October, 7th 2009

Signs of hope for the GOP in the Mountain West... stay cautiously optimistic

– Liz Mair

Longtime readers will know that Republican difficulties in recent elections in the Mountain West (and specifically in MT, CO, NV, AZ, and NM) and corresponding Democratic gains in the region are a pet interest of mine and something I've written about quite a bit.  So you won't be surprised to see that these headlines are grabbing my attention this morning: "It's Berry," from the subscription-only Albuquerque Journal, and "What does Berry’s victory mean for 2010?" from Heath Haussamen.

Yes, indeed, last night, Albuquerque, New Mexico elected a Republican as mayor.  Furthermore, the City Council is now Republican-controlled.  This is big news for several reasons:

  • Albuquerque has not had a Republican mayor since 1985-- so this looks like a fairly noteworthy change;
  • Albuquerque is the biggest city in New Mexico and sits in New Mexico's first congressional district-- one that has been regarded as a top target to hold/take by both parties in recent years (Democrat Martin Heinrich currently represents it, having been elected with a respectable, but not huge margin in 2008; previously it was held by Republican Heather Wilson who was very narrowly re-elected in 2006)-- so when Republicans win in the city, it arguably denotes a shift in power that could have further, national ramifications;
  • New Mexico, it goes without saying, is a state where Republicans have been getting our butts kicked recently, a trend that is worrisome in large part because the New Mexico effect has not been contained, but rather exported, chiefly by Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson.  Richardson has successfully transplanted his "libertarian Democrat" (i.e., fiscally conservative, pro-gun, but socially moderate-to-liberal and generally green) views, or at least, image, to other Democratic leaders and candidates in the West.  Folks like Brian Schweitzer and Bill Ritter have in turn won office by running as a different kind of Democrat to [insert name of national level, liberal Democrat here: John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, etc., etc.].  In New Mexico and elsewhere in the Mountain West, this has successfully put Republicans, whose brand in the West looked not so bright and shiny for a variety of reasons in recent years, in a proverbial box.  But if a Republican mayor and Republican-controlled city council have now been elected in Albuquerque, so the argument may go, the GOP could be on its way back (if you see New Mexico as something of a predictor of political fortunes in the West).

That's an argument I find hard to fault, for the record-- though it's worth exploring the underlying question, "why did Berry win" and the secondary question which follows from it, "why might Republicans be on their way back in New Mexico and elsewhere in the West"-- not questions with a single answer. [intro]

First off, here's what one prominent New Mexico Democrat, Michael Ray Huerta, a member of the New Mexico Democratic Party's state central committee whose views were summarized by Haussamen in his piece, thinks: Democrats had two candidates on the ballot for mayor, a progressive and a moderate.  This meant that while 56 percent of voters apparently supported a Democrat, they didn't support either Chavez or Romero as a block.  If they had, that candidate would have beaten Berry. That in turn means a) this election was a little outside the norm (usually one candidate from a given party will ultimately give way to another in order to achieve party unity and improve the prospects of a win) and b) the Republican gained because Democrats were deeply divided.

We've seen this before, though frankly, earlier in this decade, with some exceptions, it tended to be a phenomenon that plagued the GOP more than it did the Democratic Party and probably did contribute to our losses in 2006 and 2008.  While we didn't necessarily have contentious primaries between moderates and conservatives in every race going, there was a major rift within the party, which to some degree remains-- though I would argue that with Obama and congressional Democrats' poll numbers souring overall, especially with regard to Obama's handling of, e.g., the deficit (which ties in with spending) that rift is becoming less apparent.  Conservatives (at least the real ones) abhor high spending; when faced with very liberal spending policies, it would appear a lot of moderates and independents (both of whom had recently soured on the GOP plenty) do, too.  This also becomes a primary concern for libertarian-minded voters who previously might have looked more favorably than you'd think on Democrats because of, e.g., the divide between the parties on civil liberties issues, social issues, and so on.

But I digress: The point is, while Berry's win is one that should encourage Republicans, the fact is that he was aided by an apparently rather divided Democratic Party which is something that we may see elsewhere, or we may not.  My instincts tell me that the split between moderates and progressives over, e.g., the public option means we will see more of this kind of thing.  But the bottom line is, that is within Democrats' control, not Republicans'-- so as a party, the GOP shouldn't count on it.

What the GOP may be able to count on, to a large degree, is anti-incumbent sentiment.  This is what another top New Mexico blogger and politically savvy commentator, Mario Burgos, sees as a primary driver of Berry's win:

I think the GOP needs to be careful about misinterpreting this win as a vindication. As the Democrats are quick to point out, the majority of votes went to the Democratic candidates, not the Republican candidate. However, more important is this fact noted by Eye on Albuquerque:

But what's also clear is that a solid 65% of voters wanted someone other than Martin Chavez to be mayor.

There is no mistaking it. There is a strong anti-incumbent sentiment out there among the voters. As Don Harris' City Council race demonstrated, that doesn't mean that anyone can win a seat, but it does mean that voters will choose a truly qualified leader over the entrenched incumbent.

Anti-incumbent sentiment is, of course, something that benefits Republicans as the national, minority party.  It frankly should benefit the GOP quite a bit in the Mountain West in 2010, too, if it persists: Former purple states like New Mexico, Montana, and Colorado now look pretty darned blue, while former rock-solid red states like Arizona look purplish.  The region has a not-insubstantial number of Democrats who are already considered vulnerable up for re-election in 2010, too: Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, Senate Majority Leader and Nevada Senator Harry Reid, Heinrich (mentioned above) and New Mexico congressman Harry Teague (who Haussamen has written about here) being among them.  Add to that Colorado Senator Michael Bennet and Diane Denish, currently New Mexico's Lieutenant Governor, who will be asking voters to sign off on, respectively, continued service in the Senate and taking the reins from Richardson in New Mexico.

However, as Burgos also alludes to, Democratic rifts and anti-incumbent sentiment aren't the only things that enabled Berry to win yesterday-- and I think they won't be the only things that enable Republicans to win in other races next year, either.  Qualifications matter, and frankly, so do priorities and philosophy. In his statement congratulating Berry, RNC Chairman Michael Steele indicated that the win was attributable to the appeal of conservative principles, which he commented exists nationwide, and not just in New Mexico.  I agree with him about this, where we're talking about conservative principles with regard to spending, specifically, and taxing, generically.  A lot of voters in this country, including many Republicans (of which I am one) were very unimpressed with the spending habits of President Bush and the Republican Congress.  However, the fiscal mismanagement that is already occurring under President Obama and the Democratic Congress is even worse, and people know it.  Ultimately, people are more conservative than those currently running things when it comes to money.  It may have taken some pretty big spenders to remind Americans how fiscally conservative a lot of us are, but if you believe the polling, it seems to be happening.

Ultimately, Republicans are the ones standing up for fiscal conservatism, or at least less fiscal liberalism, depending on how you see it, right now.  Voters will see that more and more as we head into next year, and where they do, I believe that will be a primary driver of Republican gains.  The Mountain West should be a place to watch because of the prevalence of libertarian-ish views there, which marry up nicely with Republican espousal of fiscal restraint-- as well as apparent Democratic Party rifts and strong anti-incumbent sentiment. Back in August, Obama's slide in some Mountain West states, including notably Colorado, which he won in 2008, was apparent.  It will be interesting to see the effects of what currently looks like a cocktail of bad news for Democrats this time next year.  If things continue on their current trajectory, I wouldn't want to be a Democrat running in the Rocky Mountains region.


(Thanks to Brian Faughnan at RedState and Ben Smith at Politico for the links.  You should read their stuff if you don't already!)


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