LAS VEGAS – Americans have trekked West in search of riches for more than 150 years — and Barack Obama is doing the same.
Like the country’s original frontier settlers, the Democratic presidential hopeful is driven to this Republican-leaning region by a sense of opportunity — and a quest for power.
He desperately wants to win in GOP rival John McCain’s domain, and is playing hard in fast-growing Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico while watching, likely in vain, for a potential opening in Arizona — the state his opponent represents in the Senate.
“This region is very much in play,” said Brian Sanderoff, a nonpartisan pollster in Albuquerque, N.M. “The fact that McCain is a westerner from a nearby state will be offset by the Democratic mood of the nation, thereby making the race really competitive in the West.”
Tight polls and constant attention from both candidates attest to that little more than two months before the election.
Democrats dominate liberal coastal states, compete strongly in the swing-voting Midwest and typically cede the conservative South to Republicans. They have fiercely competed for the West in recent presidential elections, seemingly with little place else to turn to try to ramp up their electoral vote count.
They’ve had mixed success.
After decades of GOP dominance in presidential elections, Democrat Bill Clinton won Nevada and New Mexico in back-to-back elections in the 1990s, though Clinton won Colorado once and Arizona once. Democrat Al Gore won only New Mexico in 2000, and by a razor-thin margin, and Democrat John Kerry lost all four in 2004.
This year, for reasons both political and demographic, Obama has focused on Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico as top states to try to seize from Republicans in his bid to reach the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House. Combined, the three offer 19 votes.
He has spent all summer pouring money and manpower into these states and will accept the party’s nomination next week at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. At least for now the fourth, Arizona, is getting almost no attention; McCain has a comfortable lead there in polls.
“If Obama’s able to win in these states it will have more to do with national trends against the Republican Party manifesting themselves than with political and demographic changes on the ground,” said Bob Loevy, an authority on Western politics at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. “That national shift has to be great enough to upset the historical pattern of these states tending to vote Republican for president.”
Democrats argue that a host of factors are coming together to give them their best chance in years in the West: a national malaise about the past eight years under the Republican President Bush, Democratic victories in recent statewide elections, and, primarily, an influx of new Democratic-leaning residents. They include scores of Hispanics drawn by jobs and land as well as urban liberals from the coastlines seeking recreation and retirement.
Voter registration numbers reflect the shifting landscape.
Across the region, Democratic signups have outpaced Republican over the past eight years. In Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada, specifically, Republicans held a 124,000 advantage in party registration in November 2004. Now, the latest reports in the four states show Democrats with a 73,000 edge.
In part, the boost can be attributed to the extended and competitive Democratic primaries and the Obama campaign’s effort to tap into previously unregistered voting pools and the general public’s sour attitude toward the Bush-led GOP.
Pat Welding, a barber in the sprawling Las Vegas suburb of Henderson, typifies the trend.
He twice voted for Bush but abandoned the Republican Party recently after his son-in-law got called up for a second tour in Iraq.
“I registered Democratic because I was so mad,” Welding, 58, said while standing outside of his shop. He noted the lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Bush’s justification for going to war, and said: “It’s a sham.” He will vote for Obama because “he’s talking about getting us out of there.”
Republicans are fighting to win back such party-switchers.
In Nevada’s Washoe County around Reno, the party has sent letters to about 1,200 voters who’ve dropped their Republican registration. The letter acknowledges “this has been a difficult year for most of us in many different ways,” does not name any Republican politicians and asks voters to come back to the party to support “a full slate of candidates.”
“The vote’s going to be tight. There’s no denying that,” said Heidi Smith, the county’s GOP chairwoman. But, she said, “I really think there are enough people who, I don’t want to say fear Barack Obama, but just don’t know him, and will end up voting for McCain.”
Like the rest of the country, voters in the West care deeply about the economy, gas prices and national security issues.
But they also consider candidates’ records and rhetoric on water rights, mining laws, federal land management, the environment and conservation — and that’s where McCain believes he has an edge given his Arizona roots and western ties.
Obama is emboldened by the fact that more left-leaning people now call the region home.
In Colorado, Interstate 25 cuts through Denver’s political power center, from Colorado Springs — home to the Air Force Academy and the headquarters of the conservative Focus on the Family — in the south to Boulder — chock full of liberals and environmentalists — up north. Rocky Mountain ski towns brim with upscale Democrats.
New Mexico’s Democratic areas are in the north around artsy Santa Fe and Taos, home to liberal transplants, and the southwest around Hispanic-heavy Las Cruces by the Mexican border. The state’s primary Republican region is in the southeast, called “Little Texas” because its right-leaning politics are akin to those of its next-door neighbor.
Most Nevadans live in the gambling hubs of Las Vegas and Reno. Compared with the rest of the state, those are more moderate areas that in recent decades have attracted retirees and young families drawn from the East and West coasts by the relatively low cost of living, as well as Hispanics looking for jobs in the tourism and construction industry.
Hispanics now account for about 20 percent of the population in Colorado, 25 percent in Nevada and a whopping 45 percent in New Mexico.
They are the political wild card because it’s uncertain how strongly they will turn out to vote.
As a Democrat, Obama has a formidable edge among them, but McCain’s ties to a nearby state, as well as his years of work in the Senate to change the immigration system, could help him lessen that margin much the same way Bush’s Texas roots and long relationship with Hispanics did in previous elections.
It won’t be easy for McCain.
Take Maria Alfaro, 51 and a housekeeper at the Las Vegas Hilton.
A Honduras native who became a U.S. citizen in June, Alfaro said her family is made up of Democrats and that, as a member of the local Culinary Workers Union, she will cast her first vote for Obama. “He’s focused about the workers and what he wants for our future,” Alfaro said. “He never forgot where he came from.”
She’s unhappy with the direction of the country and Bush’s Iraq policies. And, she doesn’t know much about McCain, saying: “We see him on the news, but we don’t pay much attention to him.”
By Liz Sidoti, Kathleen Hennessey