Thursday, February 01, 2007

Are Democrats Surging Out West? Numbers Say No

By Stuart Rothenberg

More than a few journalists and political pontificators have noted recent Democratic gains in the Mountain West, which includes Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. Some see those gains in 2004 and 2006 as shattering a reliable Republican region, while others argue recent wins are only the beginning of a Democratic rally that will continue in 2008 and beyond.

After one of the best newspapers on the planet screamed “West Is Going Democrats’ Direction” and “Political Shift in Mountain States” in headlines, I figured I’d look at the numbers myself to see how much of an opportunity Democrats have to turn the Mountain West blue, or at least purple.

After dissecting the historical data over the past 25 years and comparing it to election results from the past few cycles, it’s very clear that not much is going on. I’m certainly not ruling out changes in 2008 or 2010, and I’m not saying that there have been no changes. But so far, the hype about a shift has overwhelmed the reality.

First, a bit of history. Democratic candidates have done pretty well in the Mountain West in the past couple of election cycles, but that’s nothing new. Democrats have had significant successes in the region for many years, so portraying recent results as some sort of breakthrough is flat-out wrong.

Election returns since 1980 show that the Mountain West is really two or even three regions, not one. Utah, Wyoming and Idaho are reliably Republican in most cases, while New Mexico and Nevada are politically competitive. Arizona and Colorado definitely lean Republican in presidential politics but are much more competitive in other respects.

Former President Bill Clinton carried four Mountain States — Colorado, Montana, Nevada and New Mexico — in his 1992 election victory over then-President George H.W. Bush, and he won three states four years later: Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico. It’s true that in the two elections since Clinton, Democratic presidential candidates have carried only a single state, New Mexico (very narrowly, in 2000), but that’s more a statement about the party and its nominees than about the region’s inherent competitiveness.

New Mexico and Nevada definitely are competitive in presidential contests, but only Idaho, Utah and Wyoming are beyond the Democrats’ reach in those elections.

Much of the hype about Democrats in the Mountain West stems from the party’s victories in gubernatorial races. Democrats retained three governorships last year and added a new one (in Colorado). Democratic governors now sit in Montana, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Wyoming — five of the region’s eight states.

But that’s nothing new in the region. I went back to 1980 and found that Democrats won five of the past seven gubernatorial elections in Colorado and Wyoming (yes, that’s right, Wyoming), four of the past seven in both New Mexico and Nevada and three of the past seven in Montana and Arizona.

In attempting to drive home the point of a realignment, one journalist noted, “In 2000, all eight mountain states had Republican governors; now five governors are Democrats.” But why use 2000 as the baseline? In 1984, seven of the eight states had Democratic governors. Using 1984 as the baseline, you could even say the region is moving toward the GOP!

Anyway, if gubernatorial results reflected fundamental partisan strength and the potential of carrying the state in 2008, then Wyoming would seem to be a reliably Democratic state in 2008. Obviously, it isn’t.

How about Senate races? Democrats won a Senate race in Montana, as well as holding onto a seat in New Mexico. But again, winning Senate races in the region is nothing new for Democrats.

In three of the eight Mountain West states, Democrats have won a majority of all Senate elections since 1980. That’s right, a majority. They’ve won six of nine in Montana, six of 10 in Nevada and five of nine in New Mexico. In Colorado, they have won a considerable four of the past nine. Even Arizona has elected Democrats to the Senate in two of the past nine elections.

Forget about that history. If you think Democrats’ ability to knock off a politically damaged Republican in the worst Republican environment in 30 years tells you something about a state’s or region’s political trend, you are free to. Of course, you would be terribly wrong.

But what about Congress? Didn’t Democrats make gains in the House in the Mountain West? Sure, but what kind of gains?

Democrats netted three House seats in November, one in Colorado and two in Arizona. The Colorado district was drawn to be politically competitive, but it was also referred to as the “Perlmutter district,” after the Democratic legislator who was expected to run — and win — in 2002. Ed Perlmutter passed then, but he won the open seat last year.

One of the Arizona districts already was competitive, but became hard for the GOP when an anti-immigration bomb-thrower won the party’s primary. In other words, if you focus only on the numbers, you will miss the story.

How about state legislatures in the region? Democrats made small gains in the Idaho, Colorado and Arizona state Houses. No chambers in the region switched control, however, except the Montana House, which went from a 50-50 tie to a one-seat GOP majority. Again, if there was a Democratic surge in 2006, you’ll have to look under the rug to find it.

There were, of course, some Democratic gains in 2006. Much of the hype, I suspect, came from stronger than usual (though unsuccessful) Democratic efforts in House races in Idaho, Colorado, Nevada and Wyoming, as well as a lot of buzz about the Idaho gubernatorial race. But those showings occurred in a landslide year for Democrats, making the results more likely to be an aberration rather than a trend.

The Mountain West is not the South. It’s less reliable than Dixie for Republicans, and it’s less conservative on social/religious issues. Moreover, Democrats have had considerable success in the region over the past three decades, and the party’s nominee could carry a few Mountain West states in the ’08 presidential race, particularly if there is a nationwide trend toward their party. But the evidence strongly demonstrates that there has been no Democratic surge in the region, even if the hyperbole makes for a better news story.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on January 29, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.