Western Voters Could be Up for Grabs for Obama and McCain
Colorado, Montana, Nevada, and New Mexico are among the battleground states this cycle
MELVILLE, MONT. Dennis McDonald keeps a rifle in his office for taking aim at coyotes that mosey onto his 25,000-acre ranch and harass the cattle and quarter horses he raises. On his desk, stacks of paperwork from cattlemen's groups compete for space with livestock auction schedules. And a colossal stuffed moose head presides over the rambling home he shares with his wife, Sharon, and three dogs.
This lean, Kansas-born rancher seems straight out of a John Ford western but with a twist: A San Francisco lawyer and activist in an earlier life, McDonald, 64, is head of the state's resurgent Democratic Party. And that makes the proprietor of Open Spear Ranch in central Montana the point man for Barack Obama in Big Sky Country. Over the coming weeks, it will largely be up to McDonald and Brian Schweitzer, who four years ago became the state's first Democratic governor in 16 years to help convince the overwhelmingly white, pro-gun, libertarian-inclined voters here that it's the young African-American Democrat they want in the White House. Not their fellow westerner Republican John McCain, who turns 72 this month.
"We're going to deliver the state of Montana for him I promised," says McDonald, who spent the July 4th holiday with Obama, 47, and his family in Butte. It was Obama's fourth visit to the state, where he thumped Sen. Hillary Clinton in the June 3 Democratic primary. Four years ago, McDonald's boast would have seemed folly. President Bush defeated Democrat John Kerry here by 20 percentage points. In 2000, Bush buried former Vice President Al Gore by more than 100,000 votes, 240,178 to 137,126. And no Democrat has won here in a two-person presidential matchup since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. (In a three-way race in 1992, Bill Clinton, with 37.6 percent of the vote, eked out victory over Republican George H. W. Bush and independent Ross Perot.)
Western sensibilities. The McCain camp has been banking on that history. McCain has been so confident he'll pick up Montana's three electoral votes that he has yet to visit the state or establish a presence. And he has no plans to lay out serious campaign cash here. "We don't need to," says one top adviser. The campaign, which will rely on limited public campaign funding, has made the calculation that resources would be better spent in places with big electoral troves like Ohio, Florida, and Michigan.
But Obama, parsing the electoral map, has sensed opportunity out west, and he has a rich supply of private donations to go after those voters. Party leaders pushed for the convention to be held in Denver, and the Democrat has been pouring money and staff into Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico. Obama even hopes to make a race of it in McCain's home state of Arizona. A recent poll showed him neck and neck with McCain in Montana (Obama had a small lead in early July), in a dead heat with McCain in Colorado and Nevada, and leading in New Mexico. Obama has been targeting those states with television ads since mid-June. McCain holds the edge in Arizona and is expected to dominate in deep-red Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho, where Bush smothered Kerry in 2004 by margins ranging from 39 to 46 percentage points.
The McCain camp acknowledges it has a fight on its hands in Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico but is confident about keeping other Mountain West states red with little investment. Montana state Senate Minority Leader Corey Stapleton, a Republican, says ignoring his state is fine, as long as McCain has a winning national game plan. But Stapleton, who, like McCain, is a Naval Academy graduate, says he's still waiting for McCain's campaign to gel. "We're reaching a point where multiple things are going to have to happen," he says. "They need to paint a contrast that McCain has the DNA to make decisions and make them quickly, and Obama is an inexperienced candidate with left-of-center views." The gun issue, he adds, will hurt Obama. Obama, who has been endorsed by the moderate American Hunters and Shooters Association, received an F rating from the National Rifle Association for supporting gun control measures. McCain has an NRA rating of C.
Here, the right to bear arms is sacrosanct; you don't run for office in Montana if you don't believe that, says Schweitzer, who has an A rating from the NRA. Marty Rau, 58, a lifelong Montanan and railroad worker who lives outside Missoula, agrees. "Any type of restriction on ownership just simply opens the door to more," Rau says. "A pickup truck with a gun rack--that's how it's always been."
Shifting politics. But the Mountain West is clearly in transition. The long Democratic primary season helped the party register new and more enthusiastic voters. And in Montana, there has been an influx of more liberal residents over the past two decades. Most of the arrivals, says Schweitzer, who is expected to cruise to re-election this fall, have been more interested in the economy, environment, energy, and education than in the cultural conservative agenda of opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage that had come to define the state's Republican Party. Dave and Sharon Martin, former residents of California's Silicon Valley who have lived just outside Bozeman for 15 years, say they sense the shift in the state—and not just because of newcomers. "People here are still conservative," says Dave Martin, 65, "but they're fed up with the status quo of government in general." Ron Paul, he noted, finished second to Mitt Romney in the state's GOP caucus, ahead of McCain.
Daniel Kemmis says a "political realignment" has been taking root in the Mountain West for eight years. "If you looked at the political map in 2000, the Rocky Mountain West had become a one-party region," says Kemmis, a senior fellow at the University of Montana's O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West and a former state legislator. There were no Democratic governors in those eight states and only three U.S. senators. Now there are five Democratic governors and five U.S. senators, including both senators from Montana. Still, Kemmis says, "none of the states in the Rockies are a given for Obama, and several of them are a given for McCain."
Montana GOP Executive Director Jake Eaton says he believes Obama's strength in the polls is "afterglow" from the unaccustomed attention the state received during the Democratic primary and will fade by Election Day. But with six regional offices in the state, dozens of paid staff—"and we're still hiring," says Obama's Montana spokesman, Caleb Weaver—it's clear that the expected Democratic nominee isn't simply looking for a symbolic showing. Back at the ranch, McDonald says that the years of Democrats giving up on Montana are over, whether Obama pulls out big western victories in the fall or not. "He's brought so many into the party that this will be a huge benefit to Democrats for years to come."