Colorado is back as a national bellwether.
Earlier this year, a Democratic-led push to enact stricter gun-control measures cost two state senators their jobs and tarnished once-popular Gov. John Hickenlooper's bipartisan sheen. Last week, voters overwhelmingly rejected a sweeping measure to raise the state's income tax. And now, Hickenlooper is in a fight with some of his core supporters over a ban on a process of natural-gas drilling known as "fracking." As Denver-area Fox31 News reported Friday, three municipalities last week voted to ban fracking within their limits, a decision the governor has previously sued to stop.
Taken together, the moves are a course correction for a state that seemed to be drifting inexorably to the left. And they've caught the attention of the Democrats up for reelection in 2014, Hickenlooper and Sen. Mark Udall, both of whom have begun plotting their own paths back toward the political center.
Colorado had leaned right only a decade ago, when President George W. Bush won it by a relatively comfortable 4-point margin. But driven by a booming population of Hispanics and highly educated whites, the Centennial State voted decisively for President Obama in 2008 and 2012. Its three major statewide office holders, Hickenlooper and Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, are all Democrats, the latter of whom survived reelection in the Republican wave of 2010.
But voters are less enthusiastic about the party now. The governor's approval rating was a lukewarm 48 percent in August, according to a poll from Quinnipiac University, and a plurality of voters said he did not deserve reelection. Their disapproval offers a political explanation for Hickenlooper's support for fracking, which has broad support from most voters but is derided by some environmentalists as unsafe. Backing it allows the governor, a former geologist, to recapture some of the middle ground lost during his support for gun-control measures.
"The fracking issue certainly complicates Hickenlooper's political fortunes," political analyst Eric Sondermann, told Fox31 News. "He has staked out some independent ground—to his credit, in my estimation—but it does pit him against a whole lot of his liberal, environmental, Democratic base."
Udall, whose own approval rating is comparatively better off than Hickenlooper's, has been among the earliest and most aggressive senators to ask Obama extend the Obamacare enrollment period. He and a group of Democrats—including Bennet, now chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee—met with the president last week to voice their concerns with the health care law's botched rollout.
Both men are keenly aware the state's political climate is volatile enough to push them out of the office. But so far, they've also caught a key break: Neither has a top-tier Republican opponent. Udall, who has more than $4 million in the bank, has drawn a motley group of foes, including 2010 GOP nominee Ken Buck, the district attorney who infamously compared homosexuality to alcoholism during a debate against Bennet.
Hickenloooper, meanwhile, could face former Rep. Tom Tancredo, the anti-illegal-immigration leader.