The Democrats' New Western Stars

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The below article was corrected on January 19, 2007.

A week before the 2006 elections, I found myself in a holding room with a posse of prominent Colorado Democrats waiting to stage a rally in the city of Pueblo. Almost all of them were in full western regalia--cowboy hats and boots, blue jeans, western shirts and jackets, string ties or no ties at all. These were large people, as Westerners tend to be, and they were not shy. Several noted my rumpled, Eastern aspect and took pity on me. "We've got to get you some boots," said Bill Ritter, the Democratic candidate for Governor, who was about to be elected in a landslide.

"Feeling out of place?" asked a local state rep, a tall blond woman named Buffie McFayden, who greeted me with a black-power handshake and two Sammy Sosa heart kisses.

"Bet you never thought you'd find a politician named Buffie out in Colorado. I tell folks it's short for buffalo." McFayden, a force of nature, explained that her district had 12 prisons and a solid Republican majority that voted for her because "the right's gone so far to the right, you can't recognize them anymore. When the wingers accuse me of being a liberal, I say, Sure, if you mean that I'm in favor of staying out of people's private lives and balancing the budget and I'm against stealing."

And on it went as, one by one, I met the exuberant and slightly eccentric Democrats of Colorado--the hosts of the next Democratic National Convention, to be held in Denver in 2008. Each had a big personality and a distinctive personal history. Ritter, for example, was one of 12 children who grew up poor on a wheat farm; in 1986 he and his wife made a midlife decision to spend three years as Catholic missionaries in Africa, working at a nutrition center in Zambia. Then there were the "Salazar Boys." U.S. Senator Ken Salazar and his brother John, a member of Congress, were raised on a ranch without a telephone or electricity. Senator Salazar was the only freshman Democrat elected to the Senate from a red state during George W. Bush's 2004 victory. He is a moonfaced fellow whose modest demeanor belies his reputation as an ecumenical annoyer of special-interest groups. He once called Jim Dobson of Focus on the Family, a Colorado-based conservative Christian group, "the antichrist." But he was also one of the very few Democrats to stick with pro-war Senator Joe Lieberman after Lieberman lost the Democratic primary to Ned Lamont in Connecticut last summer.

I asked Barbara O'Brien, the candidate for Lieutenant Governor, about the rampant individuality in the room, and she said, "I doubt you'd find a Democratic ticket like us anywhere else in the country. Bill Ritter is pro-life, and I'm not even a politician. I ran a children's advocacy group and took positions that upset Democrats in the past--like, I testified in favor of a limited, targeted school-voucher program. But that's the way it is out here in the West. People like their politicians independent."

Something strange and tangy is happening in the Rocky Mountains. The Democratic Party is being reborn, with a raft of colorful candidates who have won the hearts of independents and moderate Republican voters. As the 2008 presidential campaign begins, there are lessons to be learned here for both national parties, but especially for Democrats, lessons involving both style and substance. The top-line Democratic candidates for President in 2008--people like Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards--are a decidedly un-Western crowd. They tend to be coastal, urban, legislative. They tend to talk too formally--and too much about too little. They tiptoe and kowtow when confronted by the gothic array of Democratic interest groups. At a time when political pomp and blab have come to seem prohibitively pompous and bloviational, Rocky Mountain politics is fresh and innovative and fun. It might not be a bad idea for Hillary and Barack and the rest to pause for a moment before the big show starts and take a look at what's happening just west of Iowa, in an electorally overlooked region of the country that just may hold the key to winning the White House in 2008.

There is a distinct Rocky Mountain Democratic agenda, which emphasizes pragmatism and moderation. Some of the issues are local and perennial, including how to manage growth and resources like water in the nation's fastest-growing region. But even the local issues have national implications. There is, for example, a competitive mania among the new Democratic Governors about developing alternative energy sources--especially the region's vast coal reserves and agricultural products. They are staunch fiscal conservatives. In fact, the booming economy has enabled most of the Democratic Governors to lower taxes. Immigration is a huge issue in the region, and the Democrats have profited by supporting comprehensive plans--increased border control, along with guest-worker provisions and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants--that reflect both the growing influence of Latino voters in the region and the needs of the local farming and construction businesses for labor. Democrats also tend to reflect a Western let-and-let-live attitude on social issues like abortion and homosexuality. But given the traditional Western aversion to lockstep conformity, none of the above are hard-and-fast rules.

"Actually, the one thing we all have in common is our style," says Ken Salazar. The new Rocky Mountain Democrats are populist, unpretentious, egalitarian and tough. They tend to be avid hunters and fishermen. (I was with Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer one day when he reached into his pocket for a pen and pulled out a 30.06 rifle bullet.) A surprising number of them have backgrounds in law enforcement. Of the Democrats who have been elected Governors in the all-blue stripe of states running from Montana to New Mexico, only Bill Richardson of New Mexico has spent any time as a legislator. The rest are either ranchers or prosecutors. Janet Napolitano, the wildly popular Governor of Arizona, which is in the next stripe west, was a U.S. Attorney appointed by Bill Clinton, as was Dave Freudenthal, the Governor of Wyoming. Ken Salazar was Colorado's attorney general before winning his Senate seat. "I could never have gotten elected back East," says John Hickenlooper, a former geologist and microbrewery owner who was elected mayor of Denver in his first try for public office. "You don't have a complicated political superstructure out here. You don't have to wait your turn to run for office. Outside the Latino community, ethnicity doesn't count for much. Nobody cares who your grandparents were."

Democrats are not yet dominant in the inner Mountain West and may never be, not as long as states like Utah and Idaho remain a deep conservative crimson. They made only modest gains in the 2006 congressional elections, taking away one Republican seat in Colorado and two in Arizona and adding Jon Tester's Montana crew cut to the U.S. Senate. But they have had considerable success in local elections--and not just their stunning successes at the gubernatorial level. Since 2004 they have also won control of the Montana senate and both houses of the Colorado legislature. And the region's Democrats will throw disproportionate weight in the 2008 presidential selection process. Nevada will hold caucuses in the first week of the presidential campaign, having poked its way into the schedule between the traditional battles in Iowa and New Hampshire. A few weeks later, on Feb. 5, there will be a Rocky Mountain regional primary, with three states--New Mexico, Arizona and Utah--participating (and three more--Montana, Idaho and Wyoming--thinking about joining).

Indeed, there are those who believe that the gradual purplification of the West may have dramatic national consequences. If the Democrats can pick off a few Rocky Mountain states to augment their strength in the Northeast, upper Midwest and West Coast, they may be able to build an electoral majority that does not include the ferociously conservative South. As Thomas Schaller of the University of Maryland pointed out after the 2006 elections, "For the first time in more than half a century, the minority party in the South is the majority party in both chambers of Congress." Schaller is the author of Whistling Past Dixie, in which he argues that there are 29 electoral votes--two more than Florida has--to be harvested in four Rocky Mountain states that are trending Democratic. "The Democrats can win the presidency hitting singles out here in the West," says Schweitzer, referring to the tiny electoral-vote totals in states like his (which has three). "Or they can keep on trying to hit home runs down South."

In some ways the rise of the Democratic Party in the Rockies is a revival. The dominant chord of Western politics has usually been a taciturn Marlboro Man conservatism, but a history of rollicking working-class populism has been a persistent theme. The West was the birthplace of the Wobblies (International Workers of the World) in the late 19th century and the scene of some of the great unionizing battles of the early industrial age. The state capitol in Montana is filled with statues of famous Democrats. More recently, the Rocky Mountain states were equal partners with the South in the rise of the Democratic Leadership Council. The region was filled with creative, moderate Democratic Governors in the 1980s--people like Dick Lamm and Roy Romer in Colorado and Bruce Babbitt in Arizona. Colorado had two well-known Democratic Senators, Gary Hart and Tim Wirth, in the 1980s. There were legendary Democrats from the region like Arizona's Mo Udall and Colorado's Patricia Schroeder serving in Congress. In 1992 Bill Clinton won Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona and Montana--albeit with a hefty assist from Ross Perot, who peeled votes away from George H.W. Bush in fiscally conservative, socially libertarian Mountain states like Montana, where Perot received 26.2% of the vote, his best statewide result.

Then, in the 1990s, the Democratic wave crashed and Republicans regained control of the region. Part of it was disappointment with Clinton, whose presidency seemed a coastal combination of Ivy League intellectualizing and Hollywood glitz. Clinton's decidedly humid empathy, his lack of personal discipline, didn't seem very Western, either. The primacy of the national Democratic Party--the party that was weak on national defense but strong on racial preferences, gun control and trade unions--proved a significant drag on Rocky Mountain Democrats running for local office. And so did the excesses of the more extreme environmental groups. "The Democrats came to be identified with a top-down, centralized approach to open-space issues," says Dan Kemmis of the Center for the Rocky Mountain West. "There was the impression that they were just flat opposed to timber harvesting or oil and gas extraction. So you had the oil and timber workers--the party's working-class populist base--fleeing to the Republicans."

But the Republican Party in the Rockies has wasted its mandate in much the same manner as the congressional Republicans have in Washington--by catering to conservative religious and anti-immigration radicals, and by getting a little too cozy with the oil, gas and timber interests. "Issues like gay marriage and abortion are not on the cutting edge out here," says Kevin DeMenna, a Republican consultant in Arizona. "Building infrastructure, figuring out how to manage growth--those are cutting-edge issues. And Democrats like Janet Napolitano have just been a lot more pragmatic than the Republicans."

Napolitano does not dress like a cowboy. She is diminutive and feisty. "She's kind of a female Hubert Humphrey, a real happy warrior, only much tougher than Hubert," says Fred DuVal, a prominent Arizona Democratic fund raiser. Napolitano romped in her 2006 re-election campaign over Len Munsil, a religious conservative who campaigned against gay marriage and in favor of a punitive anti-immigration policy, both of which were profoundly out of step with public opinion. Arizona actually voted against a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in 2006--and in the two congressional districts where Democrats supplanted Republicans, the losers were best known for extremist fearmongering on the immigration issue. Indeed, Napolitano set the tone for Rocky Mountain Democrats in 2005, declaring a state of emergency and asking President Bush to move the National Guard down to the border--but also supporting a guest-worker program and eventual citizenship for those already here illegally. "The Republican Party has spent a lot of time eating its own, with the far-right making war on moderates over immigration and values issues," Napolitano told me. She then showed me, in a whirlwind tour of Tucson, how she had won the support of the local business community. She told a Chamber of Commerce group, "The population of this state is going to double by 2030. We've got to figure out how to handle that. You don't want to create 50,000-person subdivisions without a transportation plan. And you need skilled workers to build the houses and engineers to design the infrastructure, so you're gonna hear a lot from me about education. I'm not entirely kidding when I say you shouldn't be able to get a driver's license unless you've passed algebra."

A more surprising alliance than Napolitano's mind-meld with businesspeople has developed between liberals, especially environmental activists, and the conservative hunting-and-fishing community--the "hook and bullet" crowd--over the exploitation of natural resources. "Not every place on God's green earth needs to be open to natural-gas exploration," says George Orbanek, the conservative publisher of Colorado's Grand Junction Daily Sentinel. "You don't need to put up natural-gas rigs in the Grand Junction watershed, for example. The problem is, we've gone from the extreme Democrat tree huggers in the 1990s to a hard-right Republican Party that knows no boundaries. The party with the problem now is the G.O.P. That's why we endorsed John Salazar for Congress. He's not a Nancy Pelosi Democrat. He thinks we've got enough gun laws, he's against the death tax, he's a libertarian on social issues, and he knows that the deer and elk around here just don't like to hang out around natural-gas rigs."

"Libertarian" is political shorthand for leave me alone. Democrats have not been very good traditionally at leave-me-alone politics. Malcolm Wallop, the Republican former Senator of Wyoming, got elected in 1976 partly because of a memorable political ad he ran of a cowboy packing a portable toilet strapped to the rear of his horse, allegedly the result of a federal regulation. And while the Democrats will never be natural Barry Goldwater libertarians, a young Republican named Ryan Sager uses regional polling in a new book, The Elephant in the Room, to demonstrate that people in the inner Mountain states are more secular than the G.O.P.'s Southern base, and increasingly impatient with Bible-touting moralizing.

Liberal Democrats and conservative Westerners have also made common cause over civil-liberties issues. In Montana last year, for example, the incumbent G.O.P. Senator Conrad Burns tried to attack Jon Tester for his opposition to the Patriot Act. Tester shot back with this ad: "Nearly all of Montana's legislators--including 51 Republicans--want to replace the Patriot Act, because it lets Federal Government agents search our bank accounts, medical records, even our gun sales--for whatever reason. So when you see Senator Burns attack Jon Tester, ask him, Why do you think we're the enemy? Where's Osama bin Laden? And when did you get so out of touch with Montana?"

In fact, after the Montana state legislature passed the resolution opposing the Patriot Act, Governor Schweitzer decided to put some icing on the cake by pardoning 78 Montanans who had been convicted of sedition during World War I--a far more egregious case of the government trampling civil liberties than the Patriot Act is. "Most of them were German immigrants," Schweitzer told me. "Some of them were arrested for speaking German in public, others for refusing to buy war bonds. We had a big ceremony, and family members from 31 states came to honor their ancestors. It got pretty emotional."

Schweitzer is one of the great, over-the-top showmen of American politics, sort of like Bill Clinton on methedrine. He's a tall man with a wide open face and a flat northern-plains accent, who keeps up a steady patter of rowdy stories and observations and is perpetually accompanied by his border collie, Jag, which has become a major celebrity in Montana. The Brian Schweitzer Show is so entertaining--he has been featured on everything from 60 Minutes to The Colbert Report--that it's easy to overlook the substance of the man. Schweitzer has a master's in soil science from Montana State University and spent seven years building irrigation projects in Saudi Arabia. He speaks fluent Arabic and has a sophisticated grasp of Middle Eastern politics and the history of oil. Last summer I watched Schweitzer deploy all this information--plus his familiarity with biology and chemistry, plus maps and charts and assorted biofuel samples--in a colloquial, anecdotal and entirely accessible 40-minute luncheon talk at the Lions Club of Helena. "Now here's how Montana is going to save the world," he proclaimed at one point. "We are the Saudi Arabia of coal," he said, and began an elaborate description of how coal can be turned into a clean-burning liquid fuel and how that fuel, plus biofuels made from agricultural products (he drives a Volkswagen that runs on biodiesel) plus conservation, can completely eliminate the need for imported oil. (Schweitzer has since received commitments from two major companies to build coal-gasification plants in Montana.)

Later I asked Schweitzer how a Democrat could sell that energy pitch in a presidential campaign. "I can do it in a 60-second spot," he said. "Put me on the clock." And he was off to the races: "Folks, we've got a problem. We Americans use 6.5 billion bbl. of oil a year. We produce 2.5 billion ourselves. We import 4 billion from the world's worst dictators. We need to stop doing that. We can save 1 billion bbl. through conservation. Things like more efficient cars, homes and appliances. We can produce another 1 billion bbl. of biofuels with agricultural crops like corn, soybeans and canola. We can produce 2 billion bbl. a year turning our enormous coal reserves to clean-burning gas. We can achieve energy independence in 10 years, create a whole new industry with tens of thousands of high-paying jobs, and you'll never have to send your grandchildren to war in the Middle East. I'm Brian Schweitzer, and I approved this message."

He did it in about 40 seconds, according to my clock, but he was speed rapping. Which raises the question of Schweitzer's own presidential ambitions. "Heck, I just got elected in 2004," he told me last summer. "I've got to make this energy thing work in Montana first." In fact, the real flaw in the Rocky Mountain Blue electoral fantasies is that the Democrats' leading candidates, especially the junior Senator from New York, elicit groans in the Rockies. "I just don't get this Obama thing, either," says Orbanek, the Grand Junction newspaper publisher. New Mexico's popular Latino Governor Bill Richardson will probably try in 2008, but Richardson has spent most of his career in Washington and sometimes tries a bit too hard at playing the Western card: his cowboy boots are ostrich skin, which is permissible but fancy. Richardson certainly can't compete with Republicans John McCain or Mitt Romney, either of whom would easily sweep the region.

In the end, the real impact of the Rocky Mountain Democrats on their party may be more spiritual than electoral. Their informality and egalitarianism, their lack of bile, their can-do optimism stand in refreshing contrast to politics as it is practiced in our nation's capital. One night last autumn, Schweitzer took me to Jake's Restaurant in Billings, one of the better steak houses in his state. "Oh, hi, Governor," the hostess beamed. Schweitzer asked her if she had a table available. She frowned over her reservation list. "Sorry, Governor, we're full up," she said. "You want to sit in the bar?"

"Sure!" Schweitzer said, without blinking an eye. I daresay that no Governor of an East or West Coast ... or Southern state would ever get stiffed like that or take it with such equanimity. But it sure felt bracing, like a fresh wind off the prairie, like America is supposed to be.