Is Colorado Turning Away From Democrats?

President Obama carried the state twice. But there are fresh signs of a growing backlash.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks during day two of the Democratic National Convention at Time Warner Cable Arena on September 5, 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
National Journal
Alex Roarty
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Alex Roarty
Nov. 11, 2013, 4:46 a.m.

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.

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