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Morning Jay: Electoral Review Part 3, The West

6:30 AM, Nov 15, 2010 • By JAY COST
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Today we continue our post-election overview by looking at the West. Historically, the West has been a fairly volatile region. In the 1880s the Republican Party figured that the West would be a GOP bastion, and accordingly the 51st Congress (1889-90) added four western states to the Union (plus North and South Dakota). However, the GOP was in for a surprise, as the West tilted Populist in 1892, then went Democratic in 1896. From that point until about 1960, a victorious Democratic coalition always depended upon an alliance of the South and the West.  

Today, the West is an integral part of both party coalitions, but it is now an almost inverse of what it was 50 years ago, when the Republicans dominated the Pacific Coast and the Democrats ran strongly in the sparsely populated interior. In the intervening years, the coast shifted toward the left, and thus to the Democrats. Meanwhile, air conditioning helped grow the suburbs, and thus GOP strongholds, in the Mountain West -- and the urbanization of the Democratic coalition pushed rural, Bryanesque progressives into the Republican camp.

Unsurprisingly, the West tipped Democratic in 2006 and 2008, so that by the time Barack Obama was inaugurated as the 44th President, this was the breakdown in Western House districts.

But two weeks ago, the GOP rebounded.

What's interesting here is how similar these results are to the Northeast. In all of the Pacific West, the GOP netted precisely zero congressional districts (if you count the loss of Hawaii's 1st Congressional District against the gain of Washington's 3rd). This is just like New England. And also like New England, there was indeed a shift in the congressional vote in the Pacific West. It just wasn't big enough.

The bottom line is that the three major states of the Pacific West are just so strongly Democratic that even when a Democratic president is pulling in less than 50 percent support nationwide, the party can still hold the line.

But on the other hand, the GOP did have success in the Mountain West, at least on the House level. In 2004, the last time the Republicans controlled a House majority, 20 Republicans came from the Mountain West. In the upcoming Congress, 18 will hail from this region, and a shift of just 5,000 votes in southern Arizona would have brought the GOP fully back to where it was six years ago. In this way, it appears similar to the Mid-Atlantic, where the GOP victories earlier in this month resulted in a return to the pre-2006 party strength.

This snap back in the Mountain West is significant, but it has been somewhat overlooked -- in part because of terrible Republican under-performances in Colorado and Nevada, where the GOP lost two Senate races and one gubernatorial race it really had no business losing.

While there is no doubt that Democratic strength has increased in the Mountain West in the last decade (or, more specifically, in Colorado and Nevada, as the Democrats have typically been strong in New Mexico and the GOP still dominates the other states), the GOP losses in Colorado and Nevada amounted to unforced errors. It's like a football game where one team is slightly stronger than the other, but has a net turnover rate of -3. That's a deficit that is just too much to come back from.  

In both Colorado and Nevada, GOP House candidates won the statewide popular vote; in both states a majority of voters disapproved of President Obama's performance in office; and in Nevada, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Brian Sandoval, crushed a candidate whose last name was the same as the Senate candidate -- Reid. That last point is about as close to a "smoking gun" as we ever can get in this kind of analysis, and it demonstrates that Sharron Angle was a very weak candidate, indeed. There's no other way to explain why so many voted to endorse the father but reject the son.

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