Earlier this year, leading Democrats created a hush-hush organization named Project New West to figure out how to frame core Western issues—in the same way, perhaps, that the gop turned abortion, guns, and gays into winning political motifs. With "strategic guidance" from a who's who of Dem officeholders, New West is extremely cagey about its work, but other Western Democrats have no trouble naming the core themes. "Water is absolutely a crucial issue," says Kari Chisholm, a political and Internet-strategy consultant who runs the blog WesternDemocrat.com. Obscure water disputes between counties, between farmers and cities, utility companies and native tribes, can be more important here than welfare or Social Security. There's concern about the impact of sprawl on the wide-open spaces; worries about energy costs; discontent over the growing income gap (almost every Western state has passed a living-wage initiative during the Bush years). In Nevada, the controversy over the proposed nuclear waste storage site at Yucca Mountain has made environmentalists popular in areas that once had no truck with them. And where many Western voters once viewed national Democrats—hostile to guns, friendly to taxes—as Big Brother incarnate, in recent years the Patriot Act, illegal wiretaps, and Terri Schiavo have made the gop look like the party of federal intrusion.
All of which has made for some odd political bedfellows. "I liked Bush Senior," says 70-year-old Pat McIntyre, a retired lighting consultant who worked for many decades in California before moving to Stagecoach. "But I don't like this Bush. He started off pretty good, but he got lost. No Child Left Behind, they just made a mess of it. And we've got to stop spending as much as we're spending." A politics junkie who hasn't supported a Democrat for president since JFK, McIntyre favors Social Security privatization, the war in Iraq, school vouchers, and a crackdown on illegal immigration. He says he'll most likely support Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani—yet for the first time in nearly 50 years, he's left himself open to considering a Democrat. "I don't know where the heck the Democrats are going," he says. "But the Republicans are getting just as bad."
The Democrats' big bet, and the gop's nightmare, is that they might be able to court the likes of McIntyre without losing support from, say, a teacher in the Bronx or an immigrant advocate in Los Angeles. It's quite a circle to square, though the polls suggest it's by no means impossible; after all, Senate majority leader Harry Reid has easily won Nevada ever since 1986, with only one nail-biter in 1998.
Still there are those, including Las Vegas Sun political commentator Jon Ralston, who consider the Dems' optimism somewhat premature. Someone like Hillary Clinton, Ralston argues, will score well with the Democratic faithful, but will stumble in states like Nevada come the general election. "The Republicans should be heavily favored to win here no matter who they nominate," Ralston says. Remember, he adds, that Democrats did get hammered in most of the state in 2004 and that in the 2006 governor's race, the scandal-ridden Gibbons "still managed to beat a very talented Democrat."
still, the optimism on the ground is palpable. Lawson, the Lyon County party chair—and grandfather, and fifth-generation Nevadan—says closet Dems are coming out: Last year, barely a handful of people turned out to the local party meetings. Now a few dozen give up a weekend morning once a month to plot how to turn Lyon blue.
It was only three years ago that the Democrats dared to drive a float in Fernley's Fourth of July parade again—something they hadn't done since the '80s. They were booed and pelted with tomatoes. Two years ago, there was no heckling, just silence and a few smiles. In 2006, a couple of people cheered. This year, I watched as classic cars and floats congregated on First and Center streets near the asphalt, gypsum, and cement plants. The Dems' flatbed was emblazoned with a huge "Hometown Heroes" banner and pulled by a green Chevy Avalanche with Lawson at the wheel; supporters marched alongside, throwing Wonka Nerds to the crowd. They headed toward Out Of Town Park, passing car dealerships, pawn shops specializing in guns and ammo, mom-and-pop Mexican restaurants, kids on horseback, and the railroad tracks heading off into a shimmer of heat. Nobody booed, not even the guys with the white flag and the handwritten banner, "This is the flag Harry Reid salutes." More than a few people waved flags and cheered as the Dems' truck inched past. "We have a real challenge talking to Republicans out here," Snedeker told me, tossing candy with abandon. "But we're getting better at it."