Politicians follow voter drift to western states | AspenTimes.com

Politicians follow voter drift to western states

Cristina Silva
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

LAS VEGAS – Rapid population growth in the West means Colorado, Montana, Nevada and New Mexico could be major battleground states during the 2012 elections, according to a new report compiled by western Democratic strategists.

“Twenty years ago, this was not a competitive region electorally,” said Jill Hanauer, president of Project New West, a Denver-based research group organizing western Democrats. “The Democrats, at least, absolutely see the West as critical for their long-term competitiveness.”

The group is heading to Nevada to host a conference on how to appeal to the new voters who are driving the West’s changing demographics. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was scheduled to open the two-day Project New West conference Oct. 16 in Las Vegas.

The event precedes a GOP presidential debate and a similar conference for Republicans also in the city that week.

The new focus on western states is being driven by an explosion of Hispanic and independent voters, two prize demographics for both parties. Those voters could sway races next year – and political campaigns are taking note.

Republican presidential hopefuls are making fundraising stops in California, Nevada and Utah, and President Barack Obama is taking his tour to promote his jobs bill to Las Vegas later this month. Nevada is angling to retain its post as the nation’s third presidential nominating state next year.

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Critical electoral battles in the state, Montana and New Mexico also will likely decide whether Republicans will reclaim the Senate majority next year.

The attention on the West is a dramatic shift from previous years, when candidates only stopped in the region to collect cash, barely bothering to woo its many conservative voters. Shifting demographics have since made the states more competitive – Census data shows Nevada was the fastest-growing state in the nation during the last decade, followed by Arizona and Utah.

Unaffiliated voters make up more than a third of the electorate in Arizona and Colorado and 19 percent in New Mexico, according to data compiled by those states. That means Democrats in some western states, including Nevada, were able to hold on to their majorities at the state level last year even as Republicans took over statehouses across the nation.

Hispanics also represent a competitive voting bloc because they are comprised of different cultures and national backgrounds, the report said.

“Although Latino voters in the West have favored Democrats in the past, it is critical to remember that Latino voters are not a monolithic voting bloc,” according to the report, which was obtained by The Associated Press.

To compete here, candidates will need to address western issues such as water conservation, border security, green energy and education, Hanauer said. That means a stump speech that goes over well with voters in New Hampshire or Florida could easily tank in Arizona, she said.

“Politicians, regardless of their party, need to pay attention to this region and really understand it,” she said. “We westerners, we want to be taken seriously and we want our issues to be taken seriously.”

Republicans are expected to argue the same case when they gather in Las Vegas days after the Project New West conference. CNN will kick off the Western Republican Leadership Conference with a GOP presidential debate on Oct. 18. The four-day conference will include appearances by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Texas Sen. John Cornyn.

“A lot of times, we have been left out of the whole debate,” said former Rep. Jon Porter, the event’s chairman. “Sometimes the West is forgotten, but we have unique issues to the rest of the country with our public lands, with our shortage of water, with our energy needs.”

Porter said the GOP debate in Nevada later this month is the biggest sign yet that the West matters.

“The fact that they are actually coming a year out is a huge compliment to Nevada,” he said. “They realize that we are ground zero. We are a swing state. It’s a huge target for both Republicans and Democrats.”