As a procession of Republican governors cracked down on abortion in recent months, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York tried to lift the state's long-standing restrictions on abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, also a Democrat, granted a temporary reprieve to a murderer on death row and signed laws limiting rounds in gun magazines and allowing illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses. So did Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley in Maryland, who also banned capital punishment and legalized medical marijuana.
While Republican governors elected during the party's historic wave in 2010 have drawn criticism for their unabashedly conservative agendas to restrict abortion, rein in labor unions, and slash state spending, a number of Democratic governors are just as aggressively pushing liberal policies such as gay marriage and gun control. Emboldened by President Obama's reelection, a younger and more diverse electorate, and an increasing number of state governments under one-party control, these Democratic governors are crusading on issues the party steered clear of until recently. It's happening not just in solidly Democratic states like New York, Maryland, Delaware, and Connecticut but also in more competitive battlegrounds such as Colorado, where new gun laws are fueling two recall elections and threats of secession from some rural counties.
As potential presidential candidates and rivals to Hillary Rodham Clinton, governors such as Cuomo and O'Malley are leading the Democratic Party down its most socially liberal path in decades.
"Especially on social issues, the center of gravity in the Democratic Party has moved in the more liberal direction," said Bill Galston, a former Clinton administration official and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "There's a new generation of Democrats who see lots of gain and very little pain in stronger gun safety legislation and gay marriage."
Polling suggests the Democratic governors are on solid ground on some of these issues. Gay marriage—or in the case of Colorado, same-sex civil union—is widely accepted in Democratic-led states and by a narrow majority in national polls. So is allowing illegal immigrants to earn citizenship. Expanding background checks on gun buyers received support from 91 percent of the public in a nationwide Quinnipiac University poll in April frequently cited by Democrats.
The growing support for gun control—an issue Democrats had studiously avoided for more than a decade—followed a shocking string of mass murders, most notably the shooting deaths of 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., in December. On other social issues, the trends are more demographic. The fast-growing Hispanic and Asian-American communities favor immigration reform, while young people overwhelmingly back gay marriage. President Obama built a winning coalition in part by turning out this younger and more diverse electorate.
"After two Obama electoral victories, liberal interest groups are emboldened and demanding party leaders get in line," said Tim Miller of America Rising, a Republican super PAC leading an anti-Clinton effort. "As a result you are seeing Democrats with national ambitions tack far left and losing touch with mainstream voters."
Colorado, a perennial presidential battleground, is experiencing a fierce backlash over the state's adoption of liberal policies. The state is facing its first recall elections for a pair of Democratic lawmakers who backed stricter gun-control laws spurred by the Newtown murders and the slayings of 12 people in an Aurora movie theater one year ago. In northern Colorado, several rural counties are threatening to secede over the new gun restrictions, driving privileges for illegal immigrants, and a renewable-energy mandate.
"The most recent legislative session in Colorado was the most liberal I've seen in decades," said Democrat-turned-independent pollster Floyd Ciruli of Denver. "Colorado is not New York, so of course there is going to be a reaction. I don't know if the governor is endangered, but he's dealing with a narrative of a Democratic Party that went too far."
While Hickenlooper has public opinion on his side on most of these social issues, taken together, they could fuel Republican attacks that the Democratic Party has become too radical and push away moderate voters. Amid declining approval ratings, Hickenlooper has also endorsed a controversial $1 billion tax hike for public schools. The latest Quinnipiac poll shows that 67 percent of voters disagree with his decision to postpone the execution of Nathan Dunlap, convicted of killing four people in a Chuck E. Cheese's restaurant in 1993.
"Democrats have been talking a lot about Republicans being [pushed] into the extremes, and some Democrats here are anxious about a parallel situation," Ciruli said.
Colorado is among 38 states where the Governor's Mansion and both chambers of the Legislature are controlled by one party, allowing Democrat-led and Republican-led states to enact equally ambitious agendas. In other words, the same unified political climate that allowed Democrats in Colorado and Maryland to pass a slew of progressive laws this year also allowed Republican-controlled states such as Texas, Wisconsin, Ohio, and North Carolina to ratify tough abortion restrictions.
In this increasingly polarized political landscape, Republican and Democratic states are moving in opposite directions in reaction to developments in Washington—the failure of Congress to pass gun control, the ongoing talks over immigration reform, and the Supreme Court's decision to strike down the federal ban on same-sex marriage.
"The parties are essentially doubling down, retrenching and going back to their corners and saying, 'This is who we are, and this what we are going to do,' " said Democratic strategist Maria Cardona, who worked on Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign. "The problem for Republicans, and what this past election made very clear, is that on the issues the president was pushing like abortion rights, the majority of Americans are with him. In the states where Democrats are pushing the envelope, growth is on their side."