Colorado Is America, Writ Small

For a microcosm of the forces destabilizing national politics, it’s tough to beat the Rocky Mountain State.

DENVER, CO - JANUARY 9: Second Amendment supporter Theresa White of Estes Park, Colorado gathers with other activists in support of gun ownership on January 9, 2013 at the Colorado State Capitol in Denver, Colorado. It was White's first time protesting for the issue and is a member of the National Gun Owners Association. Lawmakers are calling for tougher gun legislation after recent mass shootings at an Aurora, Colorado movie theater and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. 
Getty Images
Ronald Brownstein
Oct. 31, 2013, 5 p.m.

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.

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