LOUISVILLE, Colo.—William Kinne likes Colorado’s new gun-control law that includes universal background checks and limits on ammunition sales, and he is also glad the state approved legislation this spring establishing civil unions for gay couples. His wife, Rachel, isn’t enthusiastic about either idea.
William, a graduate student at the nearby University of Colorado (Boulder), finds the gun-control law common sense. “There needs to be at least as much regulation and training as there is to operate a motor vehicle,” he says. Responds Rachel: “If people want guns, they are going to find them.” On civil unions, William says, “I think it’s a civil-rights issue. I’m a Christian, but I justify it by separating my religious beliefs from the law.” Rachel answers: “I believe we [should] vote based on our moral beliefs.”
Such mixed responses capture the competing currents transforming Colorado into a critical test for Democrats. Under President Obama, the party is unifying around a more consistently liberal social agenda as it relies less on the votes of culturally conservative rural and blue-collar whites to win. Nowhere has that process advanced more rapidly than in Colorado. That means no place may reveal more about how far Democrats can push their new agenda and maintain majority support.
In Colorado, strong performances among growing populations of minorities, young people, and college-educated white suburbanites, especially women, have provided Democrats with an edge, despite a stampede toward the GOP among rural and working-class whites. Obama carried this once-reliably Republican state in 2008 and held it comfortably in 2012. With Obama’s tailwind, Democrats last year regained a majority in the Colorado House. Combined with their hold on the state Senate and the governorship (under folksy former Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper), that gave them unified control over state government.
Since then, Colorado Democrats have rapidly advanced an agenda that reflects the dominant beliefs inside their emerging coalition, including the civil-union legislation (which the previous Republican House majority had blocked) and the gun-control bill. All of that followed the voters’ approval last November of a ballot initiative legalizing marijuana.
On a brilliantly sunny July Fourth, I spoke with about three dozen voters milling in parks, in this professional-tilting suburb wedged between Denver and Boulder, and in Littleton, a more blue-collar community south of Denver. Despite all the state’s political tumult, the conversations mostly demonstrated the stability of attitudes undergirding our intractable red-blue divide.
In these discussions, the palpable economic anxiety evident in visits during Obama’s first term had dissipated. But what’s replaced it isn’t so much optimism as tempered acceptance—a sense that while conditions may not be great, they could be much worse.
Broad attitudes about the president appeared largely stable, too. Many of Obama’s critics continued to view his agenda as virtually un-American. His supporters praised his priorities and effort, but several expressed frustration that he hasn’t accomplished more, even if they mostly blamed GOP opposition for the shortfall.
The conversations suggested a hierarchy of risk for Democrats in the big social debates filling headlines. With both blue- and white-collar voters, the civil-union legislation prompted the widest agreement, with many going further to endorse gay marriage. “We all should have a right to marry who we want,” said Brandi Sorley, a homemaker from Aurora as she awaited fireworks in Littleton’s Cornerstone Park. The only opposition I heard to civil unions came from people who cited religious objections. Standing nearby, Brandi’s brother-in-law Mark, a maintenance technician and Navy veteran, shook his head at her answer. “I think it’s blasphemous,” he said. “A Bible in one hand and a gun in the other, and I’m happy.”
The state gun-control law, which already has inspired recall elections against two Democratic state senators, may threaten the party more. While many white-collar people backed it, even several of them were unsure it would work—and its mostly blue-collar critics expressed passionate opposition. The immigration debate transfixing Washington fell in between. Most people I spoke with, especially those with college degrees, thought providing citizenship to illegal immigrants was the only realistic response. “You can try to solve these problems by building walls or bridges, and in the global world we’re in, I don’t think the wall model is going to [work],” said John Schwartz, an IT consultant from Louisville. But legalization still prompted strong pockets of resistance, mostly from blue-collar people and primarily around the (mistaken) fear that it will provide public benefits to illegal immigrants.
These conversations capture a familiar danger confronting Democrats—here and nationally. Demography is expanding their coalition, which largely welcomes their agenda. But their voters seem lukewarm about the economy and Obama’s record. Meanwhile, conservatives are seething against Democratic initiatives they consider systematic government overreach. “They’re trying to control everything,” said Rich Tafoya, an Englewood small-business owner. By maintaining hard-line social positions, particularly on gay rights and immigration, Republicans face a compounding long-term risk of alienating growing groups. But these summer soundings suggest that in 2014, Democrats could face the more immediate danger of another passion gap at the ballot box.