Westward Ho!

Pat Williams was happy to get back to Montana. "It was like going to an island of victory to be in Helena," says the former nine-term member of Congress. A Democratic progressive, Williams witnessed the election-day desperation of his party in the nation's capital.

But in Montana, Democrats gained ground in the state legislature, re-elected U.S. Sen. Max Baucus and captured the important Public Service Commission (PSC). And they weren't alone in claiming victory in the interior West. Arizona, New Mexico and Wyoming voters picked Democratic governors, ending the Republican grip on that position in the West's eight landlocked states. Democrats even made gains in solidly Republican Idaho, doubling their still small presence in the state legislature.

But progress hasn't been easy. Away from the Pacific coast, the Republicans remain the dominant party in most western states, and this fall Republicans claimed clear victories in Colorado, Utah, Nevada and eastern Oregon. Much of this Republican strength lies in rural areas and small towns, where the party's aggressive stance on resource issues and social values has taken its toll on Democrats.

"The people who understand who we are, they happen to be conservative folks," says Steve Kandar, a farmer from Merrill, Ore., echoing a sentiment heard throughout the region. Democrats, conventional wisdom holds, especially liberal Democrats, have little hope in rural areas.

Yet there are two notable countertrends. Outside of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, the mountain West is becoming more urbanized. And voting patterns in the November elections suggest that rural votes may be of more practical significance to Democrats than conventional wisdom has allowed. Bob Fulkerson, director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, contends that the liberal left's hope in the West is in metro areas. Kelley Weigel, field director for the liberal Western States Center, doesn't disagree, but she argues that progressive values demand an effort to bring popular issues to small communities as well.

In November, winning Democrats ran well in both rural districts and cities. Dave Freudenthal, for example, overcame a 2-to-1 Republican advantage in voter registration to win Wyoming's gubernatorial race. Freudenthal built his majority in Wyoming's two largest counties but held it by running competitively elsewhere. Had Freudenthal captured Laramie and Natrona but run as poorly as other Democrats did in the small counties, Republican Eli Bebout would be governor-elect. In neighboring Montana, Baucus continues to be a dominant political figure, having claimed all but two counties. More surprising, the Democratic Party captured the powerful PSC by winning a Republican seat in rural eastern Montana.

"Democrats in this state have reconnected in a very solid way with our rural people," says Williams, now a fellow at the University of Montana's Center for the Rocky Mountain West. Baucus, who grew up on a ranch and votes cautiously, especially on resource and fiscal issues, is partly responsible. A top fundraiser, Baucus is a major benefactor of Democratic campaigns in Montana. But he is not the only reason for rural Montana's two-party status.

The state Democratic Party has established "roundtables" to engage rural and small-town constituents. The party's hunting, fishing and recreation, rural-agriculture and small-business committees are geared toward the rural and small-town voter.

Says Bob Ream, the former state legislator who chairs the Montana Democratic Party, "We felt that the gun issue had really hurt Democrats, not just in rural Montana but in the rural West. There's a false idea that Democrats want to take sportsmen's guns." Ream, an avid hunter, adds, "We're saying that's not true, and we're pointing out that Democrats have done more than Republicans to protect access to public lands. We're trying to counter the image that has hurt us."

Appealing to rural groups emphatically does not mean running from core Democratic principles. Although anti-tax sentiment remains strong in the rural West, progressives believe they can make headway on health care and education investment, noting that rural areas often suffer from poor schools and hospitals and high health-care costs. Other populist economic positions have appeal in small towns, where many jobs are low-wage service or retail positions. Oregon voters, for example, approved a ballot initiative increasing the minimum wage to $6.90 per hour. That measure ran strong in rural counties, falling just short in some but carrying others. Similarly, Democrats captured the Montana PSC because rural voters are worried about the financial impact of Republican-mandated utility deregulation. Even environmental positions, defined as preserving the pristine West, can find traction in places where voters are skeptical of environmental regulation.

"We need to put a western voice on liberal issues," Williams contends. "When I talked about saving the landscape, I rarely mentioned wilderness but I always mentioned a clean place to hunt, fish and camp. That appeals to western voters."

Successful politicking also reaches underrepresented populations, notably Native Americans. Tribes throughout the Northwest are becoming politically empowered, often to the advantage of Democrats. The American-Indian vote made a difference in Tim Johnson's narrow victory in South Dakota's senatorial race and in the earlier election of Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). In Montana, Ream credits Native Americans with producing the 300-vote Democratic margin in the rural PSC district.

"There are four Indian reservations in that district," says Ream. "We hired an Indian coordinator for each of these reservations. We had a major get-out-the-vote effort focused on the tribes."

Montana Democrats still trail Republicans in the state legislature, but with an unpopular Republican governor in office, Ream is confident that Democrats will continue to make gains. "People in the northern Rockies are getting tired of Republican extremism," he says.

Eastern Oregon's experience shows that Democrats still have far to go in the rural West, but it also suggests a more active future. Peter Buckley ran an aggressive campaign this fall in the rural 2nd Congressional District. An outspoken progressive, he won just 26 percent of the vote but remains optimistic. "Over 60,000 people in our district heard what we had to say and voted to support it," says Buckley. "That's the number we have to build on, and build on it we must."

"Our emphasis now has to be on building a movement," says Stacey Dycus, the field coordinator for the Democrats in central and eastern Oregon. "With good local candidates, our volunteers here have been much more active and mobilized. We've been putting together a centralized master database -- a tool that will help our campaigns in the future -- and we're starting to build networks. Now the question is: How do we communicate between elections?"

With favorable population changes (migration from California and the city of Portland) and economic diversification (more professional, service, health-care and tourism jobs) in the district's two largest counties (Deschutes and Jackson), Democrats are encouraged. The town of Bend, in Deschutes County, has started to elect progressive local officials. Buckley and several local candidates established their credentials with the Democratic base and built name recognition, and the Democratic Party -- in a closely divided state -- is starting to look to eastern Oregon more seriously. But changes in the political infrastructure are in order.

"The model for political organizing that Democrats use doesn't work for rural areas," says Dycus. Statewide polling can be counterproductive when it leads to an emphasis on issues that fly in urban areas but crash and burn in rural districts. Promoting gay rights, for example, is the right thing to do, but it carries far less rural appeal than does education reform. The concentration of resources on close races makes it difficult to build a presence in rural areas, and walking precincts doesn't pay off where long distances separate neighbors.

To build an ongoing presence, Oregon Democrats are considering the creation of a rural caucus. Buckley and others are considering an independent political action committee to allow Democrats, Greens, independents and moderate Republicans to cooperate on issues.

Buckley is no Baucus Democrat. He went out on a limb to support two locally unpopular measures that would have required labeling genetically engineered foods and raising taxes to finance an extensive new health-care system. Both lost. Nor is Buckley a farm boy. Clad in khakis rather than jeans, he's the veteran of numerous theater jobs.

Buckley wants to sell rural Oregon on a progressive agenda of improved health care and education, respect for the environment and diverse communities, a peaceful foreign policy and economic justice. Becoming competitive, however, will require the Democratic Party to reach beyond its identified liberal base. Democrats are talking about connecting an economic platform to distinct rural concerns; for example, the erosion of small-town commercial centers and health-insurance needs of self-employed farmers and ranchers, or attacking the impression that environmental regulation is killing small-town economies.

"I still have a lot to learn about what it means to grow up on a farm or in a small town," Buckley says. "But what we can try to talk about are shared American values."