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The call to Democrats hoping to build the party -- Go West!

August 4, 2009 | 10:39 am

The independent West

The West is different, as anyone who has ever spent time in the cloister of the Boston-Washington corridor can tell you. There is all that opportunity, untamed beauty and wide, wide open space. There is also the mythos that attaches to the West, embodied in words like freedom, self-reliance and rugged individuality. 

Some of it is actually true.

Over the last decade or so, the Mountain West has emerged, politically speaking, as one of the hardest-fought and most closely watched regions of the country, a cluster of swing states that, unlike those of the Midwest, still have that sense of the future about them.Half Dome

The Democrats, who have been on something of a roll out in the Rocky Mountain states, will host a first-of-its-kind gathering later this month in Denver, mustering 400 or so of the party’s top leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, as well as campaign strategists, demographers and other political savants. Jim Messina, a Montana boy and the deputy White House chief of staff, will serve as an emissary from the Obama administration.

The event is being hosted by Project New West, a Democratic group that has been an important party builder in the region. The idea is to swap lessons from campaigns won and lost and to brainstorm “in real time, not looking back 20 years later, like we did in the South,” said Jill Hanauer, the project’s director.

To understand the political terrain, pollsters for Project New West took to the field to survey voters in several states that promise to be battlegrounds in 2010 and beyond.

Among the findings to be discussed in Denver:

-- Nearly three-quarters of the western voters surveyed display the American flag at home, work or on their car. That compares to 60% nationally in a Pew poll released in January 2007.

-- Roughly nine in 10 Western voters say they...

...enjoy a unique qualify of life and “cherish” the outdoors, a sentiment that repeatedly turns up in focus groups, according to Lisa Grove, one of the pollsters who conducted the research. Asked to introduce themselves and provide a bit of information about their households, the responses tended to run along the lines of, “My name is Sarah. We like to jet ski and camp” or “I’m Bill. We hike and fish.” (As opposed to, say, Washington, where the typical response might be, “I’m Steve. Who do you work for and what can you do to advance my career?”)

-- Four in 10 own a gun or a rifle, compared to 33% of respondents in a Pew poll released in April.
There are plenty of reasons Democrats started winning out West. Some of it was Bush fatigue and an unpopular war. Some of it was a sense the GOP was becoming increasingly moralistic, which chafed against the ethos of live and let live.

But Democrats also started nominating politicians like Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and former Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar (now the nation’s Interior secretary) who could wear a cowboy hat or bolo tie without looking like a fourth-grader playing dress-up.

More substantively, Schweitzer, Salazar and others, like New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, convinced the majority of voters they weren’t a part of that East Coast take-away-your-guns and lock-away-the-wilderness wing of the Democratic Party. “It’s not about the West turning red to blue,” said Hanauer. “It’s about Western voters embracing a new kind of leadership that happens to be Democratic.”

Westerners tend to wear their partisanship lightly, so Hanauer acknowledges how fleeting the Democratic gains may be. “We have to understand four words: unique quality of life,” Hanauer said. “As long as that’s the lens we communicate with, and not an East Coast ideological lens, we can continue to be successful.”

The confab is set for Aug. 12-14 at the Colorado History Museum.

-- Mark Z. Barabak

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Top photo: Colorado's San Juan Mountains. Credit: Dan Blackburn. Bottom photo: Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Credit: Brian Vander Brug/Los Angeles Times.