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In case there was any doubt, Tuesday’s election confirmed that Colorado remains the swingy-est swing state in the West. To Republicans, our state’s particular shade of purple seems lush and regal, but to Democrats, it just looks like a deep, dark bruise.
Only Governor John Hickenlooper’s nail-biter win, confirmed well after the clock had struck midnight on the rest of his party, is giving state Dems any hangover relief the morning after the GOP’s best night in four years.
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The big difference between 2014 and 2010 is that the last midterm elections turned largely on Tea Party-fueled anger among the electorate, whereas this year’s Democratic drubbing seems, at first glance, like a more deeply rooted conservative resistance to what the right perceives as runaway liberal policies.
Start with the national race. After months of back and forth over who was winning what—if this election confirmed anything beyond a reasonable doubt, it’s that most political polling is totally unreliable—House Rep. Cory Gardner ousted Senator Mark Udall by a comfortable margin.
Udall doomed himself with a bland, lethargic campaign that the GOP correctly painted as a one-note copout. By focusing almost exclusively on Gardner’s support for a federal personhood bill, Udall’s team neutered its ability to counter Gardner’s own one-note campaign, which constantly reminded the electorate how Udall has voted with President Barack Obama virtually all the time.
Gardner’s track record is extremely conservative, but by choosing to rehash the 2010 Democratic playbook and decry Gardner’s supposed “war on women,” Udall vastly underestimated how much Colorado women consider things other than their reproductive rights when choosing a leader.
That said, Gardner is now guaranteed to infuriate someone. He’ll either stick to his conservative guns, thus alienating the independents he won over by promising to bring a sense of moderate bipartisanship to his new job. Or he’ll work the middle as promised and enrage his base.
Whatever tack he takes will be balanced by Democratic senior Senator Michael Bennet, who had a very rough night even though he wasn’t on the ballot. As the chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), Bennet had the near-impossible task of maintaining his party’s majority in the Senate. With the GOP now in control of at least 52 seats—there will be a runoff next month to determine the winner in Louisiana—Bennet’s team performed even worse than feared, and now he will likely face a difficult re-election fight in 2016. (It might also cost him—and Colorado—some plum committee assignments if the national Democratic leadership concludes that Bennet has lost his mojo.)
Election day didn’t fare any better for Dems on the state level. Right-wing gun activist Dudley Brown enjoyed his best election day yet, with at least three of the candidates he backed, state Senators Laura Woods (District 19) and Tim Neville (District 16), and state Rep. Patrick Neville (House District 45), winning their contests, thus deflating the notion that Brown sponsors candidates who are too extreme to win a statewide race.
In fact, the Colorado GOP will now hold an advantage in the state Senate next term, and it also narrowed its deficit in the House. (Pending recounts in a few contests mean we don’t know the exact numbers just yet.) This ensures that Governor Hickenlooper will have to deal with a significantly energized legislature that will undoubtedly push back on some of his prior efforts, beginning with the gun laws passed in 2013. Although they’re hardly extreme by any rational measure, the GOP here and nationally has done a masterful job of framing them as liberal overreach, so expect some tries at amending or overturning the statutes early in 2015.
Similarly, economic deregulation efforts and oil and gas exploration (i.e., fracking) will likely get a boost. If this happens, it probably will lead House Rep. Jared Polis, who won his re-election campaign by a tighter margin than he’s usually accustomed to, to return next year (or in 2016) with more anti-fracking ballot measures.
The governor battled a surprisingly plucky Bob Beauprez, along with a palpable sense of “Hick fatigue” among Colorado voters, to eke out another term. For the first time in his decade-plus political career, Hickenlooper is governing an electorate that is openly and broadly questioning whether his almost pathological devotion to maintaining his likeability is interfering with his ability to lead.
An easy victory last night would likely have had pundits anointing the governor as one of the national politicians to watch in 2016. Instead, he’ll have to demonstrate that he can cut forward-thinking deals with a hostile legislature before he’s ready for the big stage. If Hick can shift his focus away from Washington and back here to the sticks, Coloradans will be better served.
Follow 5280 editor-at-large Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad.