I hesitate to even consider Colorado minimally in play this cycle. The state GOP is divided between Ron Paul acolytes and conservatives, many rising GOP stars in the state are staying put until at least 2016 or beyond and independents have shown a proclivity to vote Democratic in recent cycles. That said, the signs of Democratic weakness in the state are also clear to see. Governor John Hickenlooper and the state legislature have subpar approval ratings and Republicans hold out hope they can take the state senate and Governorship in 2014 with weak nominees. But the real prize may be the Senate seat of Mark Udall.
Udall has deep pockets and connections in a state he easily won in 2008 (helped by the Obama wave). But since that time Colorado has swung back and forth. In 2010 the GOP took the legislature and could have arguably won Senator Bennett’s seat if they had chosen a better nominee. They also would have provided a stiff challenge to then candidate Hickenlooper if Tancredo had not split with the state GOP over numerous issues. In 2012 Obama again won the state and the legislature swung back to Democrats.
Of course 2012 is a long time ago in the state. Despite Obama carrying the state twice and almost every statewide office being held by a Democrat Colorado has a strong GOP following. Even the GOP split cannot hide this fact. In 2013 Democrats may have also overplayed their hand. Hickenlooper and the legislature pushed through environmental regulations leading to tax increases on primarily rural areas, legalized civil unions and passed tough new gun control laws. Following this in the middle of 2013 two Democratic state senators that had voted for the laws (including the Senate President) were recalled. A third was forced to retire.
All these factors have hurt state Democrats. But it is unknown it this will have any effects on federal races. Perhaps Udall could have ridden out state Democratic if not for Obamacare’s rocky rollout. But Obamacare has now made Democrats at the federal level unpopular in the state as well. Republicans seem unable to capitalize on this weakness though with 2010 Senate candidate Ken Buck leading the field to take on Udall.
Understanding Colorado’s electoral history will provide us some clues where it may go in 2014. However, it is important to note recent events and the quality of the GOP candidates may ultimately decide many key races. Before 2008 Colorado was considered a strong GOP state. Unlike neighboring state New Mexico that went twice for Clinton the state favored Dole in 1996. Even further back the state favored Ford in 1976 and HW in 1988. This explains the state’s rich GOP tradition.
However, the demographic and political shifts that have occurred within the state since 2000, and even before, help explain how Obama won the state in 2008. Bush is widely considered to have overperformed among the state’s Hispanic population in 2000 and 2004 so when McCain failed to hold these gains the state moved left. Obama also made gains with many upper income voters. Romney was able to capture back some of these voters but fell flat with Hispanics.
A more detailed analysis of recent statewide elections in the state show how the GOP has struggled to gain traction in Hispanic counties or the Denver suburbs. Even traditionally GOP counties such as Araphoe have been moving left. In 2008, all of Dever’s suburban counties: Boulder, Araphoe, Jefferson and Adams swung heavily to the left. This contrasts with Bush winning Jefferson County and Araphoe in 2004. The 2012 election was not much kinder to Romney as all these counties went again for Obama and most by big margins (except Jefferson).
Even off year midterm cycles do not shift these counties preferences significantly. While the margins were smaller for Bennett in 2010 he still managed to win all four counties while Buck could only eat into Democratic margins in those counties. These counties are composed of minorities and upper and middle income whites that have shown an unwillingness to back Republicans.
Why these voters have turned away from the GOP is a gnawing question for the party. Perhaps rigid social conservatism, the GOP’s perceived focus on protecting the rich and the lack of diversity within the party partly explain it. But policy differences such as on immigration, gay marriage and spending also separate the party from the suburbs which have become less and more upscale at the same time as well as m0re diverse.
In the end this might be what saves Udall. The voters the GOP needs to put them over the top in the state continue to refuse the party’s overtures while Hispanics increasingly turn away from the party. Still, turnout could be king in this race. If Hispanics, who have lost faith in the President of late, refuse to turn out and Boulder County and Denver do not deliver large margins for Udall and Hickenlooper Republicans will surely benefit. This is no sure thing however.
Exit polls from 2008, 2010 and 2012 show Democratic turnout seems to have a built in advantage because many Democrats seem to register as Independent. Republicans maintain confidence they can court these voters over fiscal issues but social and immigration continues to separate the party from these voters. Udall is sure to exploit these issues and use them to attack a weak GOP field. Indeed, recent polls on both the Senate and Governors race showcase this phenomena clearly.
A recent PPP (D) survey found Hickenlooper with leads of 1-8 points over any potential GOP challenger while Udall had leads of 4-7 points. Their strength came from urban Denver as well as suburban voters and minorities. Independents favored GOP candidates in most candidates but by very narrow margins. This survey came on the heels of Obamacare suggesting Republican challengers have been unable to reach swing voters on why they should lead the state and be in the Senate.
Obamacare could still be the great equalizer in the race. Afterall, polls show Udall weak largely because of the law. But Udall is sitting on an excellent campaign apparatus and plenty of cash while his GOP rivals battle it out over party purity made only worse by Democratic efforts to address urban concerns to the detriment of rural interests. Republicans seem interested in rerunning their 2010 nominees Ken Buck and Tom Tancredo showcasing the weak bench the party has in the state. Colorado is sure to be a swing state in 2016 if the GOP nominates the right candidate but the money is out on 2014 despite the national environment favoring the GOP.