When I began to write a retrospective of our year in Colorado politics, it was surprisingly difficult to impose a single narrative on the collection of events we’ve witnessed these last 12 months. How could a state that legalizes marijuana, formally recognizes gay couples, and grants new opportunities to undocumented students also be so incensed over a push for tougher gun laws that were precipitated by a horrific mass shooting? Why, with our state’s economic recovery outpacing the rest of the nation, are Coloradans so alienated and angry? And, what will this mean for 2014?
First, let’s look at what happened in 2013. Less than a year after 12 people were killed inside Aurora’s Century 16 movie theater, Democrats were in control of the House and passed new gun legislation despite GOP resistance. The staunchest opposition Dems faced was often outside the Capitol, where angry gun owners swarmed as lawmakers debated—and passed—laws banning the kind of high-capacity magazines used by the Aurora shooter, and made it harder for people with criminal records to buy guns. In return for sponsoring those bills, several lawmakers received vile threats. Just for voting in favor of those bills, two Democrats (John Morse and Angela Giron) lost their seats in Colorado’s first-ever recall elections during the summer. A third, Evie Hudak, later resigned right before Thanksgiving to avoid the same.
In April, Democrats changed the state’s election laws so all voters would receive mail ballots. Naturally, they haven’t won an election since. (Mail ballots weren’t allowed in the two recall elections because a judge ruled that the new law conflicted with the state constitution.) In November, even with mail ballots available, Democrats watched voters reject a proposed income tax hike for Colorado schools by a stunning two-to-one margin. In the same election, voters in 11 rural counties decided whether they wanted to secede from Colorado and form a 51st state. Six of these counties, knowing the vote was purely symbolic, voted yes.
These incongruous developments don’t make for a tidy story; in fact, much of the conventional political wisdom (that Colorado is becoming a blue state, that Governor John Hickenlooper is a lock for reelection, that the Republican Party can’t get out of its own way) no longer seems so assured. If there’s one sentiment shared across different parts of our rapidly changing state, it’s disaffection. Colorado’s political polarization mirrors that of the entire country, and it probably best explained by the growing chasm between urban and rural.
On the Plains—where sporting a mustache isn’t ironic—there’s an encroaching concern that things just aren’t the same anymore. In Denver, progressives who have been winning the political center for a decade no longer need votes as they once did from more rural parts of the state; but ignoring the less populated parts of the state has sparked a fierce backlash. Now, they’re facing an unexpected and growing fear that their hard-earned center cannot hold.
Few Capitol observers could recall another 120-day period that was so busy, so heated, yet so productive in terms of the volume of new laws passed as the 2013 session. Democrats, in control of both chambers after two years of split control, had a popular governor who was being mentioned as a potential presidential candidate with political capital to spend.
The party quickly proceeded with 2012’s unfinished business: civil unions and in-state tuition for undocumented students. They passed legislation making comprehensive sex education mandatory in Colorado high schools. They passed an elections bill that modernized the electronic tracking system across all 64 counties by sending mail ballots to all registered voters and even allowing people to register to vote as late as Election Day.
Democrats also approved a lesser-known mandate forcing rural electric associations (REAs) to draw more energy from renewable sources, over loud objections from REAs and rural Coloradans worried about higher utility bills. On the heels of the gun laws, Senate Bill 252 solidified perceptions that the Denver-centric legislature was increasingly out of touch with rural Colorado.
Hickenlooper, wanting to allay the concerns of the REAs, considered a veto, but in the end he didn’t nix a single bill of the 441 that passed during the four-month session. “At the start of the year, had Democrats been truly concerned with their grip on Colorado politics, they would have pursued a limited, though still important, legislative agenda,” political analyst Eric Sondermann says. “Cornerstones might have been civil unions and the [in-state tuition] bill, both serving key constituencies and both whose time had clearly arrived. Instead, the Democratic leadership in both houses went with an all-of-the-above strategy, tackling nearly every conceivable item on a multi-year wish list.”
Mostly, though, the session was defined by the gun bills, which blew away any semblance of civility and bipartisanship beneath the dome almost as soon as they were introduced. A state known to prize consensus and compromise was suddenly witnessing political mayhem with overheated rhetoric and anger. So what if most of the individual laws OKed this year have broad public support? The five laws that were passed concerning guns solidified the collective takeaway from the legislative session: Democrats had gone “too far.”
By May, a month after Hickenlooper effectively silenced legislation aimed at repealing Colorado’s death penalty by telling Democrats he’d likely veto it, the governor granted Nathan Dunlap—who’s been on death row for nearly two decades—a temporary reprieve. To call it a final decision, wouldn’t be accurate: He left open the possibility that a future governor could kill Dunlap, thus ensuring that capital punishment would be an ongoing political battle.
Republicans, already outraged over the gun bills, viewed the reprieve as justice denied. They said the governor was too politically squeamish to take a solid position, that he’d “punted.” The opportunistic Tom Tancredo quickly became the first Republican to jump into the governor’s race on the day after the Dunlap decision, calling it “the last straw.” (He’s now one of four Republicans vying for the gubernatorial nomination.)
Although the Dunlap story will play a pivotal role in the gubernatorial race, it was merely a distraction from the ongoing gun debate and recall efforts. In September, when two Democrats lost their seats in the state’s first ever recall elections, it was a message from a coalition of angry citizens and activists, and it is sure to impact what’s really a national policy fight. Then, this month, news broke that a shooter was on the loose at Arapahoe High School. Another terrifyingly familiar afternoon ended with the student dead by his own hand, but not before he shot fellow student Claire Davis, who later died. Outside the school, Hickenlooper lamented to reporters, “this has got to stop.”
Nationally, Republicans started 2013 having just lost another presidential election and were seemingly ready to recognize the party’s systemic failures and limited appeal to an evolving nation. The day after President Obama was reelected, Colorado’s rising Republican star, Yuma Congressman Cory Gardner, came into the FOX31 Denver studio and told me with some certainty that Congress would pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2013. The GOP, having lost three of four Hispanic voters in the presidential race, signaled a new willingness to work with Democrats on the issue. “Republicans have always talked about having a big tent,” Gardner told me that day. “But it doesn’t do any good if the tent doesn’t have any chairs in it.”
Washington Republicans did work with Democrats at first in the Senate, where a bipartisan group of eight, including Colorado Democrat Michael Bennet, hammered out legislation that would have invested $40 billion to secure the U.S.-Mexico border while giving undocumented immigrants a 13-year path to citizenship. The legislation passed the Senate in June, with 68 of 100 lawmakers voting yes—and promptly disappeared into the abyss that is the GOP-controlled House.
Aurora Congressman Mike Coffman was among a handful of House Republicans to support much of the legislation. But Speaker John Boehner’s Republican coalition no longer answers to the Chamber of Commerce. Now, its marching orders come from Tea Party groups, the Heritage Foundation, and a minority of its most conservative members (those prizing ideological purity over broadening the party).
Democrats would be in more of a position to make the Republicans pay for inaction on a policy supported by 70 percent of the country, if not for a debacle of their own doing: the problem-plagued rollout of Obamacare. The double whammy—an online healthcare marketplace that crashed immediately and has under-performed since, and the unanticipated cancellation of policies that didn’t meet new Obamacare mandates—outraged the public and sent Democrats into a tailspin.
So, where does that leave us? Gun control, immigration reform, the farm bill—they’ve all failed. Congress did succeed in shutting the government down for more than two weeks this fall. And people can’t seem to decide if the country’s better off with their government or without it. In Colorado, a big tax hike for education tanked spectacularly with voters despite a $10 million PR campaign. Four local communities banned fracking in November. It seems that if there’s anger behind a campaign—perhaps only then—it’s got a fighting chance. It’s crossed my mind that Colorado is legalizing marijuana at just the right time.
Given all this, you might think Hickenlooper and Senator Mark Udall would be nervous about being reelected in 2014. The generic congressional ballot, which favored Democrats following the shutdown in mid-October, now favors the GOP. Fortunately for Hickenlooper and Udall, they’re not running against “generic” Republicans, but against real ones with lengthy political records.
As of December, Tom Tancredo leads a four-way primary field of GOP gubernatorial candidates, and Ken Buck is far ahead of the other three Republicans hoping to face Udall. This is the same Ken Buck who compared homosexuality to alcoholism back in 2010, and the same Tom Tancredo who will be lucky to claim a sliver of Colorado’s fast-growing Latino vote. And although a nomination for either man is far from secured, it’s almost certain that the primary process, controlled as it is by the conservative base, will produce an eventual nominee who will be ill equipped to win a statewide election in our diversifying, urbanizing state.
Consternation about nominating fatally flawed candidates is already eating at establishment Republicans, largely because there is a wider sense that the party has an opportunity in 2014, much as it did in 2010, when the Tea Party tidal wave swept Republicans into office across the country. The wave skipped Colorado, though, because Buck’s lack of message discipline cost the GOP a Senate seat and the party establishment’s gubernatorial candidate proved to be so unsound that Hickenlooper won easily over a last-minute, un-vetted, no-name, replacement GOP nominee and Tancredo, running on a third party line. “Tom Tancredo and Ken Buck are failed faces of the past who have demonstrated unique talents for alienating Hispanics and women,” says Dick Wadhams, former chair of the state’s Republican party.
But more mainstream GOP candidates are struggling to gain traction. State Representative and U.S. Senate hopeful Amy Stephens is a former Focus on the Family staffer, but she’s struggling to gain ground on Buck due largely to her sponsorship of the 2011 bill that helped create Colorado’s health insurance exchange under Obamacare, another litmus test of sorts for conservatives. Not even her campaign’s steady stream of press releases condemning the health care law itself can cover up what the base refuses to forgive.
This is all unfolding as the governor’s office and Udall’s seat look more vulnerable than ever. After a relatively easy first two years, Hickenlooper’s poll numbers have dipped in year three. “As did former Governor Bill Ritter over his full four-year term, Hickenlooper’s political fortunes suffered as a consequence of his party’s total control of both legislative chambers,” Sondermann says. “What we witnessed again in 2013 was that one-party rule leads to excess—and that excess is out of step with an independent, purple state still moderate at its political core.”
Perhaps a strong Republican will emerge and give Hickenlooper a fight. Perhaps a more controlled Ken Buck can convince voters he’s changed. Maybe a few vulnerable members of Congress, like Mike Coffman, will pay for the GOP’s inaction on immigration. Udall and other safe-seeming Democrats may pay a price for Obamacare’s failures. Maybe state lawmakers will tweak the gun laws. Maybe the state’s sheriffs will actually enforce them.
But that’s all ahead of us. What we know for sure is Colorado’s civil war over guns, and everything else that divides LoDo and La Junta, isn’t going away. Our 2014 elections will be decided in whatever center remains—in places like Jefferson, Arapahoe, and Larimer counties. That narrative won’t change. For all that’s shifted in these last 12 months, we may not know until next November whether 2013 was as pivotal as it often felt.
—Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Editors Note (12/27/13): The original article stated that gun legislation passed without GOP opposition. We've fixed the error.