Monday, November 06, 2006

The libertarian factor: Can the Democrats actually win seats in the interior West?

Twenty four hours to go. Political junkies are busy drawing up their lists of bellwether states and districts, in the hopes of divining, at the earliest possible moment, whether the Democrats are really destined to share power during the final two years of the Bush era. I’m in the process of listing my own bellwethers; they will be posted here tomorrow. But there are many other ways to look at these elections, starting with the electorate itself.

One can slice and dice the electorate in all kinds of ways. How will the suburban “security moms” of 2004 (suburban women with kids who gave President Bush the benefit of the doubt) opt to vote in 2006? Will Latinos, angered by the GOP’s strong anti-immigrant rhetoric, break heavily for Democratic candidates in new swing states such as Arizona and Colorado? Will Christian conservatives shrug off their multiple grievances with the GOP and become sufficiently enthused at the eleventh hour? Will African-American voters, mindful of Bush’s Katrina legacy, vote en masse to punish Bush’s party – while, in Maryland, sparking a GOP victory by helping to elect black Republican senatorial candidate Michael Steele?

But there’s another grouping of voters that has been somewhat overlooked in recent months, and they definitely deserve a mention. They don’t fall neatly into either the liberal or conservative camp. But they number in the millions, and while many live in pivotal northeastern congressional districts (in the Philadelphia suburbs, for instance), they are particularly populous in the interior western states – places like Colorado, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona. And their restiveness this year may well help the Democrats gain ground in these states, which have not been particularly hospitable to congressional Democrats in recent decades.

These voters – typically nicknamed “libertarians” – are classic believers in small government. They are fiscally conservative (they like balanced budgets), but they are socially tolerant (they want the federal government to stay out of their private lives). In the past, they have generally voted with the GOP, because they saw the Democrats as big government spenders. But now their sentiments may be shifting – because the governing GOP of the Bush era has become the party of big spending and record deficits, and the party of big government intrusion into private lives.

The Cato Institute, arguably the only Washington think thank that devotes itself exclusively to libertarian concerns, released an October report which cited broad voter disillusionment with the GOP’s “overspending, social intolerance, civil liberties infringements, and the floundering war in Iraq…The libertarian vote is in play. At some 13 percent of the electorate, it is sizeable enough to swing elections.”

One of the big reasons why President Bush and Vice President Cheney have spent so much time this past week in normally red states such as Montana, Colorado, Nevada, and Idaho is precisely because Republican incumbents are imperiled by the shifting mood of western libertarians. Ryan Sager, a conservative analyst (and author of a new book, The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party), wrote in a New York Post column yesterday that these voters “are sick to death of a party that has dispatched with any and all concern for cutting the size of government, and instead spends its time perpetuating its majority and pandering to the religious right.”

That last factor is potentially important. In an article last week about a bellwether House race in a Seattle suburb, where a Democrat might win the seat for the first time, some libertarian voters sounded off about the religious right’s influence in the national GOP. A services manager at Microsoft complained about Republican intrusions into personal affairs: “The Schiavo case. Tapping people without a warrant. Whether or not people are gay. Let people be free! It’s not government’s job to interfere with these things.”

Others, citing the issue of stem cell research, complained that the GOP was allowing religious morality to trump science. A partner in a software firm, whose father had Alzheimer’s disease, said that he was “outraged that a mere politician would interpret science for me.”

But the GOP, recognizing that these voters are crucial out west, still has a weapon in its arsenal. Bush stopped in Montana the other day, seeking to shore up support for embattled Senate incumbent Conrad Burns, and his main pitch was that Democratic challenger Jon Tester, if elected, would vote to raise taxes, just as he voted to raise taxes as a state legislator. This argument was seconded in Republican TV ads – and it might be working.

A few weeks ago, Burns was deemed to be toast, a casualty of the Jack Abramoff scandal, but now he appears to have a decent shot at survival, because the GOP is pushing libertarian buttons about those high-taxing Democrats. The question is, will the traditional libertarian fear of the Democrats to trump their misgivings about the track record of the party in power?

If Bush and the Republicans escape major damage tomorrow night, or even manage to hold both congressional chambers, it will probably mean, particularly out West, that most of the libertarians came home.