But McCleskey acknowledged that New Mexico Republicans were helped by the national GOP basically giving up on the presidential race in the state. GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney did not contest the state, minimizing the damage of a divisive presidential campaign.
"We were able to localize a lot of these races and build on the change that has taken place with a strong Republican governor," she said. "Republicans fought on state issues and the Democrats tried to fight on national issues."
Jill Hanauer is a Democratic strategist who engineered her party's takeover of the Colorado Legislature in 2004. She agrees with McCleskey that the West cannot be considered a Democratic lock.
"The reason Democrats or progressives are winning is that Republicans got fat and happy," said Hanauer, who is now president of Project New America, a political data and strategy company in Denver. "The worst thing that can happen for Democrats is to take it for granted."
In 2002, Ruy Teixeira, a Washington, D.C.-based Democratic strategist, co-wrote "The Emerging Democratic Majority," which predicted that demographic and social trends would turn parts of the country that were deep red, such as the interior Mountain West, into Democratic-leaning states. The book, published shortly after Republicans took back the U.S. Senate in the 2002 elections, was received skeptically.
Last year, Teixeira and other researchers published a new book on the Mountain West as America's new swing region. Now there was little pushback.
Teixeira said the West's shift has been dramatic because of the heavy migration to the region. Another factor is the ballot initiative process, which magnifies political trends by making it easier to enact dramatic policy changes such as marijuana legalization.
But he said in an interview that what's happened to the West is not very different from what's taking place across the country. Surveys for his book last year found it only slightly more libertarian on social issues and holding similar views toward government and taxation as other parts of the country. That, he said, is bad news for Republicans — their problem is national, not regional.
"It's not like there's something in the water in state X that's making them harder for Republicans," Teixeira said. "It's just the same series of changes that are working themselves out in all states."
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