ROCKY MOUNTAIN LOW
Don’t Look Now, but the Mountain West Is Turning Blue
From the 1980s until recently, Republicans were as ubiquitous in the Rockies as Coors. But Tuesday, the Democrats made serious inroads in nearly every state. What’s happened?
Republicans have a problem.
While they’re continuing to perform OK-ish in the Midwest and the South in the era of Donald Trump, on Tuesday they got hammered in the Mountain West—a region loosely defined as “cowboy country,” i.e., Texas plus everything from Colorado and New Mexico to the borders of the Pacific coast states. It’s the continuation of a trend that’s been going on for more than a decade, but it’s particularly worrisome now. Republicans should be able to win in states largely populated by fiscally conservative, pro-gun rights individuals. But the results Tuesday were no bueno.
Nevada and Colorado are starting to look more blue than purple. Arizona, which has more Electoral College votes than either, has been Republican since forever but now appears to be an honest-to-God swing state. New Mexico, which used to be a swing state, is now completely out of reach for the GOP except under the most unusual circumstances.
Montana has been showing for some time that if you run the right Democrat, it can go blue. Even Utah and Texas appear to be changing, politically. It’s all very bad news for the GOP, but it’s unclear whether national figures sitting in offices in Washington, D.C., have noticed or care about it.
Democrats asserting political prowess in the Mountain West really started in the 2000s, when New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, chair of the Democratic Governors Association and perhaps the quintessential Western Democrat, began a major push to get more Democrats elected in the region. (Back in my grandparents’ heyday, you could find plenty of them, but by the time I came of age, they were a scarcer breed).
Richardson created a fiscally conservative (or passable version thereof), socially liberal, and pro-gun blueprint for use by Democrats running in the area (fun fact: Until former Sen. Fred Thompson entered the 2008 presidential race, Richardson had the best NRA rating of any candidate in either party). It got results: In the 2000s, Montana, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and even Wyoming had Democratic governors.
As a result, Westerners got more acclimated to voting for Democrats, or at least against Republicans. In 2008 and in 2012, President Obama won Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico. He got close to the 50 percent mark in Montana in 2008, too. In 2016, Hillary Clinton—dogmatic Democrat, and bad candidate that she was— won Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico again. But she also got close in Arizona. Trump only topped her by 3 percent there; just 12 years before, President George W. Bush beat John Kerry by 10 points in the state.
Fast forward to 2018. Democrats out West aren’t even consistently running Richardson-blueprint candidates and yet the region was a source of bad news for the GOP on election night.
Arizona saw both major parties’ Senate candidates end up in a nail-biter contest that a Republican should have had a much easier time nailing decisively. Had the Green Party candidate not been on the ballot, Democrat Krysten Sinema probably would have won cleanly. In the next Congress, Arizona will have more Democratic representatives than Republican ones.
President Trump flying into Montana to whip up his base didn’t work; Democratic Sen. Jon Tester hung onto his Senate seat (Montana still has a Democratic governor, too, by the way).
Democrats again won the Colorado gubernatorial race (they’ve now had three governorships back-to-back-to-back). Republican Rep. Mike Coffman lost his race so Colorado, too, will have more Democratic congressmen than Republicans as of January 2019.
In Nevada, voters will in January have a Democratic governor for the first time in 20 years, and two Democratic senators to boot. Nevada also elected a Democratic Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General. Three out of four of the state’s congressmen next year will be Democrats.
New Mexico’s governorship moved back into Democratic hands, and even without former Gov. Gary Johnson in the Senate race, the Republican candidate would likely not have earned more than 40 percent. In the next Congress, New Mexico will have an entirely Democratic congressional delegation.
In Utah, it looks like the Democrat won in the 4th district, which if it holds will send one of the GOP’s only two African-American congressional representatives home.
Sen. Ted Cruz nearly went down to Rep. Beto O’Rourke. The Lone Star State also saw significant Republican congressional losses.
What is driving all this, you may ask. In part, it’s demographics.
Over the last decade, Arizona, Nevada and Colorado especially have had an influx of more socially liberal Californians hightailing it to their states to escape high-tax and high-spending policy. As a United Van Lines study last year showed, Americans are leaving Midwestern and Northeastern states and heading to places like Nevada and Colorado. It doesn’t take a genius to conclude that those moving now are attracted to the West for the same reason pioneers were—they loathe business- and politics-as-usual as conducted in the earlier-settled parts of America, and they like the opportunity and “can do” spirit that abound out West.
Then, there’s the Hispanic vote. It’s plentiful in the Mountain West, especially its southernmost states, and in some, it’s ticking upwards and shifting more Democratic. In 2016, CNN exit polls showed just 15 percent of voters in the Arizona Senate race were Latino. In 2018, 18 percent were. In the 2016 Senate race, those same exit polls showed 53 percent of Latinos voted Democratic. But in 2018, 69 percent did. That’s a big change benefiting Democrats.
Undoubtedly, President Trump’s harsh immigration policies and rhetoric, combined with his widely-perceived hostility to Hispanics—many of whose families have been living in the Mountain West for hundreds of years, well before his family every arrived in the U.S.— is having a negative effect on outcomes in states like Arizona; Republican Martha McSally inexplicably ran on restricting legal immigration.
But there’s a bigger problem. Remember the point about current and prior generations of Americans moving west to get away from Midwesterners and East Coasters with their locked-down socio-economic stratification, frequent pessimism, and often annoying personal attributes and attitudes? Trump’s brash New Yorker-ism and implicit message that America sucks (because it has to be “made great again”) put him out of step with the West culturally. Maybe some Democrats elected this year are, too, but neutral-to-positive experiences with Democratic governance have apparently left the region open to them nonetheless.
This all matters because the Mountain West isn’t experiencing population drain; quite the opposite. As a result of the last census, Texas, Arizona, Nevada and Utah all picked up congressional seats, whereas with the exception of Louisiana, every state that lost seats was in the Midwest or Northeast. That United Van Lines survey suggests that we can expect more of this.
By 2024, that means that presidential candidates that play well in the Mountain West are going to have an advantage over those who don’t. And in the meantime, the GOP could see more tough fights, and more losses all over the region.
Tuesday night showed the Mountain West remains a liability for the GOP, and one they need to address. Otherwise, voters should expect to keep watching the modern, political version of yesteryear’s Spaghetti Westerns every other November—bevies of high-noon gunfights, featuring “red” and “blue” gunslingers broadcast live on CNN, in which the “red” dueler pretty much always gets dusted, and with no Clint Eastwood to provide maximum entertainment.