Colorado Goes Blue

If Colorado is any barometer, the Republican Party may lose more ground in the 2008 elections. Colorado Republicans took a beating in 2006. In the Governor’s race Democrat Bill Ritter demolished Republican Congressman Bob Beauprez 56-41%. Beauprez’ vacated House seat flipped to the Democrats as Ed Perlmutter trounced Rick O’Donnell 55-42%. Looking ahead, Republicans in Colorado face multiple challenges in 2008 with a key Senate race for the seat held by retiring Republican Wayne Allard, the Presidential race and a possible ballot initiative to abolish racial preferences in public education, employment and contracting. Many eyes will be trained on Colorado to see if this generally Red state will continue its leftward turn.

Colorado, according to University of Virginia professor Larry J. Sabato, holds the distinction as the state that has “moved most swiftly in recent years from Red to Blue.” Several factors account for this change.

University of Denver Professor Seth Masket explains: “The first is demographics.  A lot of the recent immigration to Colorado is coming from California and other left-leaning states.  More Democrats than Republicans are moving here.” Indeed the advantage in party registration held by Republicans has diminished over time, now down to approximately 150,000 votes. There are also many more wealthy donors for the Democratic Party. Well-heeled (and more liberal) businessmen from telecommunications and high tech industries who have moved to the state ensure that Democratic campaigns are well-funded.

Another factor in the Democrats’ success has been the Republicans’ failure in addressing issues which matter most to Colorado voters. Both at the state and federal level, lack of fiscal discipline by Republicans frittered away their traditional advantage as the party of balanced budgets and small government. Republican Governor Bill Owens raised the ire of voters by abandoning the state’s limit on spending and endorsing a $3-billion tax increase.

However, Colorado Republicans recently may have received a big assist from the new Democratic Governor and the now Democratic controlled legislature. The Democrats have proposed a $1.1-billion property tax increase. Republicans rallied in opposition, with 40 of 41 Republican legislators signing a letter in opposition to the measure. As GOP state chairman Dick Wadhams puts it, this has “galvanized Republicans across the state.”

Part of Republicans’ difficulties has been their failure to adequately address voters’ concerns about education, health care and the environment (a key issue in this state famous for the pristine resorts and whose largest industry is tourism). As Colorado State University Political Science Professor John Straayer puts it, Republicans focused on issues like abortion, gay marriage and, gun rights and  while voters’ concerns about “pot holes, health care and education” went unaddressed.  According to Straayer, “voters have endorsed pragmatism and that has meant more Democrats, at least for now.”

Here also, Republicans may be turning the corner. In the recent legislative session Republicans championed school reform measures in favor of charter schools and to increase science and math requirements for high school graduation. They also have found opportunities to recapture their crime fighting credentials by opposing Democratic proposals to reduce sentences and allow parolees to vote.

As Republicans fumbled their advantage on the issues, Democrats have learned to field better candidates with strong in-state appeal. Colorado political scientist and consultant David Gosser observes: “Local Democrats have run strong candidates on moderate messages, in strategically smart and tactically sound ways.”  Ritter’s resume — former prosecutor, Catholic missionary, and avowed pro-lifer — was a democratic political consultant’s dream in a state with more Republicans than Democrats.  

Indeed, with better candidates, the Democrats have been making considerable headway with Independent voters who comprise about 1/3 the electorate. In 2002, approximately 55% of Independents voted Democratic; in 2006 Ritter captured 66% of the Independent vote.

Republicans may have learned this lesson. Wadhams says that the party will be recruiting more moderate candidates to run in districts which otherwise would certainly remain in Democratic hands.

Republicans also face a challenge with Hispanic voters on the issue of immigration. While Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo has gained national attention and plaudits from many conservatives for his focus on border security and opposition to amnesty for illegal aliens,  this may not play uniformly well in a state with a large Hispanic population. Linda Chavez, Chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and native of Colorado, notes that Hispanics have made up a sizable portion of the population for generations and continue to grow as a demographic group.   Chavez believes Republicans’ tough stance on immigration “cuts both ways” in the state and may turn off not only Hispanics, but also businessmen and ranchers in Colorado who depend on immigrant labor.

Debate exists as to how Republicans’ stance on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage plays in this western state with a strong streak of libertarianism. Emphasis on these issues may alienate some Colorado voters, especially Independents, who embrace western values of individualism and look for “minimal government intervention in businesses and in people’s lives,” according to Masket. He argues that by focusing on these issues candidates risk losing support from some Colorado Republicans who “have long been of the libertarian wing of the party.”

Faced with minority status in the state legislators and the loss of the Governorship, Republicans may be trying to put this battle between libertarians and social conservatives behind them. Wadhams says that Republicans are determined to “focus on what unites rather than what divides” Republicans and has been urging Republicans to focus their energies on becoming the “principled opposition” to Democratic excesses but also bringing forth their own proposals on education, crime and other bread and butter issues.

2008 will be a hectic political year in Colorado. The Senate race is is shaping up as a battle between Democratic Congressman Marc Udall and, on the Republican side, either Schaffer or Attorney General John Suthers. Masket remarks: “I tend to think the Democrats will have a bit of an advantage going into the general election simply because of the national environment.  However, Udall is considerably more liberal than any of the Democrats who have won statewide lately (e.g.: Sen. Salazar, Gov. Ritter).” Even if Udall is more liberal than these successful Democrats, Sabato cautions Republicans should not to get too excited, given that liberals like Gary Hart and Tim Wirth “prove that a liberal can win here in the right year.”

On the Presidential front, Colorado will be highly competitive. Chavez advises that the Republican candidate would do well to focus on “bedrock principles” and particularly pork barrel spending and smaller government, themes which resonate in Colorado. Ridder suggests that Democrats stand a good chance if they find someone with a “sense of authenticity for western values” and who is “direct, straight forward and fiscally conservative.” Certainly a Democratic ticket with Bill Richardson, the successful New Mexico Governor with a record of tax cutting and an “A” rating from the NRA, would pose a formidable challenge to Republicans.

Colorado, along with four other states, may also be the site of a referendum, sponsored by Ward Connerly and modeled on the successful Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (MCRI), which will seek to end racial preferences in public education, hiring and contracting. Heading the Colorado effort, Chavez cautions that hurdles lie ahead, including approval of the measure for the ballot by the Colorado Secretary of State. Lawyers for the proposition will have their hands full with a likely challenge under the “one issue” rule. If the measure clears this hurdle and gathers roughly 76,000 signatures to make it to the ballot, Chavez is optimistic, pointing to the success of the MCRI and, specifically, to this state’s tradition of “individualism” and belief that “‘group rights’ are not the way to go.” Moreover, unlike Michigan where local Republicans ducked or opposed the MCRI, On the other side, Ridder vows that opposition to the measure will be well funded and highly organized.

Republicans cannot take Colorado for granted. Democrats have learned to run successfully with appealing candidates and popular issues. Coupled with growing unrest over the Iraq War, Colorado Republicans have reason to be nervous. Nevertheless, if they return to the principles of fiscal conservatism, lay out policy prescriptions on issues which matter to voters and embrace popular Western values then talk of the demise of the Republican Party in Colorado may be proven premature.


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