Republicans threatened in Western states

Republicans threatened in Western states

A top Democratic Party group is considering having presidential caucuses in one or more Western states between Iowa’s caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Western governors also hope to hold a regional primary in early February 2008. And Denver has emerged as a top contender to host the next Democratic National Convention.

A coincidence? Hardly.

In a country polarized politically between red Republican states and blue Democratic ones, purple states in the once solidly GOP Mountain West could hold the balance in the next few national elections.

Four of the region’s eight states have Democratic governors, and two more could join them in November. Five of the 15 seats Democrats need to win the U.S. House are in the region, and two GOP-held Senate seats are in jeopardy.

All eight states voted in 2004 for President Bush. But Democratic rival John Kerry polled at least 44 percent in four of them – New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado and Arizona – and five backed Bill Clinton at least once in the 1990s.

Ryan Sager, a New York Post columnist and author of a new book on internal GOP tensions, cites three factors for the party’s increasingly shaky hold on the region in the July/August edition of The Atlantic Monthly:

- Rising Hispanic population. The four states in which Kerry got at least 44 percent are from 17 percent to 42 percent Hispanic. GOP resistance to immigration reform could help Democrats even more.

- An influx of Californians. More than 400,000 Arizonans and 360,000 Nevadans were born in California, as were lesser numbers in the other states, which “are slowly taking on a left coast character as well,” Sager writes.

- The growing domination of the Republican Party by Southern religious conservatives who favor a more activist federal government than the more libertarian West. Evangelicals, he notes, constitute from 29 percent to 33 percent of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, compared with 51 percent in Texas and 46 percent in Virginia.

Robert Kuttner cited similar differences last year in the liberal American Prospect, quoting Montana-born Democratic pollster Celinda Lake as noting the West is far more libertarian and pro-abortion rights than the South.

Split threatened

The trend threatens to split two factions that have co-existed uneasily since Ronald Reagan united them and held them together despite some grousing by religious conservatives that he had not kept his promises.

The unity weakened under the first President George Bush, whose awkward efforts to appease religious conservatives drove away some moderates and contributed to his 1992 defeat. But enmity toward Clinton and the ability of the second President Bush to identify with religious conservatives strengthened their party role.

Still, their increasing efforts to flex their muscles have created tensions in a number of states that have jeopardized the GOP.

In solidly Republican Kansas, a neighbor and political soul mate of the Mountain West, GOP infighting helped elect Democrat Kathleen Sebelius as governor in 2002. This year, she picked a Republican as her running mate in what looms as a successful re-election race.

In Colorado, GOP infighting is jeopardizing the governorship.

Much of what happens in 2008 may depend on whether Republicans produce a ticket that keeps these two factions together and Democrats find someone with more Western appeal than the stiff and aloof Kerry.

The early GOP front-runner, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, is a Westerner who seems positioned to provide that unity, though some religious conservatives distrust him.

Potential contender

Democrats, too, have a potentially major regional contender: New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Westerner and a Hispanic. He has shown interest in a White House bid, though it is unclear whether he can raise the necessary funds.

Meanwhile, fiction has predated Sager’s projected history. On the now defunct NBC television series “The West Wing,” a Hispanic Texas Democrat named Matt Santos won the presidency by carrying Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada.

Democrats will undoubtedly target Florida, Missouri and Ohio again in 2008. But they should remember that Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada have more electoral votes than Florida and nearly as many as Ohio and Missouri.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him at the Dallas Morning News Washington bureau, 1325 G Street NW, Suite 250, Washington, D.C. 20005, or via e-mail at: cleubsdorfdallasnews.com.