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Democrats Fear Losses in Mountain West

WASHINGTON - After making historic gains in the interior West in the last three elections, Democrats are bracing for expected losses in the region in 2010.

Declining support for Democrats among the West's crucial independent voters, combined with traditional losses for the president's party in a mid-term election, will make next year especially tough for the party, political analysts say.

"The Democrats have to defend what they've won, and it's not going to be easy," said Eric Herzik, chairman of the political science department at the University of Nevada, Reno.

The president's party has lost seats in Congress in every mid-term election but three since 1865.

The Democrats most vulnerable to becoming victims of that historic trend are those who haven't been in office long and who hold seats wrested from Republicans in the last two or three elections, analysts say. That describes about a dozen Democratic House members in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada and New Mexico.

"If you're a Democrat who won with less than 55 percent of the vote, the Republicans are going to be aiming for you," said Patrick Kenney, director of the School of Government, Politics and Global Studies at Arizona State University. "And, in the Mountain West, the Republicans can find credible candidates and financing to mount a competitive race."

After the 2000 election, Republicans held the governorships of all eight interior West states, 13 of the 16 Senate seats, and three-fourths of the House seats. After the 2008 election, Democrats had five governorships, seven Senate seats, and 17 of the 28 House seats.

(The Republicans subsequently got back the governorship of Arizona when former Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano stepped down to become President Barack Obama's homeland security secretary.)

Disillusioned with former President George W. Bush, independents were attracted to Democrats' 2008 message of change. But now, many seem to think that change may have cost too much money and brought too few results, analysts said.

"The centrists who voted for the Democrats are now looking at large deficits, a stimulus package with mixed results, and a health care package with mixed support," Herzik said. "It could lead to some reversals of fortune for the Democrats, especially in a region that is leery of high spending and big government."

A Gallup poll shows independents throughout the nation are leaning toward Republicans for Congress. The poll, taken of nearly 900 registered voters from Nov. 5-8, showed independents favoring a generic GOP candidate by 22 percentage points. The survey had an error rate of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

A separate CNN/Opinion Research poll taken Oct. 16-18 showed that the West was the only region in the country where the Democrats' approval rating had slipped below 50 percent. Western voters gave Democrats an approval rating of 45 percent in the survey, which had an error rate of plus or minus 6.5 percentage points.

"I think Democrats have gotten a little off-message," said Andrew Myers, a Virginia-based pollster who is part of the research team for Project New West, a Democratic research and strategy company based in Denver.

"I know there's a sense that we've helped out Wall Street banks and some of the big manufacturing companies but haven't done much to help small business and regular people," Myers said. "I don't think that's true, but the problem is that regular people haven't really felt the changes yet. Unemployment is still high, and people are still tightening their belts."

As Democrats struggle, Republicans are poised to take advantage of the situation.

"A lot of independent-minded voters in the West are growing increasingly uncomfortable with the government playing a more intrusive role in their lives, and they are moving toward the Republican Party as the party of smaller government and less taxes," said Joanna Burgos, Western regional press secretary for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Republicans are playing it smart by recruiting qualified candidates to run against incumbent Democrats in the West so that they are in position to pick up seats, analysts said. For example, the GOP recruited Colorado state Rep. Cory Gardner, the minority whip of the Colorado House, to challenge freshman Democratic Rep. Betsy Markey in what is expected to be one of the hottest House races in the Mountain West.

"They need to stay away from polarizing social issues and stick to the economy," said Floyd Ciruli, an independent pollster based in Denver. "That's how the Democrats won."

To hold back the Republicans, Democrats need to do more to lower unemployment and deliver on their promise of health care reform, political scientists said.

"If the Democrats roll into 2010 and unemployment is over 10 percent, that's not good for them," Herzik said. "That makes it harder to defend the stimulus spending, the bailout for big companies and the trillion-dollar deficit."

Democrats such as Myers take comfort in the West's changing demographics. While acknowledging that they are likely to lose some seats next year, Democrats say the increasing number of Hispanic voters and the influx of young, well-educated newcomers into the region will give Democrats an advantage in the long run.

"The trends are with us," Myers said. "We may hit a speed bump next year, but it won't slow us down for long."

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