In the years after the Civil War, the Southern states evolved into a section known as the “solid Democratic South” because they voted so faithfully for the Democrats and against the party of Abraham Lincoln.
In the second half of the 20th century, as Republicans winked at segregation and Democrats championed civil rights, the South slowly became solidly Republican.
Still later, the West evolved into a similar area – a “solid Republican West.” In 1972, 1976, 1980 and 1984, every state west of 103 degrees longitude went Republican.
There were those who thought it represented a long-term shift in the voting habits of the West, particularly since it had been preceded by elections such as 1960, when only Nevada and New Mexico voted for John Kennedy, and the two Eisenhower elections, when Democrats were completely shut out of the West.
In politics, the West started being taken for granted as a Republican region. The Charleston Daily Mail in West Virginia observed after the 1976 election between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, “Even more deeply divisive than the religious question is the dangerous regional split in the nation: a solid Democratic South and a solid Republican West.”
By 1985, the GOP West was so well established that the New York Times could note in passing, “Giving New York a kick in the shins always goes down well in the solid Republican West and South.”
But then the region started shifting back, and it began with a surprising figure – Michael Dukakis, a New England Democratic presidential nominee who managed to take two western states away from the Republicans in 1988.
In 1992 and 1996, Bill Clinton made substantial inroads into the West, but that – like those two presidential elections, generally – could be written off as flukes, since in both years, Democrat Clinton was running against two conservatives and he never managed to get a majority, winning by pluralities both times.
That excuse was not available in 2000, when Al Gore took four western states or 2004 when John Kerry won three. Even more significant breakthroughs came in 2008 and 2012, when Barack Obama carried six western states each year. Those six included Nevada.
In 2016, those six states stayed with Hillary Clinton as she won the election but lost the appointment as president.
It is pretty clear now that the “solid Republican West” is a thing of the past. Demographic changes in the West and certainly in Nevada have eaten away at Republican strength in the region.
The question now is how deeply Democratic voting is penetrating and whether the party can put its roots more deeply into the terrain than just the presidency. In Nevada, for instance, Republicans have held onto the governorship for two decades even as their presidential candidates have faltered in the Silver State.
There are signs that deeper penetration is starting to take. U.S. News and World Report last week reported, “Voters in the suburbs east of Seattle will determine whether the Washington state Senate will remain the only Republican-led legislative chamber on the West Coast.”
A lot of the success the Democrats are having in the West is tied to urban areas. Nevada is the fifth most urban state in the nation, with most of the state’s population living in two metropolitan areas. Those areas are highly responsive to environmental issues and less bewitched by the cultural issues that motivate Republican voters. That’s less true of states in the intermountain west like Idaho, Utah, Montana and Wyoming.
Latino voters, who Republicans keep convincing to vote Democratic by relying heavily on anti-immigrant pitches, make up just under a fifth of Nevada voters, just over a fifth of Arizona voters, and 40 percent of New Mexico voters. Latinos have been key to numerous races in the West, such as Harry Reid’s 2010 re-election.
Some political pros consider them receptive to wise Republicans, yet Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt failed to join a lawsuit against Donald Trump’s actions on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Even many conservatives consider it a mistake to put children into political play.
At any rate, our region now seems to be back in play.
Dennis Myers is an award-winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.