DENVER—For a microcosm of the forces destabilizing American politics, it’s tough to beat Colorado.
Here the Democratic Party has seized the advantage behind favorable demographic and cultural currents, yet in power is struggling to maintain the public’s trust. Meanwhile, a ferocious backlash to the Democratic agenda among predominantly white conservatives, many of them older, blue-collar, or rural, is simultaneously energizing and threatening to marginalize state Republicans.
These latest twists continue two decades of political tremors in Colorado. In the 1990s, an influx of conservative voters and a backlash against President Clinton’s agenda turned the state sharply right. But since GOP dominance peaked in 2002, Democrats have regained the initiative. After Democratic presidential nominees carried Colorado just twice from 1952 to 2004, President Obama won it in back-to-back elections. Even during the 2010 national GOP landslide, Denver Democrats John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet captured the governorship and a U.S. Senate seat. In 2012, amid the Obama surge, Democrats dethroned the GOP’s state House majority and seized unified control of state government.
Democrats have revived behind the same heavily urbanized “coalition of the ascendant” that has restored the party’s national fortunes: minorities, the millennial generation, and college-educated whites, especially women. Bennet’s race was particularly revealing. Against Republican Ken Buck, a staunch social conservative, Bennet was routed in rural areas and among blue-collar whites, but he squeezed out a victory by holding enough socially liberal upscale whites in the big Denver suburbs of Arapahoe and Jefferson counties.
With their strong hand after 2012, state Democrats roared forward with an agenda reflecting the priorities (especially cultural) of their new coalition, which depends less on conservative rural voters than in the past. Hickenlooper and the Democratic majorities established civil unions for same-sex couples, raised renewable-energy requirements for rural areas, provided in-state college tuition for the children of immigrants illegally in the country, and, most consequentially, mandated universal background checks for gun purchases and limits on high-capacity ammunition magazines. And although Hickenlooper blocked legislation to repeal the state’s death penalty, he effectively suspended the existing law by providing an indefinite reprieve to a convicted killer awaiting execution.
This record might not seem excessive for California Democrats, but it is testing the boundaries here. “Every poll shows that [on] individual issues like gun control or civil unions, the public was with them,” said Floyd Ciruli, an independent Denver-based pollster. “But the collective sense that they were going too far has hurt them.”
This backlash has manifested itself in two successful recalls of Democratic state senators, driven by gun-rights advocates; an ongoing third recall that would provide Republicans control of the state Senate if it succeeds; ballot initiatives next week seeking support for secession from the state in 11 small rural counties; and a tumble (although not collapse) in Hickenlooper’s once-lofty approval ratings.
Democrats also fear that voters next week will reject a party-backed ballot initiative that would raise state taxes about $1 billion annually to fund education. Party strategists say that while Colorado is implementing Obamacare fairly smoothly, the botched national launch has deepened doubts about government’s capacity to do anything well, hurting the education proposal. That shadow could extend into the 2014 midterm elections. “People have been running against the idea of what Obamacare will be; now we’ll be running against what [it] is,” says Owen Loftus, the state GOP’s communications director.
Yet other key Republicans worry that the party may forfeit these opportunities. Much like the federal government shutdown, the recall and secession movements have attached a whiff of extremism to the Colorado GOP. The party is caught in a dynamic where its conservative base is energized enough to dominate the primary process but no longer large enough to win statewide election in this diversifying and urbanizing state. That will make it tough for the GOP to nominate 2014 candidates with broad enough appeal to challenge Hickenlooper or Democratic Sen. Mark Udall; the front-runners in those races are longtime anti-immigration firebrand Tom Tancredo and Buck. Each is a difficult sell even with a midterm electorate likely to be older and perhaps whiter than 2012. “There is so much opportunity,” says former state GOP Chairman Dick Wadhams, “but so much peril looming out there because of the candidates coming forward.”
Guns capture the GOP conundrum. Party insiders consider it unlikely that anyone can win the next gubernatorial primary without pledging to repeal Hickenlooper’s universal background checks. Yet, although the GOP triumphed in the low-turnout recalls, those checks remain popular with the suburban swing voters who typically decide statewide races. “If they run on that, we would welcome that debate,” says Mike Melanson, Hickenlooper’s 2010 campaign manager.
All of this is producing a pattern easily recognizable from Washington. Despite their demographic advantages, Colorado Democrats are struggling to sustain their footing and sell their agenda. But Republicans, under the lash of a base seething with alienation, are hurtling away from the same voters questioning the Democrats’ priorities and performance. Just as nationally, each party is approaching the midterms with more obvious vulnerabilities than strengths.
This article appears in the November 2, 2013, edition of National Journal Magazine as Rocky Colorado.