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Under Obama, Democrats plan a summer Western offensive

June 19, 2009 |  2:24 am

Reno Nevada Skyline

Back in early 2005 — when President Bush had a pile of political capital and Barack Obama was a rookie senator learning his way around the Hart Office Building — a group of forward-looking Democrats set their sights on the West.

John Kerry’s loss in 2004 was a disappointment, of course. But there were bright spots for them, as Democrats made significant inroads in the land of Reagan and Goldwater, gaining House and Senate seats and electing nearly three dozen state lawmakers across the region.

With an eye on 2008, party strategists set to work building on that progress, mindful of two trends running their way: the region’s growing suburbanization and the rising influence of Latino voters. Democrats placed their national convention in Denver (although that was largely symbolic) and, more significantly, granted Nevada one of the coveted early spots on its presidential calendar.

The moves, along with the dispatch of a ton of money and organizing talent, clearly paid off.

Once Obama cinched the nomination — after battling then Sen. Hillary Clinton to a draw in Nevada — he campaigned harder in the Rocky Mountain region than any Democrat in memory. His reward was....

...three states that Republicans won in 2004: Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada.

He came close in Montana and probably would have carried Arizona if its U.S. senator, John McCain, had not been the GOP nominee.

Now, Democrats are again looking ahead.

As part of that effort, party leaders plan to return to Denver in August for a first-ever Western summit, which is expected to draw 400 or so of the region’s top politicians, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, as well as strategists, demographers, campaign organizers, state party chairmen and other political camp followers. (Celebrity alert: actor/conservationist Robert Redford, who keeps homes in Utah and New Mexico, will keynote a luncheon session.)

“What we’re trying to do is learn from each other on how we’ve been successful and plan together how we can look to the future,” said Jill Hanauer, the president of Project New West, a Denver-based Democratic advocacy group hosting the summit. The event will be held Aug. 12-14 at the Colorado History Museum.

While much of the focus will be on the next presidential race, the 2010 midterm elections also loom large: seven of eight states in the Intermountain West will be electing governors, and Nevada and Colorado will hold two of the highest-profile Senate races in the country.

Also of import: the fight over redistricting, which will be in the hands of state lawmakers elected next year. The West is expected to pick up four House seats after the once-a-decade redrawing of political boundaries post-census.

In the last 20-odd years, Democrats have made California, Oregon, Washington state and Hawaii an integral part of their national political base. But the Rocky Mountain region, like the Midwest, will likely remain a battleground for years to come.

“Westerners are inherently independent voters,” said Hanauer, “so even though Democrats have made gains, it’s always going to be a competitive place.”

 -- Mark Z. Barabak

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Photo: Reno Convention Bureau

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