Purple Mountains Strategy: Should Democrats look to the West

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2005, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.


Since November an idea has been percolating up from what has become known in the Internet age as the "netroots" of the Democratic Party: Should it adopt a Western strategy?

With the Northeast, South, Plains and West Coast states increasingly set in their electoral ways, and with the Midwest becoming a harder sell each year, the shifting demographics of the interior West, long written off as a Republican bastion, are starting to look more attractive.

The story has been flying under the radar as the major media have obsessed over a westerner named Schwarzenegger. Meanwhile, a guy name named Schweitzer has become the darling of this new movement.

Brian Schweitzer won the Montana governorship in November, the first Democrat to do that in 20 years. He's a rancher, a conservationist (the term preferred in the West over "environmentalist"), a soil scientist, a hunter with an A-minus rating from the NRA and a human whirlwind of ideas. One of those ideas was to choose a Republican as his running mate.

During the recent National Governors' Conference, Schweitzer generated headlines for publicly scoffing at President Bush's Social Security privatization plan. He has also appealed for the return of Montana National Guard troops from Iraq so they'll be available during what is predicted to be a white-knuckle fire season.

How did a pro-choice Democrat win in a state where Bush beat Kerry by 20 points?

Part of the explanation has to do with the lingering stench from the scandals of Montana's outgoing Republican governor, Judy Martz. But there was more to it: People liked Schweitzer's straight talk and Montana roots.

Schweitzer and other Western Democrats demonstrated something else in 2004: They can split tickets and win despite Republican politicization of moral issues.

As was the case in 11 states, on the ballot with Schweitzer was an anti-same-sex marriage amendment - which he supported - designed to bring his conservative opponents to the polls. It passed with 67 percent of the vote (Utah's Amendment 3 got 66 percent), but he won anyway.

Bloggers on the liberal http://www.Dailykos.com Web site, desperate for a new hero, have launched a Schweitzer bandwagon, calling him "Howard Dean on the ranch." There's even loose talk about a 2008 ticket of Schweitzer and Sen. Barack Obama, even though both are barely two months into their first terms.

Montana was not even the tip of the Western Democrat spear in November. That distinction went to Colorado, where Attorney General Ken Salazar was the only Democrat in the country to wrest away a previously Republican U.S. Senate seat, beating well-known Pete Coors.

Colorado Democrats also took away a congressional seat, and for good measure took over the state House and Senate as well.

Add to all that existing Democratic governorships in Arizona, New Mexico and even in Dick Cheney's home state of Wyoming (with the election in 2002 of Dave Freudenthal), and inquiring minds began to ask: Does the Democratic Party have Western mojo?

Well, maybe.

Of the eight states between the plains and the West coast - Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado, Montana, Utah, Wyoming and Idaho - only Idaho seems irremediably Republican. Even Utah has a few prominent Democrats. The first five can legitimately be considered swing states, having voted for the presidential candidate of each major party in at least one of the last four elections.

Those five states, none of which went for John Kerry, total 32 electoral votes, one more than New York.

Also waiting in the wings are people like Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., son of former U.S. Sen. Morris Udall. Mark Udall has announced he will challenge incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard in 2008.

If Western Democrats consolidate these gains in 2006, the national party should look closely in 2008 at candidates with a little dirt under their fingernails, at least for vice president. Out here, we prefer blue collars to blue bloods.


John Yewell is a regular contributor to these pages. He may be reached at johnyewell@ yahoo.com.