How the West will be won

August 26, 2008|By Thomas F. Schaller

DENVER - In the 1930s, Colorado officials realized they were facing a long-term water problem because the Continental Divide channels about 80 percent of rain and snowmelt westward toward neighboring states and, ultimately, the Pacific Ocean. But most of the population of the state lives east of the Rockies, in the Front Range. So Colorado politicians decided to dig tunnels through the Rockies, creating man-made arterials that redirect waters eastward to those burgeoning, thirsty counties. The Colorado-Big Thompson Project solution ranks among the greatest public works feats in the history of the American West.

The Democratic National Convention that opened here yesterday signals another redirection project - of a very different nature, but in its way no less ambitious. For the first time in 80 years, the Democratic Party is holding its national convention in a city west of Chicago and east of California. Led by Chairman Howard Dean, Democrats thirsty for victory picked Denver with the intent of converting this state and other portions of the West away from the Republican Party and into fertile, blue terrain.

That project has already witnessed several early successes. Prior to 2004, the Republicans controlled the governor's office and both chambers of the state legislature, and held four of seven U.S. House seats and both U.S. senate seats in Colorado. Two cycles later, the Democrats control the governorship and both chambers of the state legislature. They hold four of the seven House seats and one of the two Senate seats - and they are favored to replace the other, retiring Republican senator this November.

FOR THE RECORD - Ohio has 20 electoral votes. A column Tuesday, "How the West will be won," gave a different figure. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

With the possible exceptions of New Hampshire and Virginia, no state has seen a faster partisan turnaround for Democrats than Colorado.

What the heck is going on in the Interior West? As I discuss in my book, Whistling Past Dixie, the short answer is that this is no longer the land of cowpokes and tumbleweeds. The Interior West is home to most of the fastest-growing states in the union: Arizona and Nevada are perennially the top two, with Colorado and sparsely populated Idaho also on pace this decade to be among the top 10.

Growth in the region is fueled by two trends: the in-migration of Americans from other regions, many of whom have relocated from dying areas of the Rust Belt, and the immigration to America of millions of Hispanics, mostly of Mexican origin.

As the United States has steadily (and, for many, painfully) transformed from an industrial economy into a service sector- and technology-based one, millions of hard-hat employees along the Interstate 90 corridor from Boston to Milwaukee have seen their jobs shipped overseas. The lucky ones were old enough to retire before watching their jobs vanish. In response, many Americans from the Rust Belt packed up and drifted south and west in search of not only warmer climes but also cheaper property, green spaces and greater control over their school districts.

The West is also viewed as a land of opportunity for Hispanic immigrants who have arrived, legally or not, with the hope of creating a second life in the First World. Because Spanish-speaking is more common in Southwestern states than anywhere but South Florida and the ethnically Hispanic neighborhoods of the coastal cities, Southwestern states made for especially appealing destinations.

Combine these demographic surges with growing environmental sensitivity in response to the laissez-faire regulatory attitude of Republican administrations - which have tended to favor corporate oil, gas and mineral rights over land and wildlife conservation - and you have an electoral recipe for change in the West.

In January 2001, none of the eight states of the Interior West, from Montana down to Arizona and New Mexico, had a Democratic governor; today, five do. In 2006, the Democrats also made significant down-ballot gains in congressional and state legislative races, too.

How will Barack Obama do in the Southwest? Republican John McCain's home state of Arizona is almost certainly out of reach, but among the other three, the most likely to flip from red to blue are, in order, New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada.

In New Mexico, Al Gore eked out the narrowest of wins (366 votes) in 2000, but George W. Bush bested John Kerry four years later. The Massachusetts senator did better in Colorado, cutting Mr. Gore's loss margin in half. Nevada is a bit tougher, but not impossible.

If Mr. Obama can slip these three states, he'll net 19 electoral votes - one more than Ohio's quadrennial prize. Doing so would signal the arrival of a new, winning electoral map for the Democrats.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears regularly in The Sun. His e-mail is

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