Wednesday, February 7, 2007

What about Democrats and that surge? (No, the one out West, silly)

This recent article has been making the e-mail rounds amongst discouraged Republicans. Stuart Rothenburg of The Rothenburg Political Report and Roll Call decided to take a look at the ecstatic buzz coming from the Democratic Party about their prospects in the West.

His final judgment is that Democrats are taking an ordinary occurrence and painting it as a political sea-change. He's right of course.

His figures are even more compelling than Montana Headlines would have guessed off-the-cuff. Rothenburg:

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.

And again:

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!

Montana gets a reference:

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.

And as for the state legislatures:

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.

And on it goes. His bottom line is that the intermountain West has never been a reliable bastion of Republican voting. True, the bloc of Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming is pretty much counted on in Presidential elections, but as for hard-core partisan support? As much as Republicans would like to forget Frank Church or that string of Democratic governors in Idaho, they're still there.

As expressed before, it is the belief of Montana Headlines that the Democrat surge is real, and that Republicans need to pay attention to fundamentals and long-term strategy if they don't want to get swept away.

Rothenburg is right that Democrats have a history of doing well in the West. This is particularly true when Democrats put up sharp candidates against dull ones from the Republicans.

But that should make us even more worried, since that past history of Democrat success took place in a demographic climate far more favorable than the one that is developing. As The Economist recently detailed (the print edition has the more peppery title of "Dreams of Californication"), there have been two migrations of Californians into the intermountain West. The first was one that was pretty conservative -- mostly southern Californians fleeing what used to be Reagan country for what still was Reagan country.

The newer migration has a lot more northern Californians and is more liberal. As the Democratic mayor of Salt Lake City candidly said in that article, he wouldn't have been elected without them.

So, Rothenburg can crunch the numbers all he likes, but the times, they really are "a changin'."

Republicans who don't adjust are going to be in for a rude awakening if they think that they can win with the same old playbook. This doesn't mean giving up conservative principles and becoming "moderate" -- that would be a formula for disaster in a region that hates wishy-washy politicians.

It does mean learning new ways to articulate those principles. It means realizing that they once again have to convince the electorate that the traditional conservative way, for all its flaws, does the least injury to the people as they go about their lives, pursuing happiness in conditions of liberty.

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