Dems Ponder How the West Might Be Won

The political director for the Democratic National Committee showed up in Colorado in December. He came, said Colorado Democratic chairwoman Pat Waak, to measure progress in his party’s so-called “Western strategy.”That’s the notion that for the first time in decades, the Democratic presidential nominee has a chance to win electoral votes in four critical Western states — Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona.

Doing so would allow the Democrats more wiggle room to still win the White House even if they lose a large Midwestern state like Ohio, which cost Democratic candidate John Kerry the presidency in 2004.

No party officials want to talk publicly about the prospect of losing Ohio again. But everyone speaks enthusiastically of chances for Democratic success in the West.

DNC political director Dave Boundy came to Colorado “to talk with the governor’s office and the [U.S.] senate campaign [of Democratic Rep. Mark Udall],” Waak said. Boundy “even met with independent funders,” meaning he talked to Al Yates, the contact person for Democratic billionaire Pat Stryker, who has puts millions into state and congressional races in recent years as Democrats took control of the Colorado legislature, the governor’s office, a U.S. Senate seat and the majority of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Waak said what Boundy heard validated what she has been telling national party officials for months: Colorado is truly in play in the 2008 presidential election and deserves increased financial support from the DNC in the coming months.

A DNC spokesman wouldn’t talk about a “Western strategy.”

“We have a 50-state strategy,” Luis Miranda said, echoing the mantra of Howard Dean. Still, Miranda acknowledged that the “West has tremendous growth potential.” He pointed to a voter registration edge in Nevada, which now has 5,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans.

In New Mexico, there were 178,089 more registered Democrats than Republicans as of September 2007. Registered Republicans still outnumber registered Democrats by six-figure margins in Colorado and Arizona, but Democrats are registering new members faster than Republicans in Colorado, according to a study by Colorado Public Radio, and the percentage of independents in both Colorado and Arizona is growing.

Democrats also “increased diversity in the early nominating process” by scheduling the Nevada caucus in January, Miranda explained. “We placed the caucus that early to show that we want the nominee to address issues of the West.”

Hillary Clinton, a New York senator, won the Nevada caucuses doing just that, said former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb.

“Voters look primarily at what a candidate’s program is,” said Webb, one of the Clinton campaign’s national co-chairs. “People wanted to know why the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste disposal site was such a big deal. Well, people in Nevada didn’t want to be the nation’s dump for nuclear waste. (Clinton) voted against it all along. She won as much on that issue as any.”

Whether Clinton or Illinois Sen. Barack Obama can carry the Western states in a general election is another question altogether. Actually, it is several questions, according to Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of The Cook Political Report, which has been analyzing presidential races for more than two decades.

“Is Arizona really in play if John McCain is the Republican nominee?” Duffy asked. “If Obama is the Democratic nominee, does he address the concerns of Hispanics that showed in the Nevada caucus results [where Latinos voted overwhelmingly for Clinton]? Clinton’s numbers are not good in Colorado. If she is the nominee, do her numbers get better or worse?”

Larry Sabato, the oft-quoted director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, thinks Clinton struggles to attract independent voters in ways that Obama does not.

“The image of Obama is much more of a unifier,” Sabato said. “He’s even getting a share of swing indies.”

Those independent voters migrate back and forth between parties. They turn Ohio into a presidential kingmaker every four years. They are the very people who now determine the outcome of elections in the West.

The Democratic National Committee “understands that in the West, it’s about who the candidate is and whether he or she connects with the independent nature of Western voters,” said Waak.

But Waak also said Democrats can get more out of their base. In Colorado in 2004, Democrat Ken Salazar won a U.S. Senate seat carrying 27 of 64 counties, while George W. Bush carried the state in the presidential election. In 2006, Democrat Bill Ritter became governor carrying 38 of 64 counties. If the trend continues, a presidential Democrat stands a good chance in 2008, Waak insisted.

Traditional Democratic strongholds such as Denver County and Pueblo have underperformed in recent elections, she said. To address that, the party has had field coordinators out for two years.

“We need to strengthen (the base),” Waak emphasized. Money from the DNC will go to “put more staff on after the primaries. We need to identify people at the neighborhood level.”

Meanwhile, the Democratic presidential candidate may need to identify a Western running mate in order for there to be a “Western strategy.”

Someone like New Mexico governor and former presidential candidate Bill Richardson or Ken Salazar.

“Obama has the harder job here (of choosing a running mate),” Duffy said. The Illinois senator needs someone who has foreign policy experience and has been a governor, she says. That describes Richardson. And yet, Duffy admitted, “You’re talking to someone who doesn’t think Bill Richardson will be on the ticket.”

As for Vice President Salazar, Waak said, “I’ve heard that mostly from pundits, not from Ken himself or from presidential candidates.”

Webb said a Western vice presidential candidate would be helpful, but not absolutely necessary for the Democrats.

“I know all three [Democratic] candidates [Clinton, Obama and John Edwards] speak in glowing terms about Sen. Salazar and Gov. Ritter,” Webb said. The candidates “are open to learning more about the Western ideas.”

That is because Western states have led the way in leadership changes from Republican to Democrat, Webb explained. “I think it’s very clear the American public is looking for a new direction.”

Republicans have become extreme ideologues on what Webb calls their “big three issues” — outlawing abortion, restricting gay rights and supporting the Iraq war.

The resulting alienation of mainstream independents and some moderate Republicans has shifted the political balance. Whether it has shifted enough for a Democratic presidential candidate to win Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona remains to be seen.

“The interesting thing for Democrats,” said The Cook Report’s Duffy, “is that either of their candidates (a woman or an African-American) will be historic nominees. That brings assets and liabilities.”

However it turns out, the West will get money from the national party, Webb predicted, because for the first time in a long time the West is “winnable.”

Meanwhile, Sabato thinks winning Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona so you don’t have to win Ohio may be a non sequitur.

“If the Democrats win three of those four Western states,” he said, “they’re going to win Ohio anyway.”