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Pondering the Democratic map of the Intermountain West

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The Montana essayist William Kittredge once relayed the story of a man in a bar turning to a drunk who had been pestering him and saying, "Son, you'd better calm yourself, because if you don't, things are going to get real Western here for a minute."

With this year's Democratic presidential nomination fight now going all the way to the Montana primary on June 3, Rocky Mountain voters might brace themselves likewise. Things are about to get real Western around here.

In fact, with the Democratic National Convention set for Denver in August, voters may as well prepare for a shovelful of manure about Western values, Western traditions and, even more improbable, Western Democrats.

Saddle up, buckaroos and buckarettes, it's going to be a wild ride. As the growing West starts to flex its political muscles, fueled by the steroids of growth and money, the impacts may well be felt in the general election in a way that they haven't been before.

And like any predictable Western, it looks like it's going to be harder on the womenfolk. Even as Hillary Clinton slogs on in her attempt to loosen Barack Obama's tightening grip on their party's nomination, Montana might be the box canyon where her long ride ends.

Even if she does fight all the way to the August convention, she'll be going to a showdown in the streets of a Western state that, like many others in the region, voted decisively for her opponent. In the Colorado caucus last February, Obama got twice the number of votes Clinton did.

Although Clinton won in Arizona and New Mexico, Democrats in Idaho, Utah, Washington, Oregon and Wyoming all voted for Obama.

In Montana, three of that state's eight superdelegates have endorsed Obama, and none have come out publicly for Clinton. Kevin O'Brien, a spokesman for the Montana Democratic Party, said it was not lost on him that Obama had picked up surrounding states. O'Brien, of course, declined to take sides in the fight.

"What we know is that it's going to be an extremely high turnout," O'Brien said.

Already, that's been borne out in other Western states. In Oregon, where Obama crushed Clinton in that state's mail-in primary, he hosted a 75,000-person rally in Portland's Waterfront Park that dwarfed similar rallies in recent memory. In Idaho, Obama's 14,000-person rally and his subsequent caucus win is, by now, cemented in the history books and, it's worth noting, in his stump speeches nationwide.

The Idaho victory came as a relief to Idaho Democratic leaders, who made no bones about the fact that they thought Clinton would be damaging to their chances for winning other seats in the November election. That included Idaho Democratic Party chairman, Keith Roark, who told BW in March that because her husband, former President Bill Clinton, was so unpopular in Idaho, just having that name at the top of an Idaho voter's ballot could hurt other lower-ticket candidates. Clinton lost Idaho by 20 percent when he ran for re-election in 1996.

"Bill Clinton was intensely unpopular in the state of Idaho," Roark said. "The specter of another Clinton running at the top of the ticket in Idaho is something most candidates in Idaho would not look forward to." Roark, one of Idaho's five superdelegates, has since endorsed Obama.

Others in the Idaho political whirl feel that the coattails effect of either Clinton or Obama is vastly overstated. One political strategist who asked not to be named noted that the crowd at Obama's rally was filled largely with people who seemed to have come out of the political woodwork. That Obama draws lots of attention is without question. Whether new voters will look past the presidential race in their November ballots, and vote to elect Democrats to lower-ticket seats, is another.

The other question about the coattails effect is thornier, and is best raised by a Republican. Jason Lehosit, a campaign consultant for many of Idaho's successful majority Republican candidates, is puzzled by the question. To him, Obama and Clinton seem alike on many, many issues. Yet, it's Obama who is celebrated by Idaho Democrats, spurning the former president's family name.

"They seem to blame all the problems they've had for eight years in the West on him," Lehosit said. "But at the same time they still think he's one of the best presidents ever."

He too is highly dubious of the coattails effect of a presidential candidate of either ticket.

Lehosit said the presidential race "does have a factor. But, he added, "I don't think having Clinton or Obama is going to take a solidly Republican district and make it Democrat."

That argument, he said, goes both ways. An emblematic Republican candidate, whether positive or not, does not have the power to change whole districts from one party dominance to another.

"George Bush's numbers in Idaho when he ran were through the roof in Idaho," Lehosit said. "But Republicans didn't win anything in Blaine County." That county, home to Sun Valley, is famous for hosting Democratic hegemony. Indeed, the leaders of the Democratic minority leaders in the Idaho House and Senate, as well as its state party chairman, all live in Blaine County.

In Montana, O'Brien noted that Bill Clinton actually won Montana in his first race for president in 1992. And, with a Democratic governor and senator, Montana does look different in closeup.

"A lot of folks nationally said that Montana would be in play in the fall," O'Brien said. "It's crazy to think, but it's possible."

Much has been said about the cross-party appeal of Montana's Democratic Governor, Brian Schweitzer, who loves dogs, guns and doesn't talk much about gay rights. But part of the difference is in the effort put out by Schweitzer's party in Montana. In the 2006 midterm elections, the Democratic National Committee used the state as a testing ground for a new voter demographic system that helped that party push John Tester into the seat held by Republican Sen. Conrad Burns.

The new demographic profiling, known as microtargeting, helped Democrats dig into voter rolls and find advantages they didn't know they had, and helped them make targeted appeals to niche voter areas. The online political magazine Politico said that effort expanded that state's Democratic voter rolls by some 15,000 residents.

It's a system that Republicans have used to great effect in campaigns past. In 2004, the New Mexico re-election campaign for President Bush showed off a phone bank campaign system that paired niche voter segments with volunteers who had similar backgrounds. If they were going to be targeting a list of voters who had identified themselves in previous elections as, say, Vietnam veterans, then the campaign would find volunteers with a similar background to reach out to them.

And it worked. Although New Mexico was a true swing state in 2004, Bush nonetheless beat Democrat John Kerry there, despite the support and endorsement of New Mexico's popular Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson.

This year, New Mexico's caucuses highlighted a problem that Obama might have across the country. He was beaten in New Mexico by Clinton, even though he carried the large urban areas of Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

"We've got two states here," said New Mexico political consultant Joe Monahan. "[Clinton] carried rural, [Obama] carried cities."

It's a pattern that has shown in other states, where urbanites tend to glom onto Obama, while Clinton attracts rural, poorer voters. That argument has been highlighted by primary election results in the Appalachia region. A recent columnist in Newsweek opined that Obama's lack of traction with white, rural, working-class voters could spell trouble for him in key parts of the northeast and southeast parts of the country.

It could be the same in the Rockies, if results in states like New Mexico are any indicator.

"These election results showed he has a lot of work to do," Monahan said.

As the West grows, however, it is the cities that are doing the growing. As places like Boise and others grow in influence and population in the West, both parties hope that it transforms the electorate as well. Democrats, who typically do better in urban areas in the West, are staking their hopes on the growth of cities.

"This is a place of population growth. We're electing lots of Democrats out here," said Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, in a video interview for the party. Napolitano is a pragmatic pol often seen on the list of possible vice-presidential candidates for Obama.

"The Democrats who are being elected in the West share a number of things: they're very pragmatic, they talk to a large number of people, they're interested in results and they're interested in good government," she said.

They're also apparently more interested in Obama than Clinton, if recent results are any reflection. The question now is whether that is a reflection of old-fashioned Western sexism or something else.

In Montana, Obama is clearly still looking for that something else. In recent rallies in Billings, his stump speech focused less on Western issues and more on his usual platform items of ending the war in Iraq, helping boost the economy and other standard, national-fare issues.

Only in an interview with the Billings Gazette did he, when prompted, zero in on clean coal technology (he's all for it) and gun control (he won't take your guns).

"Sportsmen and lawful gun owners have nothing to fear from an Obama administration," he said. "If you're a lawful gun owner here in Montana, you can be sure that an Obama administration will respect those rights."

At the Billings rally, he addressed Indian issues when prompted by a member of the audience, calling America's relationship with Native American tribes "a tragic history."

"My principle in dealing with Indian country is, No. 1, to understand that these are government-to-government relations," Obama said. "We have to respect our treaty obligations." He also pledged to work on the "terrible" health care on Indian reservations, and on alternative energy proposals that might be located on Indian reservations.

Something worked there; while in Montana Obama was "adopted" into the Crow Indian Nation. But finding that secret sauce recipe that delivers rural Western voters, who may be more of the hook and bullet persuasion, but doesn't alienate urban Outside Magazine-style Westerners, is proving to be a challenge for both parties.

"The base of many of these Western states has changed a lot," said Rick Johnson, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League, an environmental group that is known for working both sides of the political aisle in its efforts. Johnson is more of the Schweitzer mindset, believing that successful candidates are those who talk about issues germane to the lives of a region's people, not just to traditional party-line talking points.

"You have to be reflective of issues that actually matter," Johnson said. In a growing, expanding West, he said, candidates who can address the questions of growth and change will be able to attract voters from all political stripes.

Which may be precisely what the Democratic National Committee may have been shooting for when they chose Denver over New York City as the host for the August party convention. Emboldened by their gains in the region, the party of Obama and Clinton is now turning to the West, for a bit.

"The recent Democratic gains in the West exemplify the principle that when we show up and ask for people's votes and talk about what we stand for, we can win in any part of the country," said DNC chairman Howard Dean when he announced the convention's location.

The challenge, then, is in the asking.

"If they want to look at the West as the new South, they'd better start talking to it," Johnson said.

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