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. They're independent thinkers by nature, and they want answers from pragmatists, not pabulum from ideologues. "James Dobson and Grover Norquist don't get your highways paved," Straayer told me. "They don't get your universities funded. They just tear it apart and elevate other issues."
Pat Williams, the nine-term Democratic congressman from Montana who now watches trends in the region as a senior fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West, said that Republicans used to count on the high peaks of the Rockies as a kind of magic barrier--not just the marker of the Continental Divide but also a kind of cultural and political divide that would keep liberal successes contained to the Pacific Coast. "For Republicans, the Rockies are like a levee," Williams said. "The levee on the left bank. It's been leaking. Republicans have been doing a lot of sandbagging out here, but it's starting to break, and if it does, it's going to flood Republicans out for a long time."
I was in Greeley on the Fourth of July to watch Congressman Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat, as he stumped for votes in his race for the Senate seat that's being vacated by retiring Republican Wayne Allard. I wasn't alone. The New York Times had a reporter there and so did the Bloomberg news service. A few years ago it would have seemed like a waste of time for any out-of-state political writer to be following a Democratic Senate hopeful to a place like Greeley, and certainly a waste of time for the candidate himself to be there.
Yet there was Mark Udall, tall, sure of step, fit and handsome in his cowboy casual and with his steely gray hair, standing on the back porch of the home that was hosting the Democratic breakfast, talking up his campaign. He ticked off the issues he believes voters care about these days: Renewable energy. Universal health care. An honorable exit from Iraq. Taking care of veterans.
The picnic-goers in Greeley gave hearty applause only to the line about veterans. These are the kind of people that the Democratic Party has been working hard to better relate to in the Mountain West--voters supportive of green energy in theory but worried that it somehow means higher gas prices, voters who favor better health care in the abstract but are wary of big government initiatives, voters who are fed up with the Iraq War but are susceptible to the argument that withdrawal means surrender. By fielding candidates that look the part and speak with the direct and sometimes gritty tones of a rugged region, Democrats have found that they can now be heard long enough to, for example, disabuse a group of voters of the notion that any investment in cleaner energy is going to make it even more expensive to fill up their pickups.
I watched Jon Tester do this in 2006 in Montana during his run for Senate. Here was a third-generation farmer in a Carhartt jacket, his left hand missing three fingers from an accident with a meat grinder. Montanans, it turned out, were eager to listen as he made the connection between Republican fiscal priorities and the fact that it was increasingly difficult for working families to find time to "go out fishin'." Tester won that race, sending the corrupt Republican incumbent Conrad Burns into retirement and helping to give Democrats their current one-vote margin in the Senate.
One doesn't necessarily have to be a farmer familiar with meat grinders to win in Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico, the three most coveted swing states in the region. But a love of the region's spectacular lands, and a pragmatism about utilizing their vast natural resources are prerequisites. So is a respect for people's desire not to be interfered with too much and a tolerance for the fast-growing diversity that is reshaping many of these states.
A fundamental dynamic of the region is that the farther south one goes, the less white the states become. Montana is almost 90 percent white. Colorado is 70 percent white, with Hispanics making up by far the largest minority group. And by the time one reaches New Mexico--which, with its huge Hispanic population and large Indian tribes, has been majority-minority for decades--one is solidly out of the areas of the Mountain West where the nativist language of, say, a Tom Tancredo, has any large-scale political utility. In fact, it seems appropriate that Tancredo announced last year that he will be retiring when his current term expires, as it's becoming clear that both dispositionally and demographically, the future of the Mountain West is not with people such as himself.
In Greeley, in the back of a campaign van shuttling us from the Democratic breakfast to the Fourth of July parade and the cattle drive that was about to kick it off, Mark Udall explained his core message to Coloradans: "Pragmatic environmentalism, a new energy economy, libertarian social policies, and tax policies that are right-sized and explainable, where the voters can see a return on their investments." What he doesn't talk about? Divisive social issues.
"The citizens in the West," he told me, "have said, ‘Here are our priorities: We're libertarians with a small L. We're "live and let live" on the social issues. There are bigger challenges and more important opportunities in front of us than telling people what their personal behavior should or shouldn't be. That includes things like firearm ownership. ... Where you worship is nobody's business. Who you have a long-term relationship with is nobody's business. The choices you make about your family's reproductive future are nobody's business.'"
It's a message not likely to be welcomed at the Focus on the Family headquarters in Colorado Springs, but one smartly calibrated to appeal to prickly rural Democrats and also, and perhaps more important, to the huge mass of independents (or "unaffiliateds" as they're called in Colorado) who now make up a bloc significantly larger than registered Democrats in the state. The Colorado case is an extreme example of a phenomenon found all over the region: In several Mountain West states, independents and independent-minded Republicans make up a group that Democrats must reach in order to win.
Naturally, Colorado Republicans want to cast Mark Udall as a scary liberal out of touch with the state's values. His opponents refer to him derisively as "the congressman from Boulder" (which, in Colorado-speak, is similar to saying he's on the faculty at Berkeley). They say his ideas about the environment will mean higher gas prices. And they point out that Mark Udall is the descendent of a storied liberal political dynasty that goes back more than 100 years in the Western United States. After all, the Western ethos of rugged individualism doesn't exactly mesh with the idea of dynasties and their attendant entitlements.
Which is probably why Mark Udall told me that he doesn't like the word "dynasty" much. But whether or not he acknowledges it, his famous relatives are important to his political history. Mark Udall's father, Morris Udall, represented Arizona in the House for 30 years and helped to double the size of the national parks system. His uncle, Stewart Udall, served as secretary of the interior under Kennedy and Johnson and is credited with passage of landmark environmental legislation such as the Clean Air Act. And his cousin, Tom Udall, Stewart Udall's son, is a congressman from New Mexico who is currently running for the Senate seat being given up by Republican Pete Domenici.
There's a certain synchronicity to the fact that both of the younger Udalls, Mark and Tom, are now running for Senate. They were both elected to Congress in the same year, 1998, and then, as now, their success or failure was seen as an important barometer. Back then it was a question of whether the region that once sent an earlier generation of Udalls to Washington had become far too Republican to ever do so again. In a dispatch from the campaign trail in 1998, James Brooke of The New York Times writes: "Elected Democrats have become in the West similar to the endangered species that the Udalls once championed in Washington." The victories of Mark and Tom Udall in 1998 showed that significant Democratic wins were, in fact, possible in the Republican-dominated Mountain West.
This year, if both of the Udall cousins win their Senate races, as polls in New Mexico and Colorado suggest could happen, it will again be seen as a sign--this time as a strong indication that the region's politics have so fundamentally shifted since 1998 that an era of Republican dominance is now in the past tense.
Tom Udall is standing at a rural gas station in New Mexico. He's tall like his cousin Mark but with a rounder face and a lot more brown than gray atop his head. Sagebrush and sun-baked earth recede into the distance behind him, and he's walking toward the camera with a gait that suggests he might have just ridden up to the pumps on a horse. As he walks, he explains to the viewers at home what he intends to do about high gas prices.
Here's what you don't hear Tom Udall say in this campaign commercial: "more drilling." His opponent, the oilman and former congressman, Steve Pearce, is more than happy to utter such words, but Tom Udall plays a different set of cards. "First, stop hedge-fund speculators from driving up the price of oil," he says. "Get oil companies to build new clean refineries in the U.S. to increase supply, or take away their tax breaks. And get serious about alternative energy." He sounds tough-minded and sure of himself, and he sounds angry about the price of gas, but he's channeling that anger toward faceless businessmen manipulating the energy market (read: Republicans).
That an aspiring Mountain West senator is addressing the energy issue in this way is notable and indicative of the changing issue matrix in the region. It's a complicated shift, but to broadly summarize: As economic and environmental issues have come to the fore in recent years, social issues have receded in importance in voters' minds. At the same time, as the Iraq War and other unpopular strategies backed by Republicans have sapped confidence in the Republican Party's ability to lead, more people have become interested in hearing Democratic solutions.
"Republicans have believed ever since Reagan that Westerners care more about corporate extractive jobs than they do about landscape and clean places to hunt, fish, and camp," Williams of the Center for the Rocky Mountain West told me. "That's a mistake." Or, at least, it has become a mistake for Republicans over time.
Swing states in the Mountain West have had some of the fastest-growing populations in the nation over the past decade, and these populations have grown, in large part, due to an influx of young college graduates, urban professionals, and well-educated retirees who move to places like Boulder and Missoula and Taos seeking a better quality of life. Unsurprisingly, these new arrivals do not tend to have a huge soft spot for the old extractive industries like oil and natural gas. They relocated to enjoy the area's natural beauty, and presented with a choice between the environment and the economic imperative to drill, they choose the former. There's also a growing recognition in the Mountain West that it's a wise investment to protect the natural beauty that so many tourists pay to experience. On top of all this, Democrats have simply become much more savvy about finding ways to draw independents and conservatives to their side in defense of the land.
That process is key to the changing political fortunes in the region, and it almost always has to begin with disarming the gun issue. Successful Democrats in the Mountain West tend to be vociferous defenders of the Second Amendment--and often hunters or gun owners themselves. In Colorado, on the day after the Fourth of July, I followed Mark Udall to an event he was holding in a shotgun-shell-covered clearing in the Pike-San Isabel National Forest, located in the foothills of the Rockies just 40 miles southwest of Denver. The event was intended to promote a new initiative he has launched to fund and improve shooting ranges on public lands.
Mark Udall may have arrived in a black Prius, but he is far from the caricature of the Prius-driving lefty, desperate to bend your ear about the plight of polar bears and the need for trigger locks. Instead, Udall bent my ear about his mother's sharpshooter and marksman certificates from the National Rifle Association, his own experience hunting doves and quail, and his proposal to let hunters help cull the overgrown elk herd in Rocky Mountain National Park (an idea that has raised the ire of many environmentalists). His spokeswoman, Tara Trujillo, who sometimes spends her weekends with a 20-gauge shotgun and a bunch of fellow trap and skeet shooters, stood nearby listening carefully. After the event was over, Udall's deputy political director, Gaspar Perricone, stayed behind to shoot with the sportsmen who had come to hear the Senate candidate speak. As I drove away, I saw him knock a clay pigeon out of the air with one quick shot from his 12-gauge Browning.
Steve Cobble, once an aide to former Gov. Tony Anaya of New Mexico and a longtime observer of the region's politics, describes events like these as part of a process of helping conservative-leaning outdoorsmen "realize who their real enemies are."
Mark Udall would never put it quite in those terms. But, he told me, "we've heard for years and years from the Republican Party that Democrats are going to take away your guns. Well, in the West, everybody still owns firearms, but what's been happening is the places where you hunt and fish are being taken away, whether it's through the privatization of public lands, or widespread oil and gas drilling, or other uses that take precedence. ... I mean, it's pretty tough to go hunting in the Pinedale Anticline in Wyoming now where you have thousands of gas wells. ... The Democrats are saying, ‘Wait, there's a balance here. Yeah, we need fossil fuels, but let's go slow, let's protect the activities which are historically how we identify ourselves.'"
The simple idea expressed in his last sentence, that Democrats represent an authentic us that is tied to the region's natural heritage and sense of itself, and that Republicans represent a corporate them more interested in money than in preserving the West as Westerners enjoy it, is perhaps the most powerful play the Democratic Party is now making in the region.
It's clearly working. The big question is how well it will have worked by Nov. 4.
Barack Obama, whose calm pragmatism is a perfect dispositional match for the region but whose "otherness" and urbaneness could pose a significant challenge, will have to invest heavily in the Mountain West if he's to take enough states to really alter the electoral map. And Mark and Tom Udall, who both seem well positioned to make the jump to the Senate, still have months of campaigning ahead of them. Will voters still be open to the Democratic talk about the environment if gas prices keep rising all the way through to November? We may very well find out.
We may also find out next year, in the event of a double-Udall victory, what it means to have a few more gun-shooting Western pragmatists in the Senate. In thinking about this, the case of Jon Tester--who helped give Democrats control of the Senate in 2006 but can't always vote like a coastal Democrat if he wants to be re-elected--is instructive. The Udalls would face a similar challenge in the Senate, and too many party-bucking Western pragmatists could create another point of fissure in the majority.
But for now that's all hypothetical, and in any case, after the last eight years, it's a comparatively good problem for the Democrats to have.
What's certain is that the Mountain West is moving in a new direction and that this movement is favoring Democrats in a big way. "The change out here is significant and real," Williams told me.
"But," he added, with a warning note in his voice, "it's no more permanent than it was for Republicans."