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Go West, Young Dem

In todays' LA Times, Mark Z. Barabak's "Democrats Push for a New Frontier" provides encouragement to Dems looking west for gains in in '06 and '08. Notes Barabak:

Democrats have reason for hope. In the Pacific West, California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii continue to lean their way in presidential politics. In addition to the party's strong 2004 showing in the Colorado Legislature, Democrats elected a governor in Montana and took control of the House and Senate in Helena, the first time they won either chamber in a decade.

The party also now has governors in Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming. Overall, Democrats gained 31 legislative seats across the West in 2004, but the party continued to lose ground in the South.

At the presidential level, the West accounted for six of the 10 states where Democratic nominee John F. Kerry topped Al Gore's 2000 performance.

New Mexico and Nevada — which President Bush carried by less than 1 percentage point and 2.6 percentage points, respectively — had two of the four tightest contests in November.

"Given the closeness of the presidential vote in New Mexico, Nevada and even Colorado" — where Kerry won 47% of the vote — "we don't need to make great inroads," said Paul Harstad, a Democratic strategist in Boulder who has done extensive polling throughout the West. "We need to make incremental inroads."

Echoing predictions from The Emerging Democratic Majority, Barabak says demographic trends offer even more encouragement:

Another reason for Democrats' optimism is the rapid growth of the Latino population throughout the West.

Census figures show that from 2000 to 2003, the most recent year surveyed, Arizona's Latino population grew by more than 250,000; Colorado and Nevada gained roughly 100,000 Latino residents apiece; and New Mexico's Latino population increased by about 45,000.

Democrats look to California, where the increased Latino vote helped fuel a surge in party support over the last decade, and believe they can replicate that success elsewhere across the region.

But Dem candidates must get up to speed on the all important nuances of image-crafting for western voters.

Democrats need to talk in a "Western voice" that resonates with voters and lays to rest old stereotypes, said Pat Williams, a Montana congressman for 18 years until retiring in 1997.

Williams, a fellow at the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West, a policy center at the University of Montana, said when it came to environmental issues, he "seldom mentioned the word 'wilderness' because that denoted the national government setting aside huge pieces of a state. Instead, I always talked about clean places to fish, hunt and camp."

Gov. Schweitzer is blunter still. Seated in the governor's modest office in Helena, he is the very image of Western informality in bluejeans and a loosely fitted bolo tie.

"Don't dress like a lawyer," he counsels his fellow Democrats. "Don't talk like a lawyer. And be prepared to go out and meet people and answer their questions straight. Don't wiggle around and sort of be with them and sort of be against them…. I think most people don't spend the time to figure what all the issues are all about. They want to know you have a heart and a backbone."

Interesting insights, and with a more substantial investment in Dem candidates, it appears that the Party can look forward to significant gains in western states as early as '06.