You may have never heard of Wayne Allard, but he is a significant political figure this morning, if only because his imminent departure from the U.S. Senate brightens Democratic prospects for retaining control of the chamber two years hence.
The Republican senator from Colorado announced yesterday that he would not seek a third term in 2008, thereby keeping his promise to serve only two. Maybe he planned all along to honor his pledge. On the other hand, prevailing political realities in Colorado probably made it easier for him to pull the ripcord on his parachute. The fact is, he would have been forced to endure a difficult and costly re-election race – at a time when Democrats are ascendant not only in Colorado, but elsewhere in the interior western states.
Indeed, the Democrats announced just last week that they would be holding their 2008 national convention in Denver, in part to advertise the party to westerners who, until fairly recently, were deemed to be loyal Republicans. For various reasons (both ideological and demographic), voters in the region are taking a fresh look at the Democrats.
The facts speak for themselves; in Colorado, for example, the Democrats now control the governorship and both state legislative chambers for the first time in four decades, and they hold four of the seven U.S. House seats. They also hold one of the Senate seats (Ken Salazar, elected in 2004), and they were expected to seriously threaten Allard if he ran again in 2008. But now, with no incumbency trappings to worry about, the Democrats have enhanced their chances for an open-seat pickup – and strengthened their national prospects for holding the Senate, particularly since the GOP has to defend 21 of the 33 seats on the ballot in ’08.
The GOP in Washington yesterday put out a statement about Colorado, quickly drawing a line in the sand: “Republicans will retain the seat currently held by Sen. Allard and (we) will do everything in (our) power to ensure the principles of fiscal responsibility and limited effective government returns to the people of Colorado in November 2008. The voters of Colorado supported Pres. Bush over Al Gore in 2000 and again over Senator John Kerry in 2004, and Republican statewide registration is 36 percent compared to 30 percent for Democrats - ensuring Republicans a strong advantage in 2008. Retention of this seat is now a top priority..."
But even before Allard opted to bail on schedule, the Democrats had been talking up the interior West, as potentially fertile turf for their ceaseless quest to become more than just an East Coast/ West Coast party. Just six years ago, Republican governors ran all eight states (Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming); today, Democratic governors run five. The landscape still seems daunting in national elections – President Bush swept all eight states in 2004 – but some Democratic analysts today argue that an attractive ’08 Democratic candidate could be seriously competitive in five of those states (aside from Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming), thereby easing the pressure on Democrats to crack the solid Republican South.
Their reasons for optimism can be attributed to a number of factors: a large influx of California emigrants, many of whom, while fiscally conservative, are also more tolerant on social issues than the southern-flavored national GOP; a large influx of new Hispanic voters, many of whom dislike the GOP’s hard line stance on immigration; the ongoing presence of traditional western conservatives, whose leave-me-alone libertarianism clashes with the national GOP credo that big government should be utilized to police private behavior; and a growing pragmatic feeling, particularly around major urban centers such as Las Vegas, Denver, and Albuquerque, that government should indeed have a role in solving urban problems and ameliorating the worst aspects of suburban sprawl.
The average voter, of course, wouldn’t articulate the factors that way. I think that Rick Allaire, a Coors brewery worker, probably said it best last month, as he recalled his ’06 vote during a chat with a political reporter: “I figured, hell, why not give Democrats a shot. How much worse can they do?”
That’s the kind of voter that Democrats need to enlist in ’08, both in the presidential race and in the Colorado Senate race. But if Democrats tap candidates who can be easily stereotyped by the GOP as traditional eastern liberals, they may well wind up undercutting their own quest for the interior West.
Speaking of candidates, Barack Obama filed the initial paperwork today for his ’08 White House bid. Notwithstanding the fact that he is a senator, it’s clear that he plans to position himself as an “outsider” who is fed up with the usual partisan bickering in Washington. (That has been the preferred candidate stance, dating back to Jimmy Carter’s initial wanderings in 1975.) Therefore, he will paint himself as being above the fray, as a transformative figure and a breath of fresh air. From his statement today:
“I've been struck by how hungry we all are for a different kind of politics….The decisions that have been made in Washington these past six years, and the problems that have been ignored, have put our country in a precarious place….But challenging as they are, it's not the magnitude of our problems that concerns me the most. It's the smallness of our politics. America's faced big problems before. But today, our leaders in Washington seem incapable of working together in a practical, common sense way. Politics has become so bitter and partisan, so gummed up by money and influence, that we can't tackle the big problems that demand solutions.”
Translation: I am “new politics,” while Hillary Clinton is a symptom of the “bitter and partisan” old politics. I am part of the solution, she is part of the problem.
The early contours of the Democratic race are already apparent. Obama and ex-senator John Edwards are positioning themselves as outsiders (on Sunday, Edwards, another announced candidate, lectured Capitol Hill Democrats about being too timid on Iraq, declaring that "silence is betrayal"). They seek to contrast themselves favorably with Hillary (the six-year senator, and eight-year First Lady during the bitter and partisan ‘90s) during this crucial early phase, when the donors and activists are busy kicking the tires.
I predict that, with Obama now on board, the odds of an accelerated Hillary Clinton candidacy announcement are approximately 99 percent.