By Ronald Brownstein
This falls midterm election wont decide only which party will control Congress and statehouses around the nation. It also could identify which states emerge as new battlegrounds in the 2008 presidential race that effectively will begin as soon as the votes are counted in November.
In the last two campaigns, the parties divided the electoral map almost exactly in half. In 2000, George W. Bush won the second-narrowest Electoral College victory since 1800. In 2004, Bush won a smaller share of Electoral College votes than any re-elected president except Woodrow Wilson in 1916.
But if the Republican advantage under Bush has been slim, it also has been stable.
Bush carried 29 states twice. Those states are worth 274 Electoral College votes -- four more than needed to win the White House. In 2004, Bush held Democratic challenger John F. Kerry to 43 percent of the vote or less in 21 of those 29 states. Since 2000, Republicans have widened their lead in House and Senate seats from the red states that twice backed Bush.
Democrats enter the contest with a strong base: The party has carried 18 blue states (plus the District of Columbia) worth 248 Electoral College votes in each of the past four elections. Democrats will need to find at least some weak points in the red-state citadel Bush has constructed.
Thats where the 2006 elections could offer both parties important clues. What we can learn this year is . . . whether two or three more states can legitimately get into play,said Tad Devine, a veteran Democratic strategist.
Devine and other Democrats this year probably will look first at the Southwest. Kerrys boldest strategic gambit in 2004 was his shift of resources from outer Southern states trending away from the Democrats toward the cluster of Southwest states with growing Hispanic populations: Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico.
The incursion was, at best, a limited success. Kerry lessened Bushs margin of victory from 2000 in Colorado and Nevada, but the president held both states. Bush widened his margin in Arizona and, after losing New Mexico by 365 votes in 2000, won it by about 6,000 in 2004. Pollster Mark Mellman, a top Kerry aide, said the Democrats biggest problem across the region was Bushs improved showing with Hispanic voters.
Other signs, though, pointed to more progress for Democrats, especially in Colorado. In 2004, Colorado Democrats elected Ken Salazar to the U.S. Senate and captured both chambers of the state Legislature. Last year, in another sign of change, voters approved a referendum loosening the states tight tax and spending limitation.
This year, Democrats are hoping to succeed retiring Republican Gov. Bill Owens. Republicans face a divisive August primary; Democrats have unified behind a centrist former Denver district attorney.
With Bushs approval rating sinking, and population growth tilting the debate away from spending restraint toward improving public services, Democrats have a chance to gain unified control of the governorship and state Legislature for the first time in nearly 50 years, says veteran Colorado pollster Floyd Ciruli.
Other races in the region also could signal whether the congressional logjam over illegal immigration is reversing Bushs 2004 gains among Hispanics.
One to watch is the Arizona Senate contest between Republican incumbent Jon Kyl and Democrat Jim Pederson. Kyl prefers an enforcement-first response to illegal immigration, while Pederson (like Arizonas other senator, Republican John McCain) has backed a broader solution that includes a guest-worker program.
Beyond the Southwest, Democrats will be watching Montana, where the party won the governorship and state Senate in 2004. If Democrats oust Republican Sen. Conrad Burns this fall, the state probably will move onto the 2008 Democratic target list. And even a strong showing against Republican Sen. George Allen in Virginia would encourage Democrats to look harder at competing in the state.
Two mega-states also could send important signals. Jeb Bushs 2002 gubernatorial landslide in Florida foreshadowed his brothers easy victory there in 2004. Although Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., seems safe in his re-election bid, another Republican romp in the governors race would be an ominous sign for Democrats. And if Democrats cant win the Ohio governorship or defeat Republican Sen. Mike DeWine this fall in the shadow of a state corruption scandal, they probably shouldnt bet on recapturing the state -- Kerrys heartbreak hill -- in 2008.
Obviously, the exact list of presidential battlegrounds two years from now will depend largely on the eventual nominees. But the underlying currents in the states matter as well. This Novembers results will show both parties where those currents might be changing.
2006, Los Angeles Times