The Democrats’ Colorado Conundrum

In a crucial battleground state, liberalism has suffered a major setback. Can Republicans take advantage?

President Barack Obama addresses gun control issues during a speech at the Denver Police Academy on April 3, 2013 in Denver, Colorado.
National Journal
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
Feb. 11, 2014, midnight

Col­or­ado and Vir­gin­ia are of­ten grouped as emer­ging Demo­crat­ic-trend­ing battle­grounds, full of the young, di­verse, af­flu­ent voters whom Re­pub­lic­ans have been los­ing ground with. Pres­id­ent Obama won both states twice, after they’d both been Re­pub­lic­an strong­holds for many dec­ades.

Something happened on the way to an emer­ging lib­er­al ma­jor­ity. Vir­gin­ia has con­tin­ued its trend left­ward, elect­ing an en­tire statewide slate of Demo­crats, in­clud­ing Gov. Terry McAul­iffe in last year’s gov­ernor’s race. But des­pite em­bra­cing marijuana leg­al­iz­a­tion, Col­or­ado has been the scene of a fierce back­lash against the na­tion­al Demo­crat­ic lead­er­ship on a host of is­sues that should make it a nat­ur­al base for a Re­pub­lic­an comeback. It also serves as a warn­ing sign of the lim­it­a­tions that Pres­id­ent Obama’s co­ali­tion faces head­ing in­to the next pres­id­en­tial elec­tion.

In­deed, if Re­pub­lic­ans had foresight, they’d hold their 2016 pres­id­en­tial con­ven­tion in Den­ver — not Sin City — and their nom­in­ee would trum­pet the blow­back against gov­ern­ment act­iv­ism (and in­com­pet­ence) that has turned off so many voters to Demo­crats lately. And party lead­ers should be do­ing a much bet­ter job of re­cruit­ing fresh tal­ent in­to the state’s com­pet­it­ive Sen­ate and gubernat­ori­al races, a gap­ing void in the oth­er­wise-sol­id Re­pub­lic­an re­cruit­ing ef­forts.

But the op­por­tun­it­ies are star­ing them right in the face. Obama hit a new low in job ap­prov­al in Col­or­ado in this month’s Quin­nipi­ac sur­vey, at a miser­able 37 per­cent. Gal­lup found the pres­id­ent’s year­long ap­prov­al rat­ing be­low the na­tion­al av­er­age, at 42 per­cent, 4 points worse than his show­ing in the Old Domin­ion and 9 points be­low what he won in 2012. Sen. Mark Ud­all, des­pite hav­ing a fam­ous last name, is strug­gling to pass 45 per­cent sup­port against a bunch of second-tier op­pon­ents. He has awk­wardly dodged ques­tions about wheth­er he’d wel­come an Obama cam­paign ap­pear­ance. Even Hil­lary Clin­ton would lose to Paul Ry­an in a (very) hy­po­thet­ic­al 2016 match­up, ac­cord­ing to Quin­nipi­ac.

With­in the state, the Demo­crat­ic prob­lems stem from an am­bi­tious lib­er­al agenda pushed through by an as­cend­ant le­gis­lat­ive ma­jor­ity. Col­or­ado was one of the rare swing states where the Le­gis­lature passed uni­ver­sal back­ground checks for gun pur­chases and am­muni­tion magazine lim­it­a­tions in the wake of the Sandy Hook mas­sacre. The back­lash has been severe, par­tic­u­larly out­side the state’s urb­an cen­ters, lead­ing to suc­cess­ful re­calls of two Demo­crat­ic state sen­at­ors and the resig­na­tion of an­oth­er. Gov. John Hick­en­loop­er signed bills al­low­ing for driver’s li­censes and in-state tu­ition for chil­dren of il­leg­al im­mig­rants and dropped in the polls — proof pos­it­ive that lib­er­al­iz­ing im­mig­ra­tion policies isn’t a win-win is­sue, even for a Demo­crat.

En­vir­on­ment­al­ists were pleased when the gov­ernor signed le­gis­la­tion that raised the state’s re­new­able-en­ergy stand­ards for rur­al co­oper­at­ives. But the ac­tion promp­ted deep op­pos­i­tion in the rur­al parts of Col­or­ado, with res­id­ents angry over in­creased util­ity costs. Con­trol of the state Sen­ate is up for grabs in 2014, with Demo­crats hold­ing onto a tenu­ous one-seat ad­vant­age.

All of this should give Demo­crats pause that Obama’s poll-tested second term agenda — gun con­trol, new en­vir­on­ment­al reg­u­la­tions, im­mig­ra­tion re­form — has its polit­ic­al lim­it­a­tions, even in states with the types of voters who have trended to the Demo­crat­ic Party. Without sus­tained eco­nom­ic growth and with the bag­gage of Obama­care loom­ing large, the base is be­com­ing dis­en­chanted, and en­thu­si­asm is on the side of the op­pos­i­tion. The res­ults of those dis­con­tents already happened in Col­or­ado.

In Vir­gin­ia, where growth in the Wash­ing­ton sub­urbs has been fueled by gov­ern­ment and its con­tract­ors, cri­ti­cism against the ad­min­is­tra­tion has been muted. But in Col­or­ado, a liber­tari­an-minded Moun­tain West state where more people work in the private sec­tor, voters are ex­press­ing dis­sat­is­fac­tion with an act­iv­ist gov­ern­ment. (Col­or­ado’s pro­por­tion of fed­er­al em­ploy­ees is half of Vir­gin­ia’s, at just 2.3 per­cent.)

Col­or­ado is also demon­strat­ing, however, that the GOP op­pos­i­tion’s mis­steps are still keep­ing Demo­crats in the game. The party’s front-run­ning gubernat­ori­al can­did­ate is still Tom Tan­credo, an im­mig­ra­tion hard-liner, and Ud­all’s lead­ing chal­lenger is Ken Buck, who fumbled away a golden op­por­tun­ity as a Sen­ate nom­in­ee in 2010 after com­par­ing ho­mo­sexu­al­ity to al­cho­hol­ism. Rep. Cory Gard­ner, one of the Re­pub­lic­an Party’s top pro­spects, has shown no in­terest in run­ning for statewide of­fice. Without cred­ible can­did­ates, the most-prom­ising polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment won’t help much. That’s a clear-cut les­son for Re­pub­lic­ans head­ing in­to the next pres­id­en­tial elec­tion.

“If we even win one of those of­fices, Col­or­ado could go Re­pub­lic­an in 2016,” said Col­or­ado’s former Re­pub­lic­an Party chair­man, Dick Wadhams. “But if we put up can­did­ates that ali­en­ate His­pan­ics and wo­men, there will be a hangover that goes in­to that 2016 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion and that would bode ill for Re­pub­lic­ans. So much is rid­ing on this elec­tion [in Col­or­ado] for the fu­ture of this party.”

The Rocky Moun­tain State is a mi­cro­cosm of the state of na­tion­al polit­ics, circa 2014. Demo­crats hold the demo­graph­ic mo­mentum in Col­or­ado, but it’s be­ing threatened by ideo­lo­gic­al over­reach. All Re­pub­lic­ans need are a few good can­did­ates and a party will­ing to show a prag­mat­ic side on so­cial is­sues like gay mar­riage. Whichever party wises up first will have an im­port­ant ad­vant­age head­ing in­to the next pres­id­en­tial elec­tion.

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