Colorado once upon a time used to be a reliable Republican state. Competitive at the state level until 2008 Republicans could count on its vote for President. Since 2008, the state has voted twice for Obama, has two Democratic Senators, elected a Democratic Governor in the GOP wave year of 2012 and gave the party complete control of the legislature. Despite their majorities being narrow in the state legislature, Democrats pushed ahead with a bevy of liberal initiatives since 2012.
First off, Democrats in the legislature pushed and passed a new energy efficiency bill that deeply hurt rural counties. They also pushed through a bill that legalized civil unions and lastly passed a strict gun control bill that not only limited the size of clips but also banned some semi-automatic weapons from being bought in the state. Not surprisingly these actions received some push-back. What is surprising is the level of intensity this push-back has seen.
In September, two Democratic state senators, including a Democrat in a district Obama won by 22 points and the State Senate President, were recalled. Their opponents had little political background and pro-gun control forces vastly outspent pro-recall forces. In the end the result was a victory for rural counties and voters that are feeling increasingly disenfranchised from representation and power in the capitol in Denver.
Governor John Hickenlooper, elected in 2010 with 51% of the vote, has been aided by his perceived moderate image. He owned a brewpub and was known as a significant education reformer. He also seemed willing to explore fracking in the state. But since his election and especially since he tacked left with the legislature his image has taken a hit. Soon, he will face a decision over whether to allow fracking in Northern Colorado. His environmental base and his Democratic legislature oppose the measure but energy advocates and rural voters overwhelmingly support. This could say a lot about just how far he wants to go before stopping.
Ironically, as the Democratic Party in the state has gone leftward the GOP in the state has moved to the center. Former Congressman and 2010 gubernatorial candidate Tom Tancredo, best known for being an anti-immigration conservative firebrand has tacked to the middle in his second run for Governor. Unlike 2010 Tancredo has the support of the state GOP and is polling almost dead even with Hickenlooper and more surprisingly is polling fairly strongly with Hispanics (relative considering GOP weakness with Hispanics historically).
Consider also that Colorado voters just a few weeks ago overwhelmingly voted down Amendment 66 which would have eliminated the state’s single income tax bracket and created a two tiered system that would have raised over $975 million in its first year to supposedly fund education. The massive tax increase was voted down 65%-35% and failed in every Colorado county except Denver and Jefferson. Suddenly Colorado’s leftward turn has slowed down if not come to a screeching halt.
Colorado’s political instability can be viewed as a microcosm of America today. The varied, competing interest groups at odds with each others agendas, the rural/suburban/urban divide and an older, whiter population feeling disenfranchised from the political process they once controlled or at least had strong influence in. Indeed, national Democrats seem to be learning the same lessons as Colorado Democrats only their downfall seems related to passage of just one liberal bill, Obamacare.
Like Colorado, America took a massive leftward turn in 2008, saw a slight re-centering in 2010 and returned to leaning left in 2012. The leftward turn America took gave us Obamacare and the 2012 election was largely fought on other issues. Now with their liberal masterpiece and its ramifications in full view of the public suburban and rural voters seem to be revolting just as rural and suburban voters did in Colorado. Seems there is much Colorado can teach both Republicans and Democrats.
Historically Republicans have struggled to field strong candidates in the state. But with Tancredo they have a decent shot in 2014. Republicans also have many credible candidates running for Senate and House seats nationally. But Republicans would also be wise not to follow one facet of Colorado’s political instability. On the same day the state’s voters voted down Amendment 66, six of eleven Northern counties voted to secede from the state. This has given the state GOP, riven with internal divisions between traditional conservatives, Tea Party members and libertarians, a whiff of extremism much as the Tea Party has done to the GOP nationwide.
National Democrats would be wise to heed what has happened in Colorado though it may be to late. A return to the center for the party in 2014 could save some of their endangered members and more importantly assuage the concerns of moderate suburban voters. With Obama’s legacy and Senate control on the line next year Democrats seem electorally unable to afford to do anything else.