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The Mountain West, once GOP turf, is now competitive

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Things have changed. Five of the eight governors are Democrats. Republicans retain a 17-to-11 edge on congressional seats, but that's in jeopardy this year, with nine GOP and only two Democratic seats in play, according to Congressional Quarterly. Of the six Senate elections in the region, four are for open seats – all of them formerly held by Republicans.

Successful Democrats have appealed to the region's newcomers, who tend to be independents concerned with growth issues, environmental stewardship, and better schools. "To be successful out here they have been less strongly identified with the party," says Mr. Ciruli.

That's the case with Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat elected in 2004. He favors the death penalty and brags about cutting taxes, and he does it with the folksy swagger of a farmer-turned-governor who carries a gun and takes his dog to work. "I'm a businessman, scientist, and rancher who ran for governor," says Governor Schweitzer in a phone interview.

He describes Montana newcomers as people in their late 40s, upper middle-class or above, who are either business owners or "at such a stage in their career where they can effectively phone it in."

This in-migration has moved the interior West's economy beyond ranching and mining, says Larry Swanson, an economist at the University of Montana in Missoula. "The Rocky Mountain West is very urban in character. It's not growing because of oil and gas and mining; it's growing because its cities are growing."

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