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Why So Purple, Kid?

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The Christian Science Monitor has a long story about Colorado and our purple state politics, including the startling revelation that Colorado has a poet laureate (okay, that’s probably only startling for me, but I didn’t know we had one). The story in the Monitor discusses how Colorado has become a major battleground state and why, some of which I agree with and some of which I don’t.

For one thing, I disagree with the notion that Colorado is fundamentally a red state in which recent Democratic gains indicate a change underway. As I wrote in this space before, I think Colorado has always been more of a Libertarian state — that is, socially liberal and fiscally conservative — and there are a few points made in the Monitor story that are worth noting for that reason.

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Here’s some excerpts:

The state’s transformation from Rocky Mountain redoubt for conservative values to a proving ground for progressive policies is yielding more competitive elections here – and offering Democrats across the country a model for resurgence. “We’re probably the No. 1 battleground in the country,” says pollster Floyd Ciruli, based in Denver. Democrats nationwide, he says, “are anxious to replicate what’s going on out here.”…

…”The left has made substantial strategic strides,” says John Caldara, president of the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colo. But “that doesn’t mean Colorado’s voter base has changed.”

To stage a comeback, he says, the state’s fractured Republicans must decide whether to act more like Democrats, or less like them. “It’s make-it-or-break-it time for the right here,” he adds.

I don’t agree with where Caldara is headed in his analysis. Caldara implies that Colorado voters are basically Republican, and that Republicans are losing elections because they aren’t being Republican enough. That might make sense if Colorado really was a die-hard Republican state, but it isn’t. Caldars is basically saying that if you lost a football game because you ran the ball too much, the only way to win the next game is to run the ball even more.

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Caldara is also so fundamentally out of touch with Colorado voters that he isn’t a good source on this. He almost singlehandedly lost the NO on Referendum C campaign because of his extremism, and his two big campaigns prior to that were also disasters.

Let’s move on…

It’s a tipping point that spans the Continental Divide. In 1999, every state in the region – Idaho, Montana, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Arizona – had a Republican governor. By the end of 2006, only Utah and Idaho may have one.

But the Democratic gains don’t necessarily reflect broad conversion to liberal ideology. Instead, analysts see a backlash to years of GOP dominance. “It’s not something fundamental that’s changing so much as the far-right agenda that has pushed too far, and people in the West … are pushing back,” says Mark Cavanaugh, an analyst at Denver’s Bighorn Center, a centrist policy group. “In the short term, we’ll switch back and forth in this state.”

…Analysts credit an influx of independent voters with helping the state’s political pendulum swing so freely. One-third of the electorate is new since TABOR was enacted in 1992, notes Mr. Ciruli.

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“The state is full of informed, unaffiliated voters,” says Mr. Cavanaugh. Colorado voters, he says, are “not driven by bumper-sticker-like messages.”

Ciruli points out other factors. The 2001 recession, he says, hit Colorado particularly hard and pulled the political center of gravity away from issues like tax cuts and spending limits, and toward funding gaps and government services…

…But that doesn’t mean Colorado voters are fickle – just pragmatic, Ciruli says. “They’ll ignore party labels if an individual is moderate and offering something intriguing.”

The points made here are the most important part of why Colorado has seen so many Democratic gains in the last two years. Colorado voters are not inclined to extremism on either side, and I’ve always said that one of the primary factors for the Democratic takeover of the legislature in 2004 was that Republicans spent too much time on fringe social issues. You can talk about abortion and gay marriage, for example, until you’re purple in the face, but those aren’t issues that are of primary importance to the vast number of unaffiliated voters in Colorado — and those are the voters who are deciding elections.

Ciruli points out a couple of specific issues that he thinks helped turn the tide more towards Democrats, but it wasn’t so much that Democrats were better positioned on these issues — they were just the only party willing to work on them. Republicans lost their leadership because they focused on fringe issues to appeal to their base, while the average voter just wanted somebody who would focus on the meat and potato issues like education, jobs and health care.

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…Colorado and neighboring states retain their bedrock conservative values even as they embrace Democratic issues and leaders. “Colorado’s political identity is increasingly independent,” says Colorado’s poet laureate Mary Crow. “Independent with a strong conservative streak.”

A state where the biggest issue is often access to water may be easily dismissed as having a bit part on the national political stage. But observers here insist that Colorado should command the spotlight.

“Colorado is a bellwether state – the bellwether state,” says Caldara. “Every year, Colorado becomes more important to the national scene.”

So what is the lesson of Colorado for Democrats around the country? Simple: focus on the core issues and don’t get caught up in the tangled web of fringe social issues. Democrats did that well by immediately finding a fix to the TABOR problems in Referendum C, and as long as they can manage to address more of those meat and potato issues before the end of the 2006 legislative session, they should be sitting pretty again in November.

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