Special Report: Bluer Than Blue: What's Wrong With Colorado Republicans?

January 3 2013, 10:50 AM

On Election Night 2012, the four hours of wall-to-wall live coverage we did at FOX31 were mostly a blur. But as we watched President Barack Obama’s reelection take shape--putting Colorado in his column almost as soon as the polls closed--Rob Witwer, one of our guest panelists, uttered the statement of the night: “We’ve got to ask ourselves at this point whether Colorado really is a purple state anymore, because Republicans now haven’t won a big, statewide race in a decade,” said Witwer, a former GOP state lawmaker from Evergreen and a smart, clear-eyed observer of the political mechanics of our state.

As 2013 dawned, fresh off a long vacation, I wanted to revisit the raw data the election provided, to see if Witwer was right that Colorado, not long ago a reliably red rectangle on the electoral map, has actually turned a stunning shade of blue.

He was.

This was in many ways a status quo election. The president and both congressional majorities stayed in power; in Colorado, despite the deep, overall unpopularity of Congress, all seven of our state’s incumbents won new terms. And yet, statewide and nationally, the numbers signal not just an end to the days when white males delivered presidential elections; the data also undeniably shows a crumbling GOP foothold in our state.

Even after the debacle that was Dan Maes, the GOP remains—as it should—a major party in Colorado. Republicans here still have about 100,000 more registered voters than Democrats. However, the GOP’s advantage among likely voters is down to about 30,000, a pittance in a place where unaffiliated voters—the ones Democrats have been winning over the last several cycles—comprise about a third of Colorado's electorate.

Of course, elections aren’t won on paper; they’re won by contacting and convincing voters who can be swayed and then turning them out to the polls. The Obama machine, which Republicans have been overly willing to credit in an effort to rationalize this year’s losses, has this process down cold. Obama For America approaches campaigns as a never-ending project, not a model that kicks into gear every four years.

OFA’s impressive precision, along with the political infrastructure Colorado Democrats have built over the past decade, obscures the fact that evolving demographics have turned our state blue, into a place where any statewide Democratic candidate will start with a working advantage in 2014 and beyond. This is why, even if Governor John Hickenlooper and Senator Mark Udall won't have the full power of the OFA machine at their disposal during their reelection campaigns—OFA's main mission having been accomplished—they still should have a clear path to victory, because the state’s demographic trends aren’t about to change. And their Republican opponents, whoever they turn out to be, should stop telling themselves that (A), Colorado is purple; that (B), Arapahoe County is a swing county; and that (C), they can win statewide contests without Denver or Hispanics. 

As we now know, none of those things are true.

Colorado: now officially a “blue” state

Not long ago, outside of its capitol city, Colorado was a landscape of farmers and cowboys. Over the past decade, two things have reshaped our population—and reduced the percentage of cars rumbling along I-70 with “NATIVE” stickers affixed to their bumpers: The Hispanic population has exploded, and middle class families from places like California have flocked to the Denver suburbs. From July 2011 to July 2012, Colorado added 71,300 new residents, making it the seventh fastest-growing state in the country.

Hosting the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver helped Democrats plant their flag in the Rocky Mountain West, exposing the first serious cracks in the GOP’s regional dominance. Although Democrat Ken Salazar’s defeat of Republican Pete Coors in the 2004 senatorial election was viewed as an outlier at the time, it turned out to be a political canary in the coalmine. Just a few campaign cycles later, Colorado Democrats hold the governor’s mansion, both U.S. Senate seats and, after a two-year gap, both state legislative chambers. And Obama’s relatively easy four-point win here in November suggests that Colorado may be theirs to control for cycles to come.

Denver dominates

Early in 2012, Mitt Romney paid his first visits to Colorado, to far-flung places such as Fort Lupton and Craig, a good 200 miles from Denver. After a few such trips, some political observers, myself included, began to wonder why the GOP nominee was focusing on these reliably red and sparsely populated parts of the state. It made a certain amount of sense: No one expected Obama to win Colorado as easily as he did, and no one ever expected Mitt Romney to win Denver County anyway.

However, it's become clear that Obama’s margin in Colorado owes itself to not just winning Denver, but to flat out running up the score here, thumping Romney by almost 150,000 votes. Breaking the 70 percent mark in a base county is a positive for any candidate; doing it in a state’s most populous county means game over. “[That margin] is just going to be hard for any Republican to overcome,” says Craig Hughes, the Democratic strategist who ran Obama’s 2012 campaign in Colorado. “When you take Denver’s results out, the election here was dead even. With Obama winning Denver so big, it didn’t really matter how poorly he may have fared on the Eastern Plains or the Western Slope.”

The days when former U.S. Republican senators Bill Armstrong and Hank Brown ended their campaigns with an eastern swing through towns such as Wray and Akron now seem like a quaint tradition. Obama actually fared worse in the Plains this year than Senator Michael Bennet did in 2010, a better year for Republicans across the country. The Plains are home to Colorado’s most powerful Republican, Yuma Congressman Cory Gardner, and the region’s agricultural production is a huge cog in Colorado’s economy. However, none of this mattered in the end. There simply aren’t enough votes for the region to matter much in statewide elections, and come 2014, GOP candidates would be wise to spend a bit less time caravaning out east and a bit more time working red-leaning Denver voters who could keep the margins close.

Swing counties that keep swinging left

One place Romney campaigned aggressively was Jefferson County, widely recognized as the swingi-est swing county in this swing state. His rally at Red Rocks Amphitheater in October was one of the most exciting political events I’ve ever covered. Some 12,000 people filled the historic venue, swept up in a newfound passion for and belief in their candidate.

Just two weeks later, Romney lost JeffCo, 51-46. With its confluence of big churches, blue-collar suburbs, and a growing Hispanic population, the county (as usual) mirrored almost exactly the statewide Democrat-Republican split, proving that it’s still Colorado’s truest bellwether county.

Political pundits usually list Arapahoe and Larimer right behind Jefferson as key swing counties. The trouble is, this no longer applies to Arapahoe. In 2010, Bennet won Arapahoe by four points over Ken Buck. In 2012, Obama thumped Romney, 54-44. This huge swath of the southeast Denver suburbs--home to the Broncos' training facility, Buckley Air Force Base, and the headquarters of the Colorado GOP--is now Democratic turf. "In five or six cycles, Arapahoe has moved from being a solid Republican county, to a ‘leans-Republican’ county to a swing county to, suddenly, a Democratic county,” Hughes says, citing the success in 2012 of Democrat Ethan Feldman. Feldman lost his bid to be the District Attorney of the 18th Judicial District, which also includes more conservative counties to the south, including GOP-dominant Douglas County. Despite falling to Republican George Brauchler, Feldman won Arapahoe County by 10 points. “We’ve seen fast growth in Aurora, and when turnout is higher in presidential years, that really favors Democrats,” Hughes says. “But across the county, these are suburban voters who are very open to the candidates from either party.”

Latinos: a long-term advantage for Democrats

The morning after Election Day, Cory Gardner visited our FOX31 studios to talk about the results. Gardner was one of the few candidates who had taken the stage the night before at the Colorado GOP Victory Celebration at Sports Authority Field and actually claimed victory, and he shared a revealing story with me before our on-camera interview. A few weeks earlier on a Yuma playground, Gardner’s young children had a political discussion of sorts with some of their Latino friends. The Latino kids told Gardner’s children that their parents were voting for Obama because the Republicans wanted to put their parents in jail. I was hardly shocked when Gardner then told me that I could expect Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2013. “Republicans have always talked about having a big tent, but it doesn’t do any good if the tent doesn’t have any chairs in it,” Gardner told me that morning. “Bringing Latinos to the forefront, bringing women in is absolutely critical.”

Obama could have won our state by carrying just 58 percent of the Latino vote; he won 75 percent of that group in Colorado, and 71 percent nationwide. Romney, clumsy to the end, later attributed that margin to the “gifts” the president bestowed on the Hispanic population, seemingly referring to the president’s policy of deferred action that granted a temporary reprieve to thousands of young Latinos facing deportation.

The results should hardly have been surprising given that Republicans throughout the country have spent years ensuring that the fastest-growing voting bloc overwhelmingly aligns with Democrats. Three times, Colorado Republican lawmakers have voted down legislation aimed at making college more affordable for undocumented students. And in 2010, former Republican Congressman Tom Tancredo announced his last-minute gubernatorial bid while wearing a Border Patrol baseball cap to his press conference. "The Latino advantage is a long-time advantage for Democrats,” Hughes says. “A Republican candidate who is in tune with issues that really resonate with Hispanics can reduce that margin. But for several years, the Hispanic community has seen a Republican party that is not speaking to their values and that is openly hostile to them. That makes a difference."

Dick Wadhams, the former chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, agrees with Hughes. "We’ve got a long-term demographic problem that we've got to address,” Wadhams says. “The voices within our party have had an impact on where Hispanics are headed politically, no doubt about it.”

Tancredo, who helped kill President George W. Bush’s push for immigration reform in 2006, continues to bait a national email list of immigration hard-liners by stoking fears of federal reforms that will amount to “amnesty.” What the GOP needs to realize is that the immigration issue offers Republicans themselves a sort of political amnesty, a chance to forge a solution that legitimately and thoroughly addresses questions of border security and citizenship without alienating Hispanics. Only clear-headed Republicans such as Gardner are beginning to internalize this new reality.

The GOP’s challenge ahead

How does the GOP do the things it has to do to survive when its obstinate, reckless conservative base refuses to yield? Consider the GOP’s final, defining moments of this whole failed year: Refusing to address, let alone discuss, climate change in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and other extreme weather events; a gun lobby, even after 20 Connecticut first-graders were gunned down inside their own school, refusing to acknowledge that the proliferation of military-style weapons might be a causal factor; and the House Republican caucus refusing to allow a meaningful “grand bargain” to avert the so-called “fiscal cliff” because so many members seemingly prioritize ideology and individual political calculations over the country’s economic stability. 

How is this party going to appeal to the high concentrations of voters in urban cores like Denver? How will it appeal to fiscally conservative, socially moderate suburbanites in our so-called swing counties? How will it begin to undo much of the damage it’s already done with women and Hispanics? Republican leaders would be wise to make a New Year’s resolution to stop stubbornly scapegoating and dismissing the media, to learn to face reality with less of a hard-line, partisan lens and to take real strides to answer those questions. Until they do, we should expect Colorado to remain bluer than ever.

—Eli Stokols is a political reporter at FOX31-TV Denver.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.