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The 2004 election was a watershed year for Democrats in Colorado who wrestled control of the state legislature from Republicans while also picking up a congressional seat (John Salazar) and a U.S. senate seat (Ken Salazar). Since then Republicans have vowed to get back control of the state legislature in 2006, but the last couple of months of 2005 didn’t give them much momentum heading into what they hope to be their last legislative session in the minority. Things could go from bad to worse if Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper decides to run for governor, because at the rate Republicans are going, they are not the favorites to be running the show at the state capitol in 2007.
The first problem Republicans face is the same problem that I believe cost them the legislature in 2004: an obsession with issues that the average voter doesn’t care about at the expense of meaningful action and legislation. Republicans spent way too much time screwing around with power grabs — remember the last-minute redisticting attempts? — and silly legislation, and that allowed Democrats to say to the voters, Vote for us, and we’ll get to work on the real issues, like fixing the state budget. The success of Referendum C in November was a validation of this point, to an extent, when the voters basically said, “We want our state to be in better shape, and we don’t care about abstract political ideals like trying to squeeze every last penny out of the budget for a more ‘efficient’ government.” Republicans who opposed Ref. C never had a real clear plan for what they would do instead — they just opposed Ref. C on principle. In the end, voters didn’t want symbolism or fiscal conservative “principals,” they wanted action and results.
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This lesson was apparently not learned by conservative Republicans after Ref. C passed. Republican Rep. Greg Brophy decided to float the idea of legislation on “intelligent design,” which is exactly not what Republicans need to be doing. This was yet another example of style over substance that is going to get Republicans in trouble; it allows Democrats to go to the voters and say, Republicans are wasting your time with philosophical arguments and discussions, while we have been busy fixing the budget, education and other issues that will actually make a difference in your lives. Speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff sums up this point succinctly in talking about another issue that occurred last spring when Republican Reps. Keith King and Jim Welker started comparing homosexuality to increased crime rates and later bestiality. Said Romanoff: “We’re talking about the budget, and they’re talking about bestiality.” That could be the tagline for every Democrat in the 2006 elections.
The second piece of bad news for Republicans occurred last week, when Rep. Mark Larson announced that he would not be running for state senate after all, leaving Democratic incumbent Jim Isgar without an opponent. While Republicans will surely field another opponent for Isgar, Larson was clearly their best shot at knocking off the Democrat. Larson’s departure led to this ominous headline from The Denver Post: GOP’s Chance to Retake Senate Lessens. That news also prompted this quote from Republican Sen. Norma Anderson: “It means the Republicans aren’t going to win the Senate. That was an important seat to take. He was our best opportunity.” (For a good look at the breakdown of the state senate in 2006, check out SoapBlox Colorado)
As 2005 comes to a close, the political momentum in Colorado is clearly on the side of Democrats. Whether or not they can hold the line will be the big question, but the more Republicans continue to step on their own toes, the easier they will make it for Democrats in 2006.