GovernorBill Ritter (D)
SenatorsMark Udall (D)
Michael Bennet (D)
- 5 D, 2 R
- 1 through 7
With its distinct and variable geography, its sea of Great Plains, and its majestic Rocky Mountains, Colorado has also been at the front edge of economic, cultural, and political change in the West. With vistas of vast emptiness, it is mostly an urban state. More than half of its 5 million people live in metropolitan Denver, and four-fifths of them are in the urban strip paralleling the Front Range, where the Rockies rise suddenly from the mile-high plateau. The state’s very ruggedness is inviting more settlement. While the eastern Plains continue to lose population, the valley crevices between the mountains are filling up with second-home condominiums and ranchettes, and the rolling land on three sides of metro Denver is being platted into subdivisions.
Colorado started off with a boom, and its recent history has been one of booms punctuated by pauses of moderate growth. The first boom came after the discovery of gold and silver in the Rocky Mountains. Evidence of this mining boom can still be seen in the opera houses and storefronts of Cripple Creek and Central City, Aspen, and Telluride, built when Denver was just a village on the creek that is the South Platte River. Then Denver grew as a meatpacking, banking, and manufacturing center, and also as the state capital and regional headquarters of the federal government. After that came the 1970s’ spike in energy prices, and Colorado’s natural gas, oil, and shale sparked a boom. Half a million people moved in and the Denver skyline sprouted buildings overlooking the Capitol’s golden dome, while entrepreneurs built premier ski resorts and year-round mountain residences. Colorado’s economy sagged during the period of low energy prices in the 1980s, but with an influx of telecommunications and high-tech companies, it rebounded in the 1990s. The visible signs of this boom are all around—in the skyscrapers of downtown Denver, bearing at various times, the names of Qwest and TCI and other high-tech companies; in the retro Coors Field baseball park set amid Denver’s LoDo neighborhood, where warehouses have been renovated into restaurants and clubs; in the startling architecture of the Denver International Airport far out in the plains; in the sprawling Denver Tech Center south of the city; and in the fast-growing tracts of subdivisions and office parks in Douglas County on the city’s southern rim. Colorado’s economy grew robustly in the 1990s, and the state attracted well-educated newcomers from around the country, including many from California. It ranked No. 1 in high-tech workers per capita and third in venture capital financing per capita. Without a doubt, the bursting of the high-tech bubble hit Colorado hard. In 2001 and 2002 the state painfully shed high-tech jobs, and since then has settled back into a pattern of moderate growth.
Although Colorado ranks among the top states in economic development and venture capital, with high salaries and low unemployment, the state’s in-migration was not as robust as that of Arizona or Nevada over the past decade. So the housing bubble did not get as big in Denver as it did in Phoenix or Las Vegas; the recession was slow in coming and did not hit as hard as it did in those cities. With its relatively young and highly educated population and its stunning environment, Colorado is also the leanest state, with the lowest incidence of obesity, and arguably the healthiest, with relatively low rates of cancer and heart disease. Coloradans like to ride, jog, bike, and, of course, ski. There are bike paths not only in Denver, but also in the mountains, and Boulder is a national center for bungee jumping, mountain biking, snowshoe running, and hot-air ballooning.
Colorado has been reshaped, economically and politically, by its successive waves of newcomers. The conservative and boosterish Colorado of the 1960s was transformed in the 1970s by a wave of young liberal migrants who swept the state’s politics by calling for environmental protections and slow growth. Its national leaders reflected this trend—slow-growth Gov. Dick Lamm, Sen. Gary Hart, Rep. Patricia Schroeder, Rep. Tim Wirth. Democrats controlled the governorship for 24 years but Republicans held on to the Legislature. Then, in the 1990s, a new wave of migrants—tech-savvy, family-oriented cultural conservatives looking for an environment to prosper—moved Colorado’s politics to the right. In the 1990s, public school enrollment rose 14%, while private school enrollment was up 33% and the number of home-schooled children tripled. If the spirit of the 1970s newcomers was embodied in Boulder, with its pedestrian mall, outdoor sports shops, and vegetarian restaurants, and was dominated politically by environmentalist liberals, the spirit of the 1990s newcomers was embodied in Colorado Springs, the home of the Air Force Academy, Fort Carson, and the Focus on the Family advocacy organization, and was dominated politically by religious conservatives. Both of these politically divergent communities have some reason to believe that they exemplify the state. Colorado elections can be viewed as contests to determine which one does.
The victories of the liberal Democrats in the 1970s, starting with the 1972 referendum blocking the Winter Olympics from Denver, were followed by a long period in which Republicans held control of the Legislature and the congressional delegation. The victories of the conservative Republicans in the 1990s, starting with the 1990 referendum imposing term limits and the 1992 Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights requiring referenda to raise taxes, have been followed by a resurgence of the Democratic Party, led by liberal entrepreneurs such as Jared Polis, now the 2nd District representative. Polis was one of the “Gang of Four,” a group of high-powered political contributors who financed the resurgence of the party. The other three were QuarkXPress founder Tim Gill, medical technology heiress Patricia Stryker, and geophysicist, and MicroMAX software creator Rutt Bridges. The group nurtured a web of liberal activist organizations, framed issues, chose their targets shrewdly, and helped reshape the political landscape. In 2002, when Republicans were dominant, Gov. Bill Owens was re-elected overwhelmingly, the GOP had majorities in both houses of the Legislature, and held both U.S. Senate seats and five of the seven House seats. Today, it’s just the other way around. Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter has high job ratings. Democrats have majorities in both houses of the Legislature, and they hold both U.S. Senate seats and five of the seven House seats.
These Democratic gains made Colorado an obvious target state for 2008. The Democratic National Committee had that in mind when it chose to hold the 2008 national convention in Denver, unbothered by the fact that the only previous national convention held there, in 1908, nominated the losing ticket of William Jennings Bryan and John W. Kern. In the Democratic primary, Barack Obama’s campaign targeted Colorado early on. He beat Hillary Rodham Clinton 2-to-1 in the state’s Super Tuesday Democratic caucuses, which attracted 120,000 people, more than in any other caucus state except Iowa and Minnesota. His campaign worked with the like-minded liberal groups that had sprung up during the decade. Colorado remained a target throughout the general election as well, but Obama beat John McCain by a solid 54%-45%.
Obama was helped by the changing demographics of the state. Colorado has one of the nation’s youngest populations, with large university enclaves. Its electorate is more than 10% Latino. People support environmental causes of all kinds, sometimes to the point of endangering their own species. Boulder used to protect the local bears until they killed not only dogs and cats but also a jogger. Denver and Boulder attract young professionals imbued with liberal values; the ski resorts—Telluride, Aspen, Vail, Crested Butte, Steamboat Springs—are inhabited by the wealthy and the people who wait on them in restaurants, and both groups tend to be Democratic in Colorado. But the liberal impulse does not prevail on all issues. In addition to the military families and religious conservatives of Colorado Springs, farm counties in the east and mining counties in the west reject environmental measures that hurt their local economies. Colorado had 14 ballot propositions in the 2008 election, and the Left did not prevail on all of them. Voters rejected 58%-42% an amendment that would have put higher taxes on oil and gas producers; they rejected by only 51%-49% another measure that would have barred the state from using racial quotas and preferences. Voters defeated a right-to-work law opposed by unions 56%-44%.
2008 Presidential Vote
2008 Democratic Presidential Caucus
2008 Republican Presidential Caucus
Colorado started the decade as a state that lured Democratic presidential campaigns with a promise of being competitive and seemed likely to end the decade as a state that Republican presidential campaigns consider unwinnable. In retrospect, Republican George W. Bush’s 51%-42% win here in 2000 was misleadingly large: Ralph Nader won 5% in that race, and those votes were likely to go Democratic in the future. In mountain communities and on the rural plains, Democrat Al Gore was hurt in 2000 by the environmental policies of the Clinton administration, which would be forgotten as time went on. In 2004, Democrat John Kerry’s campaign failed to target Colorado until late in the game but still managed to increase the party’s margins by 34,000 votes in Denver and 33,000 in Boulder County, while Bush’s margins went up only 17,000 votes in El Paso County and 12,000 votes in Douglas County. Bush’s 52%-47% win over Kerry looked much like taking Nader’s percentage in 2000 and adding it to Gore’s.
In 2008, the real question was whether Colorado was ever in reach for Republican John McCain. Polling just after the Republican National Convention suggested that it might be, but McCain fell behind significantly after the crisis in the financial markets broke later in September. Liberals were energized and conservatives were dejected. Turnout was up from 2004 by 14% in Denver County and by 8% in Boulder County, where population growth has been low. It also surged well ahead of population growth in the Denver suburbs. Barack Obama’s percentage increase over Kerry’s in 2004 was biggest in metro Denver and the Front Range from Fort Collins down to Colorado Springs. Obama carried all of the suburban counties except fast-growing Douglas County, where he got a respectable 41% of the vote.
Nebraska and Maine are the only states that split their electoral vote, and as aficionados of politics know, Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District voted for Obama in 2008 and gave him its one electoral vote, while McCain got the state’s other four. In 2004, Coloradoans had debated the idea of splitting their state’s electoral votes. The proposition was on the ballot that year, and was vociferously opposed by Republicans such as Gov. Owens, who feared that Bush would lose two or three electoral votes if it passed. But as the campaign went on, and Colorado seemed within Kerry’s reach, some prominent state Democrats started to oppose the idea too. Support for the measure slipped in the opinion polls from 51% in mid-September to 36% in late October. The proposition was defeated 65%-35%, losing in both Republican and Democratic counties. That defeat may have doomed similar efforts in other states. Partisans on both sides will oppose such a move in a closely divided state, and minority party members in a state will find it hard to muster sufficient votes to pass it.
Colorado has had an early March presidential primary since 1992, when long-shot California Democrat Jerry Brown won it. It has not attracted much attention since. In 2003, to save money, the Legislature voted to eliminate its presidential primary in 2004. Three years later, the Legislature passed a law leaving it to the major parties to decide when to hold 2008 caucuses; both selected February 5. The Democratic caucuses attracted 120,000 voters, the Republican caucuses only 70,000, a sign of the prevailing trend in a state where Republicans four years earlier had 120,000 participants. Enthusiasm for Obama and his campaign’s organizational skill gave him a 67%-32% victory over Hillary Rodham Clinton in the primary. Ninety percent of the votes were cast in 13 of the 64 counties, and Obama carried them all except industrial Pueblo. Clinton ran well among Latinos but not among other ethnic groups. The highest turnouts were in Denver and Boulder counties, where Obama won 69% and 74%, respectively. Mitt Romney, the only Republican with much of an organization in Colorado, won the Republican caucuses with 60% of the vote; McCain got only 18%, and Mike Huckabee got 13%.
|111th Congress: 5 D, 2 R|
Colorado gained a House seat from the 2000 census, just as it had from the 1970 and 1980 censuses. In 2000, Republicans would have controlled the redistricting process if they had not lost control of the state Senate that year. When the Legislature proved unable to reach a compromise, a state court judge selected a Democratic-designed plan. The judge did not make major changes in the existing districts, but Republicans responded angrily. They wanted the new district drawn in the fast-growing Republican counties on the south side of Denver. Instead, the newly created 7th District was anchored in the inner Denver suburbs to the north of the city, making it highly competitive.
The Republicans’ one-seat takeover of the Senate in 2002 gave them the opportunity to take another crack at the congressional map. They prepared a new plan, and introduced and passed it in late May 2003, in the final days of the legislative session. Then-Attorney General Ken Salazar, a Democrat, sued in the Colorado courts, and in December 2003, the state Supreme Court threw out the new map on the grounds that the state constitution prohibited more than one plan every 10 years.
Colorado’s Democratic trend has made obsolete many of the political judgments that influenced redistricting in recent years. The 3rd District went Democratic when Republican Rep. Scott McInnis retired. Likewise, the 7th District went Democratic when GOP Rep. Bob Beauprez ran for governor in 2006. The 4th District went Democratic when Republican Rep. Marilyn Musgrave was defeated by a solid margin in 2008. Only the 5th District (Colorado Springs) and the 6th District (southern Denver suburbs) remained in Republican hands at the end of 2008.
Colorado is not expected to gain a House seat in the 2010 census. If Gov. Ritter is re-elected and Democrats retain their legislative majorities, they will control the redistricting process, and for the first time since the 1970s, a court may not have to draw the lines. Democrats might want to put most of Colorado Springs and Douglas counties into one district and thus reduce the Republicans to one seat, but that strategy could leave too much still-Republican suburban territory in Democratic districts for comfort.