WASHINGTON – They are the heirs to the cowboy and homesteader tradition, willing to protect their land from the butt of a gun and sometimes defend their values in defiance of the government, but that doesn't mean voters in the West automatically reject left-leaning politics.
That's why Democrats are making a big play for what political analysts have described as the new battleground for 2008: Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Utah.
"This is a regional block of states with united interests," said Matt Farautto, executive director of the Democratic Party of New Mexico, calling the Rocky Mountain-Southwestern region "really fertile ground for Democrats." He pointed out that half of these states now have Democratic governors.
Democratic activists are now trying to get officials in these states to move their primaries to "Super Tuesday" — Feb. 5 — a date that has become frontloaded with at least 24 states that are bucking to get noticed by the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates and give their voters a chance to make a difference in the nomination process.
Many of the state legislatures have moved their dates up or are seriously considering it. So far, Wyoming will hold its primary on Jan. 22 with New Hampshire. New Mexico, Utah and Arizona are on board for Feb. 5 and other states like Colorado and Montana are considering the change.
Democrats like New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a second-tier presidential candidate, also lobbied successfully to schedule Nevada's caucus on Jan. 19 – just five days after the country's first contest, the Iowa caucuses.
"This much is absolutely clear: no region in the country is better positioned to produce new blue states than the West," said Brian Kuehl, spokesman for Democrats for the West, a group of former western state officials, party activists and others advancing the ideal of Democratic saturation in a region once thought to be red.
Democrats like Kuehl say that growth in places like Arizona and Nevada, state politics and the general shift against the Bush administration over key issues like the Iraq war, could create the right combination of states voting for the Democratic candidate in 2008 to tilt enough electoral votes to make a difference. For example, if New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada all went blue on Election Day, it could count for a 19 electoral votes.
"When you put it into that context, these states can make a difference on the electoral side," said Heath Haussamen, a former newspaperman who now runs the New Mexico Politics Web log.
Haussamen suggested that no single theory explains why Democratic opportunities seem to be opening up right now. He suggests a serious independent streak in the West — often libertarian — which is leaning Democrat because of today's political climate.
"I really think these are voters who don't fit the typical mode of either party, and the Democrats have done a better job, though you have seen some Republicans starting to do it too, of meeting voters where they are."
But Republicans in these states think the Democrats might be counting their winnings too soon. They point to states like Arizona, Utah and Wyoming — always solidly red — and shake their heads in disbelief.
"I think it's fine that the Democrats want to target states like Arizona because they will be seriously wasting their money," said Brett Mecum, communications director for the Arizona Republican Party. "It's not going to do anything, because at the end of the day, Arizona is a red state."
He called Democrats "over-optimistic and over-zealous."
"I think they saw the gains they made in 2006, but in my mind, 2006 was the perfect storm and they won't have the same circumstances to play with (in 2008)," Mecum added.
In Arizona, the Democrats picked up two Republican congressional seats in 2006 — an open seat vacated by retiring Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe and the seat won from incumbent J.D Hayworth. Gov. Janet Napolitano is a Democrat and the party picked up a few seats in the state legislature, but not enough to take over.
Washington D.C-based Republican strategist Brent Littlefield said he is unsure how the immigration issue will play out in 2008 for border states like Arizona. It certainly didn’t help Hayworth, who was against the guest worker program, or Republican Randy Graf, who was running for the open Kolbe seat and had the most hard line immigration position of his opponents throughout the race.
"We really have to see how it all sorts out and what Congress does or doesn't do," he said, adding that if Arizona Sen. John McCain is the GOP nominee for president, he is "going to pull more votes for the Republicans in that region."
In Colorado, Democrats have been making gains, effectively solidifying control of the Legislature, and taking the governorship and a Republican House seat. Still, Littlefield said he doesn't buy this as a trend.
"I think there has been problems in some cases with Republican candidates and candidacies," he said. "I think Colorado is an anomaly. I don't necessarily see a macro-political environment has impacted Colorado as have the personality issues in the state."
But others point to gains in Montana — Democrat Sen. Jon Tester ousted three-term Republican Sen. Conrad Burns in 2006; Wyoming, where Democrats picked up three state Senate seats; and New Mexico where Democrats grabbed a lock on the legislature despite missing a bid to oust U.S. Republican Rep. Heather Wilson.
Democrats also see potential gains due to scandal dogging New Mexico Republican Sen. Pete Domenici, who has been accused of interfering with a federal prosecutor in a Democratic corruption case there; and Arizona Republican Rep. Rick Renzi, whose is under investigation by the FBI in public corruption investigation.
Stacie Paxton, Democratic National Committee spokeswoman, said Democrats have been reaching out to the region, offering an alternative to the establishment in Washington, D.C., and finding some openings along the way.
"Again, the gains in 2006 showed us if we showed up and talked about what we believe in — putting an end to Republican corruption, our values and restoring the budget — those issues resonated with voters in the West." Paxton said.
Though New Mexico Republican Party director Adam Feldman said the GOP is preparing for "the closest election in history," he also points out that despite Democratic gains statewide, Bush actually did better in this traditionally blue state than he had when he won it by a few hundred votes in 2000. In 2004, New Mexico went for Bush by almost 6,000 votes. "The good thing is, we haven’t stopped working since 2004."
Pollster Matt Towery said each of the Rocky Mountain-Southwestern states have something to offer Democrats statewide and in congressional races, but even taken together — and no one thinks its likely that states like Wyoming and Utah will turn blue anytime soon — it might not be enough to tilt the presidential race, particularly against heavy hitters like California, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and Texas.
"You have to look at it from the perspective of delegates and electoral votes," he said. "If you can win a big state, then the little states don't matter."