Colorado: State of Transition

Suburban breakthroughs are at the heart of the Democratic resurgence since 2004.

National Journal
Ronald Brownstein
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Ronald Brownstein
July 18, 2008, 8 p.m.

CENTEN­NI­AL, Colo.—The scene out­side Wil­low Creek Ele­ment­ary School early on the Fourth of Ju­ly offered a pan­or­ama of time­less sub­urb­an im­ages. Chil­dren perched im­pa­tiently on bi­cycles dec­or­ated with Amer­ic­an flags; tod­dlers fid­get­ing in Ra­dio Fly­er wag­ons wrapped in red, white, and blue bunt­ing; young par­ents sip­ping cof­fee and chat­ting in the warm sun­shine. When a fire truck soun­ded its siren to launch the neigh­bor­hood In­de­pend­ence Day parade, a cheer erup­ted from the crowd; and the kids, and bikes, and dogs strain­ing on their leashes all surged for­ward in an ex­uber­ant tangle.

None of this would have looked out of place in a scrap­book about life in the pleas­ant Wil­low Creek sub­di­vi­sion at any point since it was de­veloped three dec­ades ago—or, for that mat­ter, in any por­trait of sub­ur­bia since Beaver Cleav­er. And yet, even though Wil­low Creek can seem hap­pily sus­pen­ded in time, it is evolving polit­ic­ally. And so are oth­er com­munit­ies like it in sprawl­ing Ar­apahoe County south and east of Den­ver.

Long a Re­pub­lic­an strong­hold, Ar­apahoe has be­come an in­creas­ingly com­pet­it­ive battle­ground. In a par­al­lel ad­vance, Demo­crats have gained ground in neigh­bor­ing Jef­fer­son County, a sub­urb­an be­hemoth south­w­est of Den­ver once dom­in­ated by the GOP. And Demo­crats have also grown stronger in Lar­imer County, centered on Fort Collins, north of Den­ver.

These sub­urb­an break­throughs are at the heart of the Demo­crat­ic re­sur­gence that since 2004 has giv­en the party con­trol of the state Le­gis­lature, the gov­ernor­ship, and a ma­jor­ity of the state’s seats in Con­gress. Among states that Pres­id­ent Bush car­ried in 2004, Col­or­ado ranks as one of the top tar­gets for Barack Obama, the pre­sumptive Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee. And Col­or­ado is the main front in Obama’s drive to ex­pand Demo­crat­ic in­roads in the Moun­tain West.

Across the state, which next month will host the Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Con­ven­tion, Demo­crats feel the wind at their backs. Steve Justino, a law­yer from Wil­low Creek, crys­tal­lized that op­tim­ism as he watched the Ju­ly Fourth parade. “When I first moved here, you would have thought I was the only Demo­crat on the plan­et,” he said. “But for a Demo­crat, it’s get­ting blu­er all the time.”

Still, only two Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates have car­ried Col­or­ado since 1952—Lyn­don John­son dur­ing his 1964 land­slide, and Bill Clin­ton in 1992, when Ross Perot’s third-party can­did­acy al­lowed Clin­ton to win with just 40 per­cent of the vote. Re­pub­lic­ans re­tain for­mid­able as­sets here, start­ing with a sub­stan­tial (though shrink­ing) lead over Demo­crats in party re­gis­tra­tion and a sol­id base among cul­tur­ally con­ser­vat­ive sub­urb­an and rur­al voters.

Pre­sumptive GOP nom­in­ee John Mc­Cain, a West­ern­er with a repu­ta­tion for some­times buck­ing his party, may be a stronger com­pet­it­or than Bush was for Col­or­ado’s in­de­pend­ents, who have edged past Re­pub­lic­ans as the largest group on the state’s voter-re­gis­tra­tion rolls, ac­cord­ing to fig­ures re­leased this month. “We are in a very com­pet­it­ive situ­ation, but we have some things that are work­ing in our fa­vor,” says Dick Wadhams, the state’s Re­pub­lic­an Party chair.

In Col­or­ado, Obama is rid­ing an un­deni­able Demo­crat­ic wave, but wheth­er it will crest high enough to over­come the GOP’s tra­di­tion­al ad­vant­ages is un­clear. “Col­or­ado could be one of those 51-49 states, one way or the oth­er,” says vet­er­an Demo­crat­ic con­sult­ant Mike Strat­ton, who is ad­vising the party’s U.S. Sen­ate nom­in­ee, Rep. Mark Ud­all. “Un­less there is some big na­tion­al land­slide [for] Obama, I think we’re go­ing to be bit­ing our fin­ger­nails and pulling every last per­son out of the doors on Elec­tion Day.” That may be es­pe­cially true in Den­ver sub­urbs such as Ar­apahoe and Jef­fer­son, which to­geth­er could make the dif­fer­ence in a state likely to be among those that pick the next pres­id­ent.

Dur­ing the 1970s and 1980s, Col­or­ado bal­anced closely between the two parties. Al­though Re­pub­lic­ans car­ried the state in all six pres­id­en­tial elec­tions from 1968 through 1988, Demo­crats over that era elec­ted a series of brainy and icon­o­clast­ic gov­ernors (Richard Lamm and Roy Romer) and sen­at­ors (Gary Hart and Tim Wirth) who chal­lenged party tra­di­tions and helped define the “neo­lib­er­al” syn­thes­is of eco­nom­ic mod­er­a­tion and cul­tur­al lib­er­al­ism.

But through the 1990s, an in­flux of cul­tur­ally con­ser­vat­ive voters—centered in Col­or­ado Springs and in the ex­plos­ively grow­ing Douglas County, an ex­urb south of Ar­apahoe and Jef­fer­son—shif­ted the state to the right. By 2002, Re­pub­lic­ans held the gov­ernor­ship, both cham­bers in the state Le­gis­lature, both U.S. Sen­ate seats, and five of the state’s sev­en U.S. House seats.

Since then, Demo­crats have staged a re­mark­ably rap­id and wide­spread re­cov­ery. In 2004, Demo­crats re­cap­tured ma­jor­it­ies in both the state Sen­ate and the state House, flipped a U.S. House seat, and elec­ted Ken Salaz­ar to suc­ceed re­tir­ing Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Ben Nighthorse Camp­bell. In 2006, the party en­larged its ma­jor­it­ies in both cham­bers of the Le­gis­lature; won a ma­jor­ity of the con­gres­sion­al del­eg­a­tion by cap­tur­ing an open Re­pub­lic­an House seat in the Den­ver sub­urbs; and elec­ted former Den­ver Dis­trict At­tor­ney Bill Ritter gov­ernor by a land­slide. This year, Demo­crats could take the second U.S. Sen­ate seat. Polls show Ud­all lead­ing former Rep. Bob Schaf­fer for the seat be­ing va­cated by Re­pub­lic­an Wayne Al­lard.

In these state and con­gres­sion­al elec­tions, Demo­crats have be­nefited from fric­tion between so­cial and eco­nom­ic con­ser­vat­ives—as well as between hard-core anti-tax act­iv­ists and more busi­ness-ori­ented Re­pub­lic­ans who have sup­por­ted in­creased pub­lic spend­ing for roads and schools. But Demo­crats have also prospered by nom­in­at­ing statewide can­did­ates, such as Salaz­ar and Ritter, who are seen as mod­er­ate, es­pe­cially on cul­tur­al is­sues.

Floyd Ciruli, an in­de­pend­ent Den­ver-based poll­ster, notes that one reas­on the state has been so dif­fi­cult for Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ees is that few of them have been able to hold that cent­rist cul­tur­al ground. George W. Bush, in par­tic­u­lar, suc­ceeded at por­tray­ing both of his gen­er­al elec­tion op­pon­ents—Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004—as lib­er­al Wash­ing­ton elit­ists, a tox­ic im­age in Col­or­ado. Obama and Ud­all are more con­ven­tion­ally lib­er­al than Salaz­ar and Ritter, and Ciruli says that their pro­spects in Novem­ber may hinge on wheth­er Re­pub­lic­ans suc­ceed in brand­ing them as elit­ist too.

“The Re­pub­lic­an in­form­a­tion net­work is ex­tremely good: All of our metro ra­dio sta­tions and all around the state have all the con­ser­vat­ive talk-show hosts, and there is a strong re­li­gious net­work too,” he says. “If this cam­paign gets po­lar­ized, and Obama [and Ud­all] are por­trayed as ba­sic­ally lib­er­al North­east­ern­ers, Wash­ing­to­ni­ans, elit­ists, all the things that iden­ti­fied Kerry … that would be the prob­lem for them.”

The con­trast between Salaz­ar’s suc­cess and Kerry’s fail­ure on Elec­tion Day here in 2004 un­der­scores the chal­lenge fa­cing Obama. On the day that Bush beat Kerry in the state by 99,523 votes, Salaz­ar beat Re­pub­lic­an Pete Co­ors by al­most ex­actly the same mar­gin, 100,520 votes. The dif­fer­ence between Kerry’s and Salaz­ar’s per­form­ances maps the bound­ary between vic­tory and de­feat for a Demo­crat in Col­or­ado.

Salaz­ar did many things bet­ter than his party’s pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee. He squeezed slightly lar­ger mar­gins of vic­tory from the bed­rock Demo­crat­ic counties of Den­ver and Boulder, for ex­ample, and he nar­rowly won in the Fort Collins area, where Kerry nar­rowly lost.

But the most im­port­ant di­ver­gence came in two very dif­fer­ent parts of the state, ac­cord­ing to a com­par­is­on of the elec­tion res­ults con­duc­ted for Na­tion­al Journ­al by Clark Bensen of Pol­idata, a polit­ic­al data ana­lys­is firm. The first was in the state’s rur­al counties: Salaz­ar lost most of them, but he held down the GOP’s win­ning mar­gins much more ef­fect­ively there than Kerry did. Ac­cord­ing to the Pol­idata ana­lys­is, Salaz­ar fin­ished at least 10 per­cent­age points high­er than Kerry in 18 small rur­al counties, most of them along the state’s east­ern bor­der or along the West­ern Slope of the Rocky Moun­tains, and at least 5 per­cent­age points high­er in most of the oth­er rur­al counties. (See map, page 77.)

Salaz­ar also did sig­ni­fic­antly bet­ter than Kerry in Den­ver’s sub­urbs, par­tic­u­larly Jef­fer­son and Ar­apahoe counties. Bush beat Kerry there by a com­bined 23,000 votes; Salaz­ar car­ried the two counties by nearly 25,000.

Re­pub­lic­ans are con­fid­ent that Obama, with his urbane man­ner and lib­er­al views on most so­cial is­sues, won’t be able to match the folksy Salaz­ar’s show­ing in rur­al Col­or­ado. Wadhams, who is also cam­paign man­ager for GOP Sen­ate nom­in­ee Schaf­fer, says that Obama will be hurt by his con­tro­ver­sial re­marks at a San Fran­cisco fun­draiser this spring. “I guar­an­tee you, rur­al voters in Col­or­ado will be re­minded about how they are ‘bit­ter’ and ‘cling’ to guns and re­li­gion,” Wadhams said.

For Obama, the real­ist­ic goal in rur­al Col­or­ado may not be to match Salaz­ar’s per­form­ance but simply to ex­ceed Kerry’s an­em­ic one. If he is to win the state, “Obama can’t get killed in rur­al Col­or­ado,” Strat­ton says. Obama could com­pensate for weak show­ings in rur­al counties by gen­er­at­ing even lar­ger mar­gins than Salaz­ar or Kerry did in such core Demo­crat­ic com­munit­ies as Boulder and Den­ver. But the like­li­hood that Obama will face res­ist­ance in rur­al places means that he will have to build on re­cent Demo­crat­ic gains in the Den­ver sub­urbs.

The counties sur­round­ing the state cap­it­al seem to be un­der­go­ing the same evol­u­tion that re­aligned com­fort­able, so­cially mod­er­ate white-col­lar sub­urbs along the East and West coasts (such as Santa Clara, Cal­if.) and the up­per Mid­w­est (such as Oak­land County, Mich.) to­ward the Demo­crats un­der Bill Clin­ton dur­ing the 1990s.

No Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee since Lyn­don John­son has car­ried Jef­fer­son or Ar­apahoe. But the 47 per­cent of the vote that Kerry won in Jef­fer­son, and his 48 per­cent in Ar­apahoe were new highs for a post-John­son Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee, ac­cord­ing to Pol­idata fig­ures. And in 2006, Ritter, the Demo­crat­ic gubernat­ori­al can­did­ate, pushed bey­ond Salaz­ar’s 2004 break­through in the two counties to sweep them by a com­bined 68,000 votes.

Demo­crats in the two counties are be­ne­fit­ing from a com­bin­a­tion of demo­graph­ic and at­ti­tu­din­al changes. A grow­ing His­pan­ic pop­u­la­tion, es­pe­cially in the sub­urbs closest to Den­ver, is boost­ing the Demo­crats. But the party is also grow­ing more at­tract­ive to middle-in­come fam­il­ies, es­pe­cially those headed by pro­fes­sion­als with ad­vanced de­grees. Many of those Demo­crat­ic-lean­ing pro­fes­sion­als re­gister as un­af­fili­ated voters.

Dav­id Schmitt, who works for a firm that trains phys­i­cians, says he has seen the change among those voters in Centen­ni­al, which long leaned to the GOP. “Over the last eight years, there has been a shift of people more in the middle, who might have sup­por­ted Bush in the past but are open to Obama now,” Schmitt said as the Ju­ly Fourth parade as­sembled.

Re­pub­lic­ans still hold a voter-re­gis­tra­tion lead over Demo­crats in Ar­apahoe. And even though few of the GOP par­tis­ans at the Wil­low Creek parade dis­played much en­thu­si­asm for Mc­Cain, many re­coiled at the men­tion of Obama. “No cor­por­a­tion in the world would hire someone with that lack of lead­er­ship ex­per­i­ence,” said Shawn Po­pylis­en, a car­di­ac tech­ni­cian from Wil­low Creek. Sim­il­ar views, de­livered even more fiercely, were com­mon in in­ter­views with blue-col­lar voters in work­ing-class parts of the county such as Littleton.

For all of the Demo­crats’ mo­mentum in Col­or­ado, the ba­sic math of the state hasn’t yet tipped to­ward them. Al­though His­pan­ics vote heav­ily Demo­crat­ic, exit polls found that His­pan­ics cast just 8 per­cent of the Col­or­ado vote in 2004, a lower per­cent­age than in any South­west­ern state. And al­though Demo­crats have halved the GOP’s re­gis­tra­tion edge from nearly 177,000 in Novem­ber 2004 to just un­der 88,000 as of June, Demo­crats must still at­tract a sub­stan­tial ma­jor­ity of in­de­pend­ents to win.

Both Ar­apahoe and Jef­fer­son are boom­ing with those un­af­fili­ated voters. To carry Col­or­ado, Obama al­most cer­tainly will need to win those counties’ com­bined vote—something no Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee has done in 44 years.

In Centen­ni­al, In­de­pend­ence Day show­cased how much has re­mained con­stant. Elec­tion Day will meas­ure how much has changed.

This is the fifth in a series of art­icles tak­ing a close look at swing states likely to de­term­ine the out­come of this year’s pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. Next week: New Mex­ico.

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