After a landslide victory in 2008, Barack Obama and his political advisors vowed to not only fundamentally change America, but to lock down their victory by fundamentally changing the politics of the American West.
Those were heady times for Western Democrats. Brian Schweitzer had won the Montana governorship in 2004, and Colorado progressives had a plan in place that they were correctly convinced would turn that state from Red to Blue in short order. The decision to hold that year’s Democratic convention in Denver signaled a deep belief in progressive circles that the West was changing, and that by working the region Republicans could be locked out of the White House and the Senate control for years, or even decades.
But that was then. Last week President Obama flew into Colorado once again because Democratic control of the Senate could depend on whether Mark Udall, who was elected as part of the president’s western strategy six years ago, will be re-elected in November. He and Gov. John Hickenlooper, who as Denver’s mayor in 2008 had “hosted” the 2008 Democratic Convention, are fighting for their political lives. Both the Senator and governor declined to be seen in public with Mr. Obama, though Sen. Udall did agree to appear with him at a private fundraiser for his own campaign which was closed to the press.
Their reluctance to embrace their president and the leader of their policy cocktail of Obamacare, regulatory overreach and an Obama-led war on guns, coal and fracking are changing the landscape in these states more quickly than those who designed the progressive western strategy could have imagined back then.
Since 2008, Republicans have elected governors in Nevada and New Mexico, recalled Democratic state legislative leaders in Colorado and may well be on the cusp of reclaiming control of the U.S. Senate with crucial election victories in the region.
This turnaround hardly means the West can be taken for granted by Republicans and conservatives, who might now assume as Obama and his allies did a few short years ago that things are moving their way.
Progressives thought they had the region figured out even before Obama’s 2008 victories. The election of Mr. Schweitzer as Montana’s governor in 2004 was hailed by the national media and Democratic strategists as a model for victory in other states. He was even talked about as a future Democratic presidential possibility; talk which obviously went to the man’s head as even now he considers himself a viable national candidate.
The key was to avoid hot button issues that might turn off traditionally conservative voters while focusing on popular concerns without getting into the nitty gritty of how one might go about dealing with them. His appeal owed much to the populism of a century ago, and it seemed to work. He was for guns and was skeptical of Washington. He railed against corporate greed and the like, and he won.
The problem is that rhetoric gives way to reality once a candidate is elected. Obama, Schweitzer, Udall and Hickenlooper talked a good game as candidates, but after their elections couldn’t match their actions to their rhetoric. The expectation that they were somehow “different” from the liberals who came before them was never fulfilled. And they lost the voters that had made their victories in the region possible. Those voters, or many of them, will be voting for Republican candidates in November.
The Republicans, however, have yet to develop the cohesive message that will allow them to rely on these states in future elections. Many western states Idaho, Montana and Colorado being prime examples have swung back and forth in the past if Republicans fail to take advantage of the opportunity they have been presented.
David A. Keene is Opinion Editor of The Washington Times.