News

Traditionally Republican states show they're open to Democrats

Steven Thomma
McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON - The next time you look at a political map of the United States, you'll have to adjust the color. After this month's elections, the old red-blue map that's defined the country for years is dead.

All the solid Democratic states are still Democratic blue - basically the West Coast, the Northeast and scattered Great Lakes states such as Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan.

Some are even bluer. Democrats took back the governor's office in New York, for example.

But a lot of states that were dependably Republican Red are now some other hue. Call them purple, striped or polka-dotted - the fact is they're now open to Democrats.

They haven't gone completely over. But they did elect some Democrats, signaling that they're in play. And that means a new center of gravity for the Democrats as they struggle to define themselves by governing in Congress the next two years and setting the table for 2008, hoping to consolidate this year's gains and win back the White House.

Democrats gained in states such as Colorado, where they picked up the governor's office.

That gives them a statehouse foothold across the Mountain West, as they now hold governors' offices in a solid line from Montana to New Mexico.

Democrats also picked up Senate seats in once-solid red states, such as Ohio and Virginia.

And they gained U.S. House of Representatives seats in such red states as Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee and Texas.

In part that reflects changes within those states. Migration of Democrats from the North to the Sun Belt continues to dilute the Republican red zone. Immigration brings new voters from Mexico and farther south, the majority of them Democrats once they vote.

It also reflects changes in the Democrats, who this year recruited centrists and moderates to compete in culturally conservative areas.

These new voices in the party - people such as incoming Sens. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Jon Tester of Montana and James Webb of Virginia - are certain to influence how the party handles issues such as abortion, taxes and gun control. Many are anti-abortion, anti-tax and pro-gun.

Democrats will want to keep those hard-won gains. And having tasted victory in red states, Democrats likely will want to go back and win the 14 House seats they lost by less than 1 percent, many of them in red states.

"Who you represent, who you're fighting over, changes thinking within the party. The party will be impacted by this election," said Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg. "When people look up at whose seats they are defending and the seats they can pick up ... that will impact what Democrats take up, what symbolic issues get put out on the table."

Issues that appealed to the party's liberal base might anger its new supporters and provide fresh ammunition to Republicans to re-energize their base.

Thus, a committed liberal such as Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the next House speaker, stifles talk about gay rights, a living wage, tax increases or cutting off funds for the Iraq war. The liberal base will push for those and more - but it can't rule the new map the way it did the old.

Another example: The last time the Democrats controlled the Congress, in 1994, they made gun control a centerpiece of their domestic agenda. This time around, it hasn't been mentioned, and many Democrats boast of their support for gun rights.

"If somebody brings up guns," said Democratic strategist James Carville, "I'm going to shoot `em."

These states also may be purple for the 2008 presidential election.

Democrats now hold governors' offices in states with 295 electoral votes - enough to win the White House.

"I consider all those states part of the presidential strategy," said Greenberg, who helped Bill Clinton win the presidency in 1992.

Still, one of the challenges facing Democrats is to find a presidential nominee who can satisfy both the liberals of Los Angeles and New York and the moderates of Golden, Colo., or Missoula, Mont.

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