How the Democrats Won the West

It seems clear now that on election day voters set aside two long-held guiding principles of political wisdom. The first of those is Tip O’Neill’s oft quoted truism “All politics is local” and the second is the century old “I vote for the man”not the party.” Many voters ignored both of those on election day. The Democratic Party brilliantly nationalized this election, equating a vote for Democrats with a vote for change in Washington, D.C.

Throughout the summer and fall, the party’s strategists and the candidates worked to ride the rising wave of change. Congressional scandal followed scandal with the resignations or jailing of prominent Republicans such as Duke Cunningham, Bob Ney, Mark Foley, and Tom DeLay. Americans also watched, helplessly, as our stubborn president insisted on “staying the course” in the disaster that is Iraq. Bush’s approval rating fell to an astonishing 34 percent. For comparison purposes, we recall that Bill Clinton’s lowest approval rating during his second term mid point was 43 percent”a whopping 9 points higher than W.’s. Seeing that, Democrats moved to convince the voters that a vote for a Democrat, any Democrat, was a vote against Bush.

The 1994 “Gingrich Revolution” swept Democrats from the majority in the U. S. House. Just prior to that election only 24 percent of Americans approved of the job being done by the then Democratic Congressional majority. In comparison, the approval of today’s Republican Congress dipped to an all-time low of 16 percent. The policy missteps and ethical wrong-doings of Congressional Republicans played straight into the Democratic strategy of convincing voters that long-time Republican incumbents simply had to go if change is to be the order of the day in both the U.S. House and Senate.

Here in the Rocky Mountain West, the “50 State Strategy” of Howard Dean, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, was of significant help. Dean invested staff and money in the West as neither political party had ever done prior to this year.

The critical factor in the high support for Democrats here in the Rocky Mountain West was the votes of women, Native Americans, young people and Hispanics. In Montana, Indians and people under 30 years of age were critical to Senator-elect Jon Tester’s 2,600 vote margin. Democrats also did very well in those Rocky Mountain states with large populations of Hispanic Americans. Exit polls confirmed that women, both married and single, voted in significant majorities for Democrats, resulting in the election of four out of five Democratic governors in the states of the Rockies and significant increases in most state legislative seats.

This year it was the potent elixir of change that drove the Democrats to their historic election night victories.

PAT WILLIAMS served nine terms as a U.S. Representative from Montana. After his retirement, he returned to Montana and is teaching at The University of Montana where he also serves as a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West.



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Pat Williams served 18 years as Montana’s Congressman. He now lives in Missoula where he teaches at the University of Montana.

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