New West summiteers seek to solidify gains

By Jason Kosena

The first Legislative session in January of 2007 marked a milestone in Colorado.

Not only was it the first session for newly elected Democrat Gov. Bill Ritter, but it also was the first time Democrats controlled both houses of the Legislature, plus the governor’s office since John F. Kennedy was president.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, talks about the importance of Democratic victories in the West during the summit.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

When Ritter took the floor on the session’s opening day, he announced that Denver had been selected as the site of the Democratic National Convention for the first time in a century. The chambers erupted in applause and a standing ovation.

Nearly three years later, Colorado has emerged as a “purple state,” and its recent trend of electing Democratic lawmakers has made the state an emblem of the changing demographics of the American West and the Democratic Party.

For decades, the interior West was under firm Republican control and considered flyover territory for both parties. But today, the Democrats believe the key to their continued political success may lie largely in their ability to win elections here in Colorado and in New Mexico, Nevada and, to a lesser extent, in Montana and Wyoming.

That political reality is what brought hundreds of Democratic leaders to Denver’s Colorado History Museum last week for the Project New West Summit. The gathering entailed two days of strategy sessions and speeches by some of the country’s most powerful Democrats. Only the first day of the summit was open to the media.

Project New West was founded by Jill Hanauer and is led by many of the same Western Democratic strategists who helped Democrats land big electoral victories in 2004, 2006 and 2008. In its current form, the group does political polling in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, and has become a major power player in Democratic circles.

During the summit, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, spoke to attendees about the importance the Obama campaign placed on the West during 2008 and emphasized the region’s fast-growing population. Reid also said the new president’s appointment of so many westerners to his cabinet — including Interior Secretary Ken Salazar — further illustrates the importance of the region on the national scene.

Rep. John Salazar, D-CD 3, speaks to participants of the Project New West summit in Denver last week.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

“This is no time to rest on our laurels,” Reid said to a crowd of about 400 people, exhorting them to build on the recent Democratic success.

Although most of the speechifying focused more on back-patting than political strategy, one speaker — White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina — outlined what he believes are the fundamentals of winning in the West. Before joining Obama’s campaign as a chief strategist, Messina ran Democratic campaigns in Montana, Idaho and Alaska.

Messina said it’s important for Western candidates to “look Western, talk Western” and show respect for the American flag.

“Western voters use and display the flag more than anywhere else,” Messina said, adding that he believes Democrats are winning in the West because they are tackling such difficult problems as transportation, energy production and education.

Messina also talked about the important role the West will play for both parties in the 2010 midterm election. After all, he said, Congress will begin work on the 2010 census, and any Democratic gains will be crucial to that process. To that end, Democrats will focus on gaining four new seats in Congress — one in Nevada, one in Utah and two in Arizona.

“(The) West is important to re-election and the battle for Congress,” he said, adding that, for many years, Democrats never tried to compete in the region.

Messina urged Democrats to stay in the game this time.

Gov. Bill Ritter talks about Colorado’s New Energy Economy while U.S. Sen. Jim Bingaman, D-N.M., right, listens.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

“We are on the move here, and we’re making substantial gains, in part because we learned to talk the right talk — and in part because we showed up,” he said.

Many speakers mentioned Obama’s choice of Denver to sign the stimulus package into law and reiterated the importance of the constant stream of cabinet level secretaries that have paraded the state in recent months. But it was Colorado’s place in the nation’s new energy future that seemed to grab the spotlight — especially when Ritter spoke.

During remarks to the group in the morning and during an afternoon session on renewable energy, Ritter touted the success he believes Colorado has had in attracting his vision of the “new energy economy” and highlighted the new jobs the state has attracted in recent years, including those gained as Vestas Wind and Conoco-Phillips built new facilities in the state.

“We’ve become a leader in what we first called the ‘new energy economy,’” Ritter said. “And although we’re pretty sure we were the first ones to use the term ‘new energy economy,’ we
(didn’t) get a patent on it because it seems everybody is using the phrase now.”