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Democrats Mull Their Inner-Western Strategy

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/hrc.jpgPhoto Credit: Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) (WDCPix)

Dave Boundy, the political director of the Democratic National Committee, paid a visit to Colorado recently. He stopped by, said Colorado Democratic chairwoman Pat Waak, to measure the progress of the party’s “Western strategy.”

For the first time in decades, the national Democratic leadership is saying that the party’s presidential nominee has a chance to win electoral votes in four critical Western states — Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona.

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/politics.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin

Doing so would allow the Democrats a better possibility to win the White House — even if they lose a large Midwestern state like Ohio, which proved so costly to Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, in 2004.

No party official would talk publicly about the prospect of losing Ohio again. But many speak enthusiastically about chances for Democratic success in the West.

Boundy came to Colorado, Waak said, “to talk with the governor’s office and the [U.S.] senate campaign [of Democratic Rep. Mark Udall].” Boundy “even met with independent funders,” Waak added — meaning he talked with Al Yates, the contact person for Democratic billionaire Pat Stryker, who has puts millions into state and congressional races in recent years. Over that time, Democrats have taken control of the state legislature, the governor’s office, a U.S. Senate seat and the majority of the state’s seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Waak said that what Boundy heard validated what she has been telling national party officials for months: Colorado is in play in the 2008 presidential election. Waak is arguing that the state deserves increased financial support from the DNC in the coming months.

A DNC spokesman wouldn’t talk about a “Western strategy.” “We have a 50-state strategy,” Luis Miranda, a party spokesman said, echoing the mantra of Howard Dean, the Democratic chairman. Still, Miranda acknowledged, the “West has tremendous growth potential.” He pointed to a voter registration edge in Nevada, which now has 5,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans. In New Mexico, there were 178,089 more registered Democrats than Republicans, as of September 2007.

Registered Republicans still outnumber registered Democrats by six-figure margins in both Colorado and Arizona, but Democrats are registering new members faster than Republicans in Colorado, according to a study by Colorado Public Radio. And the percentage of independents in both Colorado and Arizona is growing.

Democrats, Miranda, said, also “increased diversity in the early nominating process,” by scheduling the Nevada caucus in January. “We placed the caucus that early to show that we want the nominee to address issues of the West,” he said.

According to Wellington Webb, former mayor of Denver and one of the Clinton campaign’s national co-chairs, Sen. Hillary Rodham won the Nevada caucuses doing just that. “Voters look primarily at what a candidate’s program is,” said Webb. “People wanted to know why the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste disposal site was such a big deal. Well, people in Nevada didn’t want to be the nation’s dump for nuclear waste. [Clinton] voted against it all along. She won as much on that issue as any.”

Whether Clinton or Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) can carry the Western states in a general election is another question. Actually, it is several questions, according to Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of The Cook Political Report, which has been analyzing presidential races for more than two decades.

“Is Arizona really in play if John McCain is the Republican nominee?” Duffy asked. “If Obama is the Democratic nominee, does he address the concerns of Hispanics that showed in the Nevada caucus results [where Latinos voted overwhelmingly for Clinton]? Clinton’s numbers are not good in Colorado. If she is the nominee, do her numbers get better or worse?”

Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, says that Clinton struggles to attract independent voters in ways that Obama does not. “The image of Obama is much more of a unifier,” Sabato said. “He’s even getting a share of swing indies.”

Those independent voters migrate back and forth between parties. They have helped turn Ohio into a presidential kingmaker in recent elections. Now, they are the very people who could determine the outcome of elections in the West.

The Democratic National Committee, said Waak, “understands that in the West, it’s about who the candidate is and whether he or she connects with the independent nature of Western voters.”

But Waak also insisted that the Democratic Party can get more out of its base. In Colorado in 2004, for example, Democrat Ken Salazar won a U.S. Senate seat carrying 27 of 64 counties, while George W. Bush carried the state in the presidential election. In 2006, Democrat Bill Ritter became governor winning 38 of 64 counties. If this trend continues, a presidential Democrat stands a good chance in 2008, Waak insisted.

Traditional Democratic strongholds like Denver County and Pueblo have underperformed in recent elections, she said. To address that, she explained, the party has had field coordinators out for two years. “We need to strengthen (the base),” Waak said. Money from the DNC will go to “put more staff on after the primaries. We need to identify people at the neighborhood level.”

The Running Mate Factor

Meanwhile, the Democratic presidential candidate may need to identify a Western running mate in order for there to be a “Western strategy.” Someone like Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, the former presidential candidate, or Salazar.

“Obama has the harder job here [of choosing a running mate],” Duffy said. The Illinois senator needs someone who has foreign policy experience and has been a governor, she says. That describes Richardson. And yet, Duffy admitted, “You’re talking to someone who doesn’t think Bill Richardson will be on the ticket.”

Webb, the former Denver mayor, agreed that a Western vice presidential candidate would be helpful, but not absolutely necessary for the Democrats. The candidates, Webb said, “speak in glowing terms about Sen. Salazar and Gov. Ritter.” He added that they “are open to learning more about the Western ideas.”

However it turns out, the West will get money from the national party, Webb predicted, because for the first time in a long time the West is “winnable.”

Meanwhile, Sabato thinks winning Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona so you don’t have to win Ohio may be a non sequitur.

“If the Democrats win three of those four Western states,” he said, “they’re going to win Ohio anyway.”

Jim Spencer writes for The Washington Independent’s fellow network site Colorado Confidential.

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