Two years ago the eight states of America's interior West were coloured in red. Unlike the leftish west coast, they had all voted for George Bush over John Kerry, often resoundingly so. In one of those states, Colorado, voters in the third district also elected John Salazar to the House of Representatives. Mr Salazar-a plain-spoken farmer who wears a cowboy hat and likes guns-seems in many ways a caricature of the homespun politicians who thrive in the western reaches of Mr Bush's Republican heartland.
Like Mr Bush, Mr Salazar favours low taxes, including a repeal of the estate tax. His district, like many parts of "red" America, is vast and thinly populated. Roughly the size of New York state or Greece, it sprawls down the western slope of the Rockies and across the southern part of the state through Pueblo. Mr Salazar got elected partly because he stuck up for farmers' and ranchers' water rights against the grasping city folk from Denver. Yet despite being rugged, rural and right-of-centre on many issues, Mr Salazar does not quite fit the mould of a red-state politician. For one thing, he is a Democrat.Increasingly, he is not alone. Over the past few years other Democrats have also won prominent races in the heart of the interior West.
They have taken over governors' mansions in four of the region's eight states (Arizona, New Mexico, Montana and Wyoming) since 2002. Bill Ritter in Colorado will soon become the fifth, if he hangs on to his strong lead in the race to succeed Bill Owens, a term-limited Republican. In 2004 Mr Salazar's younger brother, Ken, beat Pete Coors, a Republican beer magnate, to win one of Colorado's Senate seats. Another Senate seat could be forthcoming in Montana, where Jon Tester is leading against the three-term incumbent, Conrad Burns. And as the Democrats vie for control of the House this year, open seats in Arizona and Colorado are among their very best chances to make gains.
The Democrats have done this in many cases by being cultural claim-jumpers, expropriating the hearty rustic symbolism that Republicans consider their own. Both Mr Tester and Brian Schweitzer, the governor of Montana since 2004, are gun-lovers and farmers, like Mr Salazar. Mr Schweitzer takes his border collie to the office and boasts of its ability to herd cattle. Mr Tester makes frequent references to farm equipment. When a small group of doctors in Billings complained about malpractice suits recently (trial lawyers are huge donors to the Democrats), he replied that he knows more about greasing combines than medicine. Mr Salazar even says that Colorado Republicans are now trying to imitate him. "I do an ad on a horse, so my opponent has an ad on a horse," he says.
Although many Democrats elsewhere do not approve of all those guns-or of Mr Ritter's anti-abortion stance-they could not be happier about the trend. Besides winning political races, these westerners have been helping the national Democratic Party to shed its image as a bunch of effete urban intellectuals. Democrats love Mr Schweitzer, a blunt populist, not only because he hates free trade and expensive health care, but also because he talks tough to Republicans.
How the West might be won
Apart from making them seem folksier, can this trend offer the Democrats large and lasting gains? Populations are growing rapidly in many parts of the interior West, and many of the (legal) immigrants are unaffiliated voters from California and the Midwest. These newcomers could be potential Democratic voters in a region with growing political clout.
But Democrats will only make meaningful gains in the region if they stay to the centre on economics as well. The south-western states-Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico-are growing rapidly, but many newcomers are unaffiliated because they have a libertarian bent. Darcy Olsen, president of the Goldwater Institute, an Arizona think-tank promoting small-government conservatism, argues that people are moving to the south-west not just because it is sunny but also for its low taxes. Although Democrats are already competitive in all three states they will not get far if they bury voters in taxes and red tape.
Further north and east Utah, Idaho and Wyoming remain solidly conservative. Voters in all three backed Mr Bush heavily over Mr Kerry; all six of the states' senators and five of their six House members are Republicans. Montana is already pretty Democratic. Apart from Mr Tester's Senate bid and three presidential electoral votes, there is little more on offer.
The state to watch is Colorado, which has nine electoral votes. Over the past two decades the parties have tended to alternate in power at all levels: its two Senate seats are now split, and Democrats retook the state legislature in 2004. Voters' ideas have not changed much over that period: the parties just take turns letting them down. Republicans have done that recently by going to extremes on both social and tax issues. State legislators, for example, have been preoccupied with university professors' behaviour, cooling off periods for divorce and other sops to the right wing. The Christian right conducts increasingly vicious primary battles.
Colorado Republicans also went too far last year over a plan to tweak a 1992 initiative that limited spending growth. When many Republicans fiercely opposed the tweaking, even though voters clearly wanted to boost education spending, the party seemed out of touch. Some Republicans even suggested selling off the state house and other public buildings instead.
Can Democrats do better? A few of the party's patrons have been pouring in money to take advantage of the Republicans' over-reach, and the Democrats have been offering better candidates and running more organised campaigns. But Mr Salazar, for one, worries that if Mr Ritter wins the governor's race, Colorado Democrats will soon lurch too far to the left. If they do, guns and hats won't save them.