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  •   Colorado Struggle Typifies Democrats' Erosion in West

    By Tom Kenworthy
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, October 31, 1998; Page A13

    PUEBLO, Colo. – When Gail Schoettler mounted a Tennessee walking horse named Sam last May and began her race to become Colorado's next governor by riding across the state, she was carrying more in her saddlebags than a toothbrush and packet of campaign brochures.

    In a very real way, Colorado's Democratic lieutenant governor also was carrying the hopes of increasingly forlorn Democrats from all across the interior West.

    No other region in the country – not even the deep South – is as overwhelmingly Republican as the Rocky Mountain West has been in recent years, and it is possible that in 1998 the region will become an even more barren landscape for Democrats. Though Democratic candidates have mounted strong campaigns to pick up House seats in Idaho and Utah, they are struggling to hold on to Colorado's governorship and a House seat northwest of Denver – both of which have been theirs since the Watergate election of 1974.

    Debating her opponent, state treasurer Bill Owens (R), in Pueblo earlier this week, Schoettler made the case for continuity at the state house. With Colorado's economy booming, crime down and a state budget surplus, it is no time to rock the boat, said Schoettler, who in contrast to her opponent supports abortion rights and is against tax credits for private schooling and for investing a big chunk of the surplus into roads and schools.

    "Colorado is on the right track," concluded Schoettler in the one-hour debate before 400 voters at the Pueblo Convention Center, "and electing a Democrat as governor is going to keep us on the right track."

    In contrast, Owens – a former state legislator and oil and gas lobbyist – presents himself as the agent of change, a reformer who has bucked the educational establishment to set up charter schools and home-schooling legislation. "This is a system controlled by one party for way too long," said Owens. "We need change and we need change at the top."

    This is one of the few places in the West where a Republican can campaign by running against entrenched Democratic control. Across the other four interior Western states of Wyoming, Idaho, Montana and Utah, Democratic officeholders are as scarce as water in the desert.

    It wasn't always so bleak for Democrats in the West. Throughout the 1960s, '70s and even '80s, those states and Colorado sent a steady procession of Democrats to Washington to serve in the Senate and House, and even more regularly elected Democrats as governors. Moderate Democrats, such as former Idaho governor Cecil D. Andrus, and even liberal Democrats, such as former Montana representative Pat Williams, enjoyed electoral success year after year.

    For example, in 1980, the year Ronald Reagan won his first term as president, Democrats controlled the governorships of all five states, six out of the ten Senate seats and a third of the 12 House seats.

    Today, retiring Colorado Gov. Roy Romer is the lone Democratic governor from the region, Sen. Max Baucus of Montana is the only Democratic senator, and only two of the region's 13 House seats – both in Colorado – remain in Democratic hands. Republicans control 86 percent of the 29 congressional seats and governorships in the five-state region, compared with 48 percent two decades ago.

    Here in Colorado the change has been particularly dramatic. Hundreds of thousands of new residents, many of them conservative GOP voters from California and Texas, have poured into Colorado in recent years, transforming the politics of a state once considered the most liberal in the West.

    "It's been a Republican decade," said Floyd Ciruli, a Denver political consultant and pollster. "Republicans have done an incredibly good job with the two values that have dominated this decade, hostility to Washington and tax limitation. They have mastered that dialogue."

    In a recent survey he conducted, Ciruli found that among those voters who had moved to Colorado within the past decade, Republicans outnumbered Democrats by 44 percent to 28 percent. Five years after Democrats held a slight edge in registration, Republicans have a 120,000-voter lead in Colorado.

    "You see that phenomenon throughout the Rocky Mountain West," Ciruli said.

    The result in Colorado is that Democrats are struggling to hold onto the meager territory they have left, never mind regaining ground. At risk is not only the governorship, where Owens holds a slim lead over Schoettler, according to the latest tracking poll by the Denver Post and KOA Newsradio, but also the 2nd District congressional seat.

    In that House race to replace retiring Rep. David E. Skaggs (D), Boulder Mayor Bob Greenlee, a wealthy businessman and moderate Republican, is making a strong bid to defeat Democratic state legislator Mark Udall. If Greenlee wins, he would be the first Republican since 1972 to capture that district, and would leave the Colorado House delegation with a 5 to 1 GOP advantage. Both of the state's senators also are Republican, and polls have Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell a runaway favorite to win in his first reelection contest since abandoning the Democratic Party for the GOP.

    Ironically, Democrats enjoy their best chance of regaining lost ground in two of the region's most conservative states, Utah and Idaho. In Utah's 2nd Congressional District, Democratic challenger Lily Eskelsen is running neck and neck with freshman Rep. Merrill Cook (R) in the swing district centered in Salt Lake City. And in Idaho, former Democratic representative Richard Stallings is battling for his old eastern seat against Idaho House Speaker Michael Simpson, while Democrat Dan Williams is locked in a tight rematch against two-term Rep. Helen Chenoweth in the 1st District.

    For Democrats, though, those are faint glimmers of hope in a generally dark landscape. Williams, who won more consecutive elections in Montana than any other Democrat in that state's history, says his party's candidates have "to appeal to Westerners in their own language" and show voters they have the courage of their convictions.

    "What turns it around," Williams said, "are authentic candidates with passion, passion and a few guts."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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