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For Surprises, Democrats May Go West

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Roll Call will publish every Tuesday and Thursday through the week of the elections. But to supplement our print editions, we are offering free online campaign coverage, including our Election Map, which provides the latest information and analysis on all of the 2006 House and Senate races. And for more news and ratings, check out the Rothenberg Political Report, compiled by Roll Call contributing writer Stuart Rothenberg.

While Democrats have been fixated all cycle on making House gains in the Northeast and Midwest, they have discovered a new frontier far west of the Mississippi River, where a disproportionate number of competitive races are now emerging.

Whether significant Democratic gains in states such as Colorado, Nevada or Arizona could be a harbinger of the Mountain and Western regions’ growing significance beyond this November remains to be seen.

But what is certain is that Democrats are set to make inroads in what has been staunchly Republican territory for years.

“The West is very bad right now, as compared to what it normally is,” conceded one GOP consultant who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The consultant added that while Republican prospects for holding seats in Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Indiana still look grim, the drop-off in this year’s GOP vote in several key Western states will be much greater than in those Eastern and Midwestern districts.

“In terms of the difference between the normal Republican performance and what we’re going to see this year, the West is the worst that we’re going to see,” the strategist said.

In recent weeks Reps. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.) and J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.) have come to look much more vulnerable than once thought and national Republicans have had to pour money into both races as they endeavor to save their 15-seat majority.

Two years ago President Bush won re-election with 54 percent of the vote in Hayworth’s district and 58 percent in Musgrave’s district. As of Tuesday, the National Republican Congressional Committee had spent a combined $2.54 million on the two races.

Democrats are also poised to pick up the governorship of Colorado, while Democratic governors in Arizona and New Mexico are cruising to re-election.

In Nevada, where Rep. Jim Gibbons (R) had been viewed as the slight favorite in the gubernatorial contest, a recent controversy has made the five-term Congressman’s prospects look a lot less certain.

A new Democratic poll released Wednesday even showed Rep. Butch Otter (R) struggling in his bid to become the next governor of Idaho. The poll showed Otter trailing newspaper publisher Jerry Brady (D), 42 percent to 40 percent.

The open seat Otter is leaving behind has turned out to be a surprisingly difficult hold for the GOP, as has a solidly Republican open seat in Colorado, after bloody GOP primaries produced battered and unpopular nominees.

“There could be some real surprises in Idaho,” said state Democratic Party Chairman Richard Stallings, who served in Congress from 1984 to 1992.

Stallings said the “Western phenomenon” that could produce positive gains for his party is the result of unease and unhappiness among fiscal conservatives and independents, who are more willing to vote for the person over the party.

Idaho’s state’s independent trend was reflected in the 1992 presidential contest, when President George H. W. Bush got 42 percent of vote, while Bill Clinton got 28 percent and Independent Ross Perot got 27 percent.

Stallings described his frustration with getting Democratic leaders to pay attention to the open Idaho House race this year, given the conventional wisdom that no state that voted 68 percent for President Bush in 2004 would be fertile ground for a competitive contest.

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