Have Republicans Really Lost the West?

Western Democrats are ebullient. Per conventional wisdom, the Republican Revolution in the Mountain West finally peaked in the 1990s. Now the pendulum is supposedly swinging back, as Hispanic and supposedly-libertarian white voters abandon the increasingly southern GOP in droves. Belief in westward-creeping Blue is widespread: Even Republicans such as Ryan Sager are convinced that Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming are slowly tipping.

It is true that, like their southern counterparts, these states retain some residual populist Democratic voting strength. The southernmost Mountain states were settled by southerners who brought Democratic voting habits with them, while the northern states were radicalized in the 1880s and 90s by currency disputes, and were heavily unionized before and during the Depression. By the 1950s, however, these states were routinely voting Republican in federal elections. Only LBJ managed to carry a majority of them after 1948.

But while Republican momentum in the Mountain West stalled in 2006, the results from the recent elections — hint — at best inconclusively at a re-realignment. The Mountain States are actually not that socially liberal, much less libertarian. In 2006, Colorado — the state most often mentioned as turning blue — accepted a gay marriage ban and rejected the more moderate solution of civil unions. It overwhelmingly rejected the legalization of marijuana. Arizona voters narrowly rejected a ballot initiative that banned both gay marriage and civil unions, but overwhelmingly declared English the state’s official language. A marijuana ballot initiative failed badly in Nevada. While the results were closer than what you would likely find in, say, Alabama, neither were they what you would likely find in Vermont.

Moreover, Hispanic voters don’t yet represent a stet voting bloc in those states. Last election, Latinos comprised 12% in of the voting electorate in Nevada, 11% in Arizona, 5% in Wyoming, 3% in Utah, and 1% in Montana. Only in New Mexico do Hispanics wield much clout, making up nearly a third of the electorate.

In fact, voter registration has not shifted much in these states. In 1998, Republicans had a registration edge of 6%, 5%, and .2% in Colorado, Arizona, and Nevada, respectively. In 2004, that edge was 6%, 5%, and .4%, respectively. Incidentally, this represents a massive improvement for the GOP from the mid-1970s, when Democrats maintained a double-digit registration edge in all three states.

Democrats have admittedly done well in governors’ races. In 2006, all three Democrats standing for re-election were re-elected by margins of around 30 points, while Colorado elected Democrat Bill Ritter by a whopping 15 points. Montana Democrat Brian Schweitzer currently sports Big-Sky-high approval ratings.

That said, Democrats failed to take advantage of a divided GOP in Idaho, and couldn’t win in Nevada against a Republican who faced explosive charges of sexual assault only weeks before the election. Moreover, gubernatorial elections tend to turn on the individual merits and personalities of the candidates, rather than partisan identities. Remember, before the 2004 elections, Republicans controlled every governor’s mansion north and east of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania except one. In 2004 Bush came close to winning only two of those states. And before the 1988 elections, Democrats controlled every Mountain West governor’s mansion except for Utah and New Mexico. Dukakis carried none.

Republicans should not be any more worried about the re-election of popular moderate Democrats such as Dave Freudenthal of Wyoming than should Democrats lose sleep over Republican Jodi Rell’s landslide in Connecticut. Nor should Republicans shudder at the fact that a pro-life moderate Democrat like Bill Ritter can win handily against Bob Beauprez, who had the misfortune of being associated with a Congress that was about as popular as Cromwell’s Long Parliament. After all, Republican Don Carcieri’s ten-point win in Rhode Island in 2002 certainly did not portend a re-alignment of that state.

Yes, Democrats gained control of both houses of the Colorado and Montana statehouses in the early 2000s. But the Colorado gains were fueled by Democratic majorities on the state reapportionment commission. Colorado Democrats won 60,000 fewer votes than Republicans in 2004 but nonetheless won a majority in the state House. Montana Democrats likewise received a favorable state legislative map in 2002 and gained control of both chambers in 2004. In 2006, however, Democrats lost control of the Montana state House, and would have lost control of the state Senate but for a post-election party switch.

Outside of Montana and Colorado, Republicans control nine of the remaining twelve chambers, often by large margins. And while Democrats gained a total of 321 statehouse seats nationwide in 2006, Democrats netted only 23 seats in the Mountain West, out of about 800 seats in the region.

Finally, Democratic gains in federal races in 2006 should be regarded as disappointing, given the overall climate. While Democrat Jon Tester knocked off Senator Conrad Burns in Montana, the narrowness of the victory over Burns — who did everything he could to lose, including uttering racial slurs, taking large sums of money from Jack Abramoff, and publicly deriding firemen returning from their jobs — should give Democrats pause. Democrats failed to place Arizona Senator Jon Kyl in jeopardy, notwithstanding having a candidate who spent over $10 million in negative ads over the course of the year, and never seriously threatened Nevada Senator John Ensign.

The House races weren’t, either. Democrats picked up an open swing district in Colorado that was designed by Democrats to trend leftward over the decade, a swing seat on the Arizona border where the Republicans nominated a Minuteman, and a seat in Arizona from a controversial incumbent facing corruption charges. Democrats did not win other swing districts in Arizona or in Nevada, nor were they successful in open seats in Colorado, Nevada, and Idaho where the Republicans were divided and sometimes openly opposed to their nominees.

What we are actually seeing is that the fundamental “red-ness” of the Mountain West states has been somewhat overstated. While Ronald Reagan — a Westerner himself — performed well here, in 1988 Montana, Colorado, and New Mexico went for Bush 41 but were at-or-below his national vote share. Bill Clinton was able to carry five of the eight Mountain West states at least once. And yet George W. Bush carried all of these states except New Mexico by more than his national average in 2000 and 2004. While these states are not as socially conservative as other deep south states, they are not particularly moderate, and show no signs of accepting big government liberalism. The fact that the right kind of Democrat can still win here should not send Republicans into a panic, and there is much less evidence than commonly supposed that the region is trending toward accepting most Democrats.