This past January 6, Colorado Governor Bill Ritter surprised the Centennial State and national Democrats by announcing that he wouldn’t run for re-election in November. Only a one-term governor, the Democrat’s popularity was dropping thanks to his role in new state energy policy regulations blamed for a decline in drilling and the subsequent loss of jobs adding to Colorado’s overall anemic economy. Ritter also alienated organized labor in Colorado by vetoing a bill designed to more easily unionize workers. And he angered his fellow state Democrats by appointing Michael Bennett to Ken Salazar’s Senate seat when the latter was tapped by President Obama to be Secretary of the Interior.
Bennett, a former Denver public schools superintendent, was a weak choice to defend the seat this fall and trails former GOP Lieutenant Governor Jane Norton in the polls by double digits. Adding to Bennett’s troubles is a Democratic primary insurgency by former speaker of the Colorado house of representatives Andrew Romanoff. (On the first day of a Western swing, President Obama will stop in Colorado today to publicly buck up Bennett. Sound familiar?)
Democrat Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper has formally announced that he’ll jump into Ritter’s boots. But to attain the governor’s office Hickenlooper will have to beat the Republican who would have been Ritter’s toughest opponent, former Congressman Scott McInnis, who was leading Ritter roughly 48%-40% in previous polls. But a February 8 Rasmussen poll has Hickenlooper over McInnis 49-45, inside the margin of error, and promising a horse race. This turnaround reflects Hickenlooper’s popularity on the urban Front Range.
McInnis is a no-nonsense conservative accustomed to abuse doled out by Colorado’s Green Left, as he’s cut from the same cloth as Dick Cheney and Sarah Palin. Western Colorado is prime oil shale and natural gas country, and McInnis has never been shy about his pro-drill-baby-drill views. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar has recently ordered stricter reviews of potential Bureau of Land Management (BLM) energy leases across the West, adding more legal and bureaucratic obstacles for energy companies to surmount. These coupled with Colorado’s already stringent new energy development laws has McInnis bristling on the stump: “What those rules and regulations did, frankly, was take Colorado from No. 1 to rock bottom of states that are friendly to do natural gas and energy business in,” he said in a speech to a Colorado Mining Association meeting in Denver last week.
The 56-year-old married grandfather is a native of Glenwood Springs, a blue collar interstate and railroad town near Aspen that today supplies much of the labor needs of the latter glitzy town’s service economy. In Glenwood Springs McInnis served in the police department and volunteer fire department. After earning a law degree he was a practicing attorney in his hometown. This led to a stint in Colorado’s House of Representatives. He was elected to the first of six terms in the U.S. House in 1992 (1993-2005) representing Colorado’s 3rd District, and eventually served on the Ways and Means Committee. McInnis has been in the gubernatorial race since May, 2009, and anticipated running against Ritter. Hickenlooper, 58, worked as a “brewpub entrepreneur” before his career in public service began, and already one of the McInnis campaign’s tropes is “the cop versus the bartender.” McInnis highlights Hickenlooper’s strictly urban tenure with the stump speech throwaway, “He seems to think that Colorado begins and ends at the Denver City Limits.” The Denver mayor has also worked as an oilfield geologist, and has tried to distance himself from Ritter’s unpopular energy policies. State government revenue projections forecast a $601 million deficit for FY 2010. Unemployment stands at 7.5% and the state foreclosure rate is a middling 5.5%. Needless to say, McInnis’s main campaign theme is: It’s the economy, stupid.
Colorado is a purple swing state that can go either way one election cycle to the next. Barack Obama carried it in 2008 after George Bush did in 2000 and 2004. The state’s political history shows that 17 Democrats and 12 Republicans have sat in the governor’s office in the last century. Colorado literally splits down the middle, with the agricultural eastern prairie counties leaning conservative; the boutique ski towns of the west decidedly liberal. In the middle is the Front Range, the megalopolis of almost four million (70% of Colorado’s population) that stretches north to south down I-25 from Fort Collins to Pueblo, and encompasses cities as politically and culturally polarized as Boulder and Colorado Springs. Think Naropa University meets Focus on the Family. Grand Junction, McInnis’s current home in the far west, is a conservative bastion due to its agricultural and energy-driven local economy.
This year’s Colorado gubernatorial race promises to be the biggest shoot-’em-up since Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show played Denver.