LONGMONT, Colo. — Westward, uh-oh.
For Democrats, the newly minted crossover voters who helped elect Barack Obama president in 2008 are displaying a rugged individualist streak and echoing tea party-type distrust of all things Washington. This is haunting the party as it struggles to keep control of Congress.
Consider the perspective of Kevin Ladd.
Hundreds of Democrats crowded the stage recently in this northern Colorado town to see Vice President Joe Biden promote a factory expansion. But not Ladd, who sat on the back bumper of an electric vehicle outside the auditorium.
Ladd invested in the company that helped make the car and came to celebrate the expansion, financed in part by a federal stimulus grant. But the 47-year-old homebuilder says his business is down, and after abandoning his lifelong Republican affiliation to vote for Obama two years ago, Ladd isn’t sure about Democrats this year.
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“I think a lot of swing voters are questioning their decision,” Ladd said. “President Obama promised change. I wish we saw more change.”
Democrats in the West are struggling to keep these new voters who helped the party turn Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico from Republican to Democratic in the presidential election just months after the party’s national convention in Denver. Westerners who also helped elect a raft of Democrats to the House and Senate now appear to be wavering.
They’re worried about federal spending. They’re anxious about a new health care law in a region where a doctor can be several hours’ drive away. They’re afraid that Democrats’ climate-change proposals will kill jobs in oil and gas fields. Illegal immigration dominates the debate, and opponents of Arizona’s new immigration law don’t see a salient alternative coming from Democrats.
Vulnerable Democrats can be found in every Western state:
_Senate leader Harry Reid of Nevada is trailing in polls in his bid for a fifth term. The state’s home foreclosure rate is the highest, and the unemployment rate of 13.7 percent in April is above the national average – scary numbers for any incumbent.
_Democrats hold both of Colorado’s Senate seats for the first time since the 1970s. Sen. Michael Bennet, who was appointed to office to replace Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, was outpolled by challenger Andrew Romanoff at a state Democratic assembly last weekend, a result that party officials said they anticipated. The two will meet in a primary Aug. 10. The winner will probably face former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton.
_Colorado Rep. Betsy Markey, who joined Biden on the factory visit, ousted a three-term Republican in 2008, but the GOP still holds a registration advantage in her sprawling district. Markey’s votes in favor of the health care overhaul and a cap-and-trade climate plan could cost her in November.
_In southern New Mexico, Rep. Harry Teague voted against the health care overhaul but has been dogged by criticism over health insurance. As Congress was debating the plan, Teague dropped employer-based health coverage for 250 of his employees at Cavaloz Energy. Now Teague faces Republican former Rep. Steve Pearce, who gave up the seat that spans southern New Mexico to run for the Senate in 2008.
_Republicans think they can regain an Idaho district they narrowly lost in 2008. Democratic Rep. Walt Minnick has won an endorsement from the right-leaning Tea Party Express, the lone Democrat getting the group’s backing. But Minnick is the first Democrat Idahoans have sent to Congress since 1992. The GOP chooses a challenger Tuesday.
_Arizona Reps. Harry Mitchell, Ann Kirkpatrick and Gabrielle Giffords are all in their first or second terms and represent districts that chose Republicans John McCain and George W. Bush in the last two presidential contests.
The outlook has even left-leaning activists worried that the Democrats may be in for some tough losses this fall.
“We’re not really Democrat, we’re not really Republican. We’re independent, and we want results,” said Bobby Clark, head of the Denver-based ProgressNow Colorado group, a liberal group that played a role in turning out voters for Obama two years ago.
Clark says it’s “absolutely possible” for Democrats to hold onto Western gains this campaign season. But he concedes that Democrats have their work cut out for them to keep Westerners engaged after two years of partisan wrangling in Congress.
“We’ve all had a front-row seat to the sausage-making in D.C., and that’s frustrating for people out here. They worked hard, they helped elect a Democratic majority and they want to see change,” Clark said.
Republicans insist that Westerners are so turned off by Democratic rule in Washington that they’ll swing hard to the right this fall. Joanna Burgos, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee whose district includes the interior West, said Republicans here are finding swing voters alarmed with the Democrats they’ve helped elect.
“The momentum in the West is different,” said Burgos. “People in the West are a little more independent, and they’re not as open to the government getting involved in their lives, from health care to energy. They’re seeing government intrusion, and they don’t like it.”
In her pitch to voters, Markey talks about her real-world experience.
At a Denver fundraiser with Biden after the factory visit, Markey highlighted her background as owner of a coffee-and-ice-cream shop and said voters here are more interested in thoughtful lawmakers, not partisan ones.
“I think that when people try to see the world through the tinged glasses of Democrat or Republican, that becomes an excuse to throw away critical thinking,” she said.