Nearly a year ago, Dick Wadhams, the chairman of the Republican Party of Colorado, stood at a window inside the Denver Center for Performing Arts. He gazed out at the sparkling nighttime panorama of downtown Denver.
“I’m just looking out — out there at the Pepsi Center — and thinking about next August,” Wadhams said, turning up a sardonic grin, “when the Democrats nominate Hillary Clinton as their candidate for president.”
Wadhams is the spinmeister once dubbed “Karl Rove 2.0” for his hardball campaign tactics. He had returned home to Colorado just months before, following the stunning Macaca moment and defeat of his candidate, then-Virginia Sen. George Allen.
For Wadhams, the coronation of Hillary, with the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains behind her, was lip-smackingly delectable.
Voters in the Rocky Mountain interior are ruggedly, stubbornly individualistic, and Wadhams was practically jigging in anticipation of the opportunity to turn the New York senator into a carpetbagging East Coast caricature in the Centennial State.
Wadhams, of course, was wrong about the Democrats’ ultimate choice of candidates. But as Barack Obama readies to deliver his nomination speech tonight at INVESCO Field, the senator from Illinois, along with Democratic Party leaders, would be foolish to ignore the issues of the Rocky Mountain West — a fact that has become crystal clear in recent months as Colorado in particular has emerged as a battleground state for the presidency. Many of the other states of the Rocky Mountain interior are also heavily in play.
It hasn’t been a coincidence that all this week, politicos from the west have had command performances, talking up the commonly shared issues of the eight-state interior west. Those issues encompass not just the environmental touchstones of energy , water, ranching, farming, open spaces and the environment, but social issues that have taken on new urgency, including immigration, affordable housing, continuing controversies over wild-lands protection, and the renewable energy boom.
As Michael Stratton, a longtime Colorado Democratic consultant, has noted in numerous settings, if Democrat John Kerry had won any one of the four most closely contested states two years ago — including Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada — he would be president today.
Instead, all eight states in the Rocky Mountain region (which also includes Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Utah) went to George W. Bush.
In 1992, Democrat Bill Clinton beat George H.W. Bush in four of those eight states. But the strong blue showing has steadily dissipated since then. In 1996, Clinton won three states; in 2000, Democrat Al Gore won only New Mexico.
Yet at the same time, Democrats have risen to rule a majority of those same states. In 2000, all eight were led by Republicans; today a majority of five — Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Montana and Wyoming — have Democratic governors.
Indeed, two years ago when Bill Ritter easily captured the Colorado governor’s office, Democrats found themselves in charge of both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office for the first time in more than 40 years. Four of its seven members of the U.S. House of Representatives are Democrats, and this year’s U.S. Senate race between Mark Udall and Bob Schaffer — to replace retiring Republican Sen. Wayne Allard, is considered one of the most hotly contested races in the country.
“One of the ways for Sen. Obama to win the West, frankly, is to understand that we have an important priority that we put on our land, our water and our wild places here in this state,” Salazar said recently in a National Public Radio (NPR) report.
Ritter, along with Salazar and Colorado’s four members of the House of Representatives, are all scheduled to speak today before their candidate, Barack Obama, takes the stage.
They, and the mountains that serve as the backdrop behind them, are important reminders that this year, the West and its issues are front and center — not just the stuff to pay lip service to while gazing down from their chartered airplanes as they fly overhead.