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Democrats: The New Western Strategy Is Paying Off

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Barack Obama accepts the Democratic presidential nomination at Mile High Stadium in Denver, Colorado.

The election hasn't happened yet, so it's too soon to start counting electoral votes from the Democrats' new Western strategy. But the dramatic re-shaping of the electoral battlefield is already clear enough. While it's the current party leadership that deserves the credit for a new path to presidential power, much of the strategy has long been championed by former Senator Gary Hart, with some adjustments by former President Bill Clinton.

The new strategy came into clear focus, fittingly for a party that knew it had to gamble on a new route to the White House, in Las Vegas, in January 2007 over the Martin Luther King holiday weekend. The snow on the famed Las Vegas Strip the day before seemed only a little less unlikely to many in the national media and political establishments than the new moves that were unfolding.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and top labor leaders talked up the Democrats' new Western strategy in this January 2007 event in Las Vegas, seen in this New West Notes video.

"I've watched with apprehension over the years how we choose our presidential candidate," said U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "New Hampshire and Iowa are great states, but Nevada and the Mountain West will represent the rest of our country," he said, citing its greater diversity, range of issues, and labor representation.

With home state fave Reid presiding, Nevada Democrats and some of the most powerful labor leaders in the nation met at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas (UNLV) to inaugurate the early Nevada presidential caucuses and talk up a Democratic national convention in Denver, Colorado.

Three of the top labor leaders in the country, Linda Chavez-Thompson, Anna Burger, and Jerry McEntee, flew west for the Martin Luther King Day weekend, to announce their organizations' staunch backing for Western strategy. Chavez-Thompson and Burger represent the two national labor federations. Chavez Thompson is executive vice president of the national AFL-CIO, while Burger is chair of Change To Win. McEntee, for his part, is the longtime president of the powerful AFSCME (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees). McEntee and AFSCME were the first national labor backers of Bill Clinton when he sought the presidency in 1992.

The net effect was that the Democrats had a major new component to the struggle for national political power, a very active Western strategy. And in particular, since Democrats had already successfully implemented a West Coast strategy, a very active Mountain West strategy.

Ronald Reagan, seen in one of former Colorado Senator Gary Hart's ads in his insurgent 1984 presidential campaign.

Underlying much of this is the strategizing of former Senator and one-time presidential frontrunner (and old friend of mine) Gary Hart. The runner-up for the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination, who as co-chairman of the U.S. Commission on National Security predicted major terrorist attacks within America months before 9/11, had been pushing his party to pursue a Western strategy for some 30 years. A strategy paper the Coloradan prepared in 2005 was quite influential in Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean's decision to select Denver rather than New York for the 2008 convention, despite Denver having local problems with labor unions and not nearly the amenities of the Big Apple.

Hart's view for many years was that Democrats should switch their political focus from regaining the South to winning the West. The South is more focused on race and culture, in this view, the West more on resource management, energy and the environment, and opportunity, the South on "values," which plays into Republican hands on religiosity, the West on "principles," which does not, the South on older industries, the West on new industries. The South, Hart always believed, will only go Democratic again with a major economic downturn whereas Democrats could rise with the growing success of the West. The growing number of Latino voters in the West, and rising environmental consciousness, would be key.

The shift west is key. Even prior to this year, Democrats have become increasingly competitive in the West, not just in California and the West Coast, moving into striking distance in most of the Mountain West.

Two Western presidential candidates, Hart and Jerry Brown, enjoyed significant success in Democratic primaries from 1976 to 1992, with both the former Colorado senator and the former California governor emerging as runners-up for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Gary Hart discusses a new American internationalism on a book tour earlier this year.

Hart came the closest, winning 26 states against establishment favorite Walter Mondale, the former vice president, in the 1984 Democratic nomination race. After showing much better than Mondale in polls against President Ronald Reagan, Hart was the frontrunner for the presidency in 1988, but was derailed by what looks today like a rather quaint sex scandal that was probably engineered by his political opponents.

Hart's timely derailment allowed the first President Bush a strong path to the White House. But even then, California and the rest of the West Coast were poised to turn blue.

Former President Bill Clinton, campaigning last night with Barack Obama in Florida, helped pave the way for a Democratic breakthrough in the West.

It was Bill Clinton -- who was hired for his first major job in politics by Hart, then George McGovern's campaign manager -- who took some of the Western strategy principles and made them his own.

Now it's not just the West Coast that is going Democratic, but much of the Mountain West as well. The votes are yet to be counted, but Barack Obama has the lead in Colorado, New Mexico, and, yes, Nevada, that once reddest of red states. All this against a longtime Western senator, John McCain. And Montana and North Dakota are at least somewhat competitive as well. And, maybe even McCain's own Arizona.

This is a huge shift in presidential politics. We'll see how decisive it may be on Tuesday.

You can check things out throughout the day on my site, New West Notes.

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