Westward, ho! and the DNC

It’s no coincidence that the Democratic convention is being held out West this year - and not merely because the lack of an easy rhyme for “Denver” makes it harder for right-wingers to make up  derogatory doggerel. Colorado is a key battleground in the 2008 presidential race; it’s also ground zero in a broader Democratic effort to redraw the electoral map and turn the red states of the Mountain West purple or even blue.

Democrats have their opponents to thank for their opening in the West; mountain voters are pretty conservative, but the Republican lock on the region has been badly shaken by the party’s cultural crusading and mismanagement of the Iraq war. Equally important, though, is the region’s rapidly growing population: college graduates, professionals and wealthy retirees are flocking to the Rockies in search of a better life - and, as Eli Sanders notes in this month’s American Prospect, that shifting demographic has brought shifting priorities.

That’s good news for greens: these days, the Republican pledge to drill more and bring more jobs to the region doesn’t resonate the way it used to. Westerners don’t have much time for hand-wringing east-coast environmentalism, but they do have a deep and genuine - albeit robustly pragmatic - love for their land, and expect no less from their leaders.

That’s proved a boon for Western Democrats like Montana Sen. Jon Tester, a third-generation farmer, or would-be Colorado senator Mark Udall, whose congressman father and Interior Secretary uncle helped expand the national park system and pass the Clean Air Act. By leveraging their roots and their gritty public personas, the likes of Tester and Udall have gained the ears of Western voters; and in trying to win over that audience, they’ve begun to develop new ways of talking about environmentalism.

Instead of trying to sell voters on the usual Priuses-and-polar-bears progressivism, Western Dems have worked to forge ties with the conservative bait-and-bullet crowd, building a new kind of green politics that combines a profound respect for America’s rural heritage with hard-hitting attacks on pocketbook-sensitive issues like energy speculation and petro-profiteering. 

It’s a strategy that’s paying dividends. Across the Mountain West, Democrats are picking up key state and congressional seats; even Dick Cheney’s home state of Wyoming now has a Democratic governor. That’s a timely reminder for Obama and co: when it comes to green politics, it’s not enough to settle for preaching to the converted. In Denver this week, Democrats have a chance to retool their environmental talking points and reach out to a wider audience; if they can manage that much, they’ll be able to count the convention a success.