DENVER — Democratic Party leaders say they are on a roll in the West and hope to extend the gains they've made over the past six years.
White House campaign strategist Jim Messina told party leaders and activists attending Project New West summit in Denver on Thursday that Western voters want politicians who are pragmatic, not partisan. He says Democrats are winning elections because they are offering solutions to problems like transportation, land management, energy production and education.
Before 2002, Republicans held a majority of the top posts in the West, but Democrats have since won governorships in Montana, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado. The party has also gained seats in Congress and state legislatures.
Messina said next year's elections are crucial to both parties because of congressional redistricting that will begin after the 2010 census.
Messina said Democrats are targeting four new seats in Congress that are anticipated after the 2010 Census, including two in Arizona, and one each in Nevada and Utah.
He said Montana and Arizona will be key for Democratic President Barack Obama to win re-election in 2012.
"This is not your parents' West. It's important to re-election and the battle for Congress," he told about 400 people who paid up to $400 each to attend.
The Democratic National Convention was held in Denver last year.
The summit comes as Obama and his family prepare to visit Western states to encourage people to visit the national park system. The president is to visit Bozeman, Mont., Yellowstone National Park, Grand Junction, Colo., the Grand Canyon and Phoenix, and also is expected to hold town hall-style meetings as he pushes Congress to pass an overhaul of the health care system.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said the West is one of the fastest-growing areas of the country, and said Obama recognized its importance by appointing westerners to half his Cabinet, including Interior Secretary Ken Salazar from Colorado.
Reid said Democrats need to continue to work hard for next year's midterm elections to keep the seats they've won and try to extend their gains.
"This is no time to rest on our laurels. Now is the time to build on our success," he said.
Actor Robert Redford, a noted environmentalist, told the conference that climate change is already hurting water supplies in the West, including the Colorado River, which in places runs dry. He said westerners need a supporter in the Oval Office.
Redford said the Bush administration saw the West as a repository of natural resources to be exploited and "thought the West was there for the taking."
"They were thinking about yesterday. They were yesterday people," Redford said.