How the West Will Be Won: By Espousing a Brand of Liberalism That's Heavy on Personal Freedom and Light on Divisive Social Issues, Democrats Are Finally Being Heard in the Mountain West

Article excerpt

It's morning on the Fourth of July in conservative Greeley, Colorado, and along 10th Avenue, the town's residents are staking out choice spots from which to watch the parade. A man in a "Got Freedom?" T-shirt claims a piece of sidewalk. A family with young kids dressed in patriotic hues sits along a curb. An elderly woman sets up under a shade tree with her oxygen tank at her side and a tiny American flag stuck to its valve.

A few blocks away, in the backyard of a small brick house, the Weld County Democratic Party ("Real People, Real Issues") is holding its annual Fourth of July breakfast. By the standards of this year's more notable political gatherings, it's what you might call an intimate affair. This is Weld County, after all, an agricultural area about an hour's drive north of Denver that belongs to Colorado's 4th Congressional District. That's the district in which Republican Marilyn Musgrave has won three consecutive terms in Congress by decrying same-sex marriage and gun-control laws and pushing for a "National Year of the Bible." In other words, this is not normally a place where one expects to see signs of a Democratic resurgence.

Then again, these are not normal political times. A few years ago, only about 30 people attended this gathering. This year, close to 100 showed up. It could be nothing, this increased turnout at one Democratic breakfast in a tiny conservative town, or it could be yet another sign that Democratic fortunes are improving in areas of the Western United States that the party used to write off.

It's not just the tea leaves in Greeley that suggest something is happening for Democrats out West. In almost all of the states touched by the Rocky Mountain chain, a tide of Republican dominance that began in the Reagan era seems to be rapidly ebbing. These "Mountain West" states--Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico--used to appear indelibly red, and not just on presidential election nights. With few exceptions, the governors of these states were Republican, their congressional delegations were Republican-dominated, and their state legislatures were Republican-controlled. Now, as governorships, congressional seats, and state houses across the region have steadily flipped into Democratic hands over the last decade, several of these states have turned purple, and a number seem on the verge of becoming blue. To take just one leading indicator: In 2000, not a single governor in the Mountain West was a Democrat. Today, the majority of the governors in the region are Democrats, including the governor in Dick Cheney's home state of Wyoming.

This dramatic turnabout is rooted in a complicated mix of demographic changes, new economic realities, improved Democratic candidates, and a general disenchantment with the direction of the country. But it is reverberating up the political ladder and resulting in some unusual political moments this year, such as when Barack Obama decided to spend his Fourth of July in Montana, a state with only three electoral votes, and arrived there to news of a poll that showed him with a surprising five-point lead in the state.

This year's Democratic National Convention was placed in Denver precisely because of the sense of opportunity in the region. With memories of a record-shattering pro-Obama turnout in Colorado's Democratic caucuses fresh in their minds, some political analysts are predicting Obama will win the state in November, an outcome that--along with other potential Obama wins in Nevada, New Mexico, and Arizona--could completely alter the electoral map.

"There's one word that explains most of it," said John Straayer, a professor of political science at Colorado State University. "And that's 'Republicans.'" Voters in the Mountain West still have a conservative bent, but, Straayer and others told me, they've become tired of the wedge issues, the cultural crusading, and, most of all, the war. …