West Can Be Won

President Obama’s 2008 victories in VA, NC and FL have taught the political commentariat to be a tad wary of overgeneralizing about regional electoral predispositions. And yet there are strategic considerations that come with every region. Toward that end, Sasha Abramsky’s “The Democratic Plan to Recapture the West ” in The Nation provides some invaluable insights for the 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
Reporting from the Project New West Summit, a gathering of mountain west progressives, Abramsky recounts the litany of economic distress currently afflicting several western states and puts it into recent historical context:

In 2008, the economic malaise helped push much of this region into Barack Obama’s camp in the presidential election, and contributed to the Democratic victories in both houses of Congress. Increasingly urban–the combined population of Phoenix, Denver, Las Vegas, Albuquerque and Salt Lake City has grown by 38 percent since 2000, according to research carried out by University of Nevada in Las Vegas sociologists–and increasingly an ethnic pastiche, the interior West was no longer a reliably conservative voting bloc.
But in 2010, despite the urbanizing trends, that same malaise played to the Republicans’ advantage. With fewer people voting, and with those who did vote disproportionately allied with the GOP, Democrats in the region lost many Congressional seats and statehouses.
Although political leaders tout the region’s moderation and pragmatism–its resistance to extremes, its ability to negotiate workable budgets even in the face of partisan sparring–the Tea Party organized early and fiercely in the West. The anti-tax rebellions that have morphed into an anti-government monster also originated largely in the West, as have recent swells of anti-immigrant sentiment. (The Tea Party did, however, receive a bloody nose in Nevada, Colorado and Washington, where extreme GOP candidates fell to Democratic incumbents in 2010 Senate races.)

Despite the rise of the tea party and the accompanying government-bashing irrationality, pragmatic, forward-looking policies have emerged in the western states, as Abramsky notes:

Yet amid the nastiness, many of the country’s most innovative environmental and water management measures are coming out of the West. Colorado, for example, recently passed legislation converting all state-run coal power plants to natural gas. Many of the region’s states have, via the initiative process, raised their minimum wages in recent years. Changing demographics are giving more power to cities and to progressive Democrats. And despite all the hardship there’s still a can-do optimism that’s fairly pervasive in the region. The historian Wallace Stegner once noted that the West is “the native home of hope,” and while that emotion has taken quite a beating in recent years, it hasn’t entirely vanished.

Conceding that “For many residents in the region, the battle for 2012 is about basic economic survival,” while noting the region’s embrace of innovative policies at the local level, Abramsky quotes Project New West President Jill Hanauer: “Now more than ever, the nation should look west for new ideas. We vote for the person, not the party; the policy position and leadership, not the ideology.”
Political leaders attending the Summit echoed the need for the western states to continue to embrace innovative development policies:

Repeatedly, summit participants–such as Senators Harry Reid, Tom and Mark Udall, and Mike Bennet, as well as influential House members like Colorado’s Diana DeGette–emphasized the need to generate clean energy and biotech jobs, to educate more people up to and beyond the college level, and to secure federal investment in large-scale infrastructure projects. Such investment, they argued, was the only way to bring impoverished and technologically underserved rural areas into a more prosperous era, and to generate large-scale clean-energy projects capable of competing with fossil fuels and the nuclear industry.
Such a concerted effort to kick-start the region’s economy was, they also argued, the surest way to bring Western independent voters back to the Democratic Party in large enough numbers to secure Obama’s re-election. Since independents will likely choose America’s next president, this is hardly an insignificant task.

As for the west’s big-picture political potential,

“The West is the focus of the presidential election,” Colorado Senator Mike Bennet told The Nation, and “Colorado is a critically important state.” If Obama wins Colorado’s nine Electoral College votes, he can afford to lose Ohio; if he wins Colorado plus New Mexico, Nevada, Montana and Arizona–admittedly a long shot–the president could, in theory, be re-elected even without the large battleground states of Ohio and Florida. Winning the West is also crucial to securing control of the Senate: if Democrats hope to retain their Senate majority in 2012, they will have to hold seats in New Mexico, Montana and elsewhere.
Beyond the area’s pre-eminent role in 2012 strategic thinking, its importance is increasing with each election cycle. According to Census figures, the West is experiencing rapid population growth. Nowhere is this more the case than in Nevada, which has the fastest rate of growth in the country. For the first 119 years of the state’s existence it had one Congressman; now the state has four. As a result, the party that puts down the deepest roots in the region will reap dividends for decades to come.
Progressive Western strategists grouped around the Project New West leadership, as well as many political leaders, think they see a way to do this: emphasize a combination of environmentally sensitive and pro-growth policies; talk about education; push public investments in roads, bridges and water pipelines; and reach out to the “minority” voters who increasingly constitute majorities.
These strategists also think that the GOP line in the sand on barring tax hikes for millionaires isn’t playing well here. Polling shows the public is deeply dissatisfied with the preservation of tax benefits for the wealthiest few at the expense of basic social insurance and safety net programs for the many…

Abramsky notes that the impressive western turnouts linked to Occupy Wall St. that were also recently cited in Nate Silver’s Five Thirty Eight post result from the concern for economic fairness shared by many westerners — in particular the free ride in taxation that the Republicans are demanding for millionaires. “The West could be America’s firewall against GOP extremism,” Abramsky concludes.

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