Washington July/August 2006

Purple Mountains

Could the interior West—long seen as an archetypal red region—be turning blue? The fate of the Republican Party may hinge on the answer
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After the 2004 election, plenty of people noted that a shift of 60,000-odd votes in Ohio would have handed the Electoral College to John Kerry. But there was another place—less remarked upon—where a shift of similar magnitude would have done the same trick: the Southwest. Fewer than 70,000 votes among Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico, with their collective nineteen electoral votes, could have swung the election just as surely as Ohio’s 60,000. And with George W. Bush winning by margins of 5 percentage points, 3 points, and 1 point, respectively, these were swing states by any definition of the term.

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Those who don’t follow politics closely could be forgiven for feeling surprised. In recent years, the political geography of the West has seemed clear and simple: the Pacific Coast states are blue, and the interior West is red. But while the Pacific Coast is likely to stay solidly blue for the foreseeable future, the partisan tilt of the eight states of the interior West—Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming—is changing. These states will be worth watching in the November elections. And the region’s political hue in 2008 will speak not only to the question of who wins the White House but also to the durability and future character of the Republican coalition.

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Signs of a possible Democratic resurgence in the West have been slowly accumulating since 2000. In 2004, Democrats took over both chambers of the Colorado legislature and sent the Democrat Ken Salazar to the U.S. Senate to replace a retiring Republican, Ben Nighthorse Campbell; Salazar’s brother John also won the open U.S. House seat in Colorado’s Third District, which was vacated by a Republican. (This turned out to be one of only two open Republican seats in the House picked up by Democrats that year.)

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That same year, Montana elected its first Democratic governor in two decades: Brian Schweitzer, a rancher who flaunted his love of guns. Democrats won four out of five statewide offices in that election and also took control of Montana’s house and senate. Counting Schweitzer, Democrats now hold the governorships of four of the eight states that make up the interior West; in 2000, they held none. New Mexico’s Bill Richardson and Wyoming’s Dave Freudenthal each replaced two-term Republican governors in 2002, the same year that Janet Napolitano became the first elected Democratic governor of Arizona since the 1980s. While it’s possible to read too much into victories at the state level, something is happening throughout the West.

What is it? In part, the region’s changing demography is changing its political sensibility. It’s no secret that the West is becoming more Hispanic, and Hispanics tend to cast their ballots for Democrats. Republicans made a lot of noise after the 2004 election about their inroads with this population, and initial exit polls showed Bush taking 44 percent of the Hispanic vote nationwide. But later, more careful reviews deflated that figure to 40 percent or less, with much of Bush’s support clustered in Texas and Florida. What’s more, whatever gains Bush has made among Hispanics seem to begin and end with him. Hispanic party identification consistently registers roughly two to one in favor of the Democrats, and hasn’t shown any major swing toward the GOP under Bush. Continuing growth of the Hispanic population in the interior West is bad news for Republicans.

It’s not just Hispanics, though. Another politically significant population is also growing quickly throughout the interior West: erstwhile Californians. The congested, generally liberal population centers of California are overflowing—and as they do, it’s as if a bucket of blue paint were spilling over the West. More than 400,000 Arizonans and 360,000 Nevadans were born in California. The thinly populated mountain West states are slowly taking on a left-coast character as well: as of the last census, 122,000 native Californians lived in Idaho (total population 1.3 million) while 47,000 lived in Montana (900,000) and 21,000 lived in Wyoming (490,000).

But ultimately, Democratic inroads in the region are less the result of demographic change than of regional discontent with the Republican Party—discontent that has been deepening for quite some time. The story of the Republican Party’s march to political dominance over the last five decades has been, at its core, a story about the political realignment of the South, first at the presidential level in 1968 and 1972 and then at the congressional level in 1994. That realignment is by now complete—the GOP could hardly dominate the region more thoroughly. But as the South has become central to Republican Party strategy, its particular flavor of social conservatism, moral certitude, and activist government has infused the national party’s character. This is slowly alienating the other major bloc in the Republican coalition: small-government conservatives, especially those who value individual liberty most highly.

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See a demographic chart of the West.

While fissures run between these two groups in every state, there is also a larger geography to the modern Republican Party’s dilemma. In balancing the religious Right against the libertarian Right, the GOP balances the South against the West. (The Midwest is something of a muddle in between.) Bush-style big-government conservatism has tilted the party’s regional balance and put the West in play.

Differences between the West and the South begin with religion. Generally, Republican strongholds have lots of evangelicals, Democratic strongholds have very few, and swing states are in between. By this rule of thumb, the interior Southwest fits neatly into the “swing” category. But so does the interior Northwest, which is typically considered more socially conservative and more solidly Republican. Evangelicals make up between 29 percent and 33 percent of the population in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming—figures much closer to California’s 28 percent or Maine’s 26 percent than to Virginia’s 41 percent or Texas’s 51 percent.

A survey conducted last year by the Pew Research Center illustrates the cultural gulf between the South and the interior West—where social attitudes often look surprisingly close to those of blue-state northeasterners and Pacific Coasters. For instance, almost twice as many people in the interior West say that religion is “not that important to me” as say the same in the South (30 percent versus 17 percent); both the Pacific Coast and the Northeast also hover at around 30 percent on that question. On gay rights, only 39 percent of southerners think homosexuality “should be accepted by society,” while 53 percent in the interior West support tolerance of gays. (That figure bumps up to 60 percent on the Pacific Coast and in the Northeast.) Similarly, 53 percent of southerners think public-school libraries should ban “books that contain dangerous ideas,” versus 44 percent in the interior West.

The interior West has a socially libertarian and anti–federal government streak as long as the Rocky Mountains. Nevada, Colorado, and Montana have laws decriminalizing medical marijuana use, placing those states in the company of some of the bluest in the nation. State legislatures in Colorado, Idaho, and Montana have passed resolutions denouncing the Patriot Act. Colorado and Utah have openly rebelled against No Child Left Behind’s federal testing regime by passing laws exempting themselves from it.

Of course, the alienation of western Republicans and independents does not necessarily imply a sudden ardor for all of the Democratic Party’s ideals. Westerners are particularly unlikely to be convinced that Wal-Mart, oil companies, and other “bad corporate citizens” are preventing them from getting ahead; the West is about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. Likewise, Democrats were ruined for a generation in the region by gaining reputations as owl-obsessed gun grabbers—and while environmental protection is now relatively popular there, many Westerners remain wary of Democratic intentions. More generally, small government is not a term often associated with the Democratic Party.

Bush’s GOP, however, is making a Democratic pitch to libertarian-minded voters more credible. The Republican Party is rapidly losing its identity as the party of fiscal responsibility and small government. And Republican intrusions into private and local affairs—think Terri Schiavo—are making Democrats look comparatively restrained. It’s counterintuitive, but the current Republican fixation with social hot buttons could be a boon to Democrats in much of the interior West.

There’s widespread agreement among Democrats that Howard Dean’s party apparatus “gets” its opportunity out West and is beginning to invest there after years of neglect. Republicans, meanwhile, have had a hard time adjusting. Colorado’s GOP seems to be walking off the same Christian Right cliff that California’s did in the 1990s. Republicans lost control of the Colorado legislature in 2004 because they’d spent the previous session on issues like gay marriage, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the liberal biases of college professors, all while the state faced a monumental fiscal crisis. As the Republican minority leader in the Colorado house said on National Public Radio after the 2004 election, “Our party has basically made the party platform ‘guns, God, and gays,’ and that wasn’t a winning message.”

How far and how fast might the current Democratic wave proceed in the West? Republicans don’t expect to retake any ground in the region at either the congressional or gubernatorial level in this year’s elections. In fact, they’ll have their work cut out for them just holding on to governorships in Colorado and Nevada, where term limits will force incumbents out of office. And Republicans could lose two Senate seats in the West this year—Conrad Burns in Montana and Jon Kyl in Arizona are both facing serious challenges—as well as several House seats.

If it seems strange to picture the West losing its reddish cast, well, that’s because it is strange. In many ways, the interior West represents the Republican Party’s classic self-image: dedicated to rugged individualism and old-fashioned leave-me-alone conservatism. And it would seem logical that after so many years of wooing southern voters, the party might now recalibrate, and throw some love at those places and constituents who’ve been drifting slowly away from it. That may yet happen. But religious voters tend to be demanding. And party ideology carries a certain momentum that can be hard to reverse. In 2006 and 2008, the GOP will be working with Karl Rove’s machinery, which is largely built to mobilize churchgoers and rile up socially conservative citizens.

If the political center of the GOP continues to drift southward, the party risks catalyzing another geographic realignment on a par with that which brought it to power—starting up in Montana and running south. Many of the West’s mountains are already turning purple. They may yet turn blue.

Ryan Sager is a columnist for the New York Post. This article is adapted from his forthcoming book, The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party (Wiley, September 2006).
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