Political Hay

Rocky Mountain Blues

If this year's Senate race is any indication, Colorado may not be a red state anymore.

By 10.31.08

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For most of this year, it looked like Republican Bob Schaffer stood a decent chance of resisting the blue tide sweeping Colorado and the country as a whole. He kept the race to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Wayne Allard's seat close, constantly nipping at liberal Democrat Mark Udall's heels.

No more. The latest polls show Udall up 15 points, leading Schaffer 51 percent to 36 percent. This came on the heels of an Associated Press survey that showed the Democrat ahead by 12 points. Colorado was once a red state and Republicans still outnumber Democrats there among registered voters. What went wrong?

Colorado's demographic mix is changing in ways unfavorable to the GOP. To the south, Colorado Springs is an epicenter of conservative and Christian values, with a large community of home-schoolers and entrepreneurs. It's the home of James Dobson and his Focus on the Family ministry. North of Denver, Boulder has always been its own bubble of communitarian living and leftist policies, where Ward Churchill is a bigger name than Dr. Dobson.

Despite the state's having liberal and conservative portions, Republicans usually prevailed in statewide races. But in recent years, Colorado politics have experienced a seismic shift. In both 1996 and 2002, the Democrats held Allard to 51 percent of the vote. Democrat Ken Salazar picked up the other Senate seat in 2004, despite Republican gains elsewhere in the country. The Democrats won the governorship in 2006. The blue parts of Colorado were starting to outvote the red.

The change is evident in this year’s Senate race, in which conservative family man Schaffer is up against the Boulderite Udall. Both former congressmen, the candidates enjoy national support and should be evenly matched in a race that may well decide whether the Democrats get a filibuster-proof Senate majority. But Udall has been pulling away from Schaffer for weeks.

Schaffer is no stranger to the oddities of electoral politics in Colorado. In 2004, he lost to Pete Coors in a bitter Republican primary, only to watch Coors lose to Salazar in the general election. The loss was felt throughout the Republican establishment in Colorado, with leadership and activists pointing fingers at one another trying to figure out where it all went wrong. Though he is well-respected on the right, the thought was that Shaffer would not be as strong a candidate as the more moderate Coors. But Coors's moderation was no help come November.

Perhaps it is necessary to take a few steps back and examine the culture of Colorado. With over 300 days of sunshine, the state has become an attractive destination and has a growing population. It is a nice place to work and raise a family. Over the past 20 years, hordes of people have swarmed into Colorado to enjoy the lifestyle and relatively low cost of living. Immigration has also enhanced the state's diversity. But the newcomers have brought their own views on politics.

Schaffer’s low numbers cannot be explained away be demographics alone. The latest FEC reports show that Schaffer beats Udall in the cash-on-hand department, three to one (Schaffer with just over $1.5 million to Udall’s $470,000). The explanation could be simple mathematics -- Schaffer is being drastically outspent -- though he has the money to wage a harder-hitting campaign.

Not to mention rampant rumors that the National Republican Senatorial Committee was pulling its support out of Schaffer’s campaign because of low polling numbers. The NRSC struck back with a television ad on October 16 declaring Udall a “lieutenant of Nancy Pelosi, the most liberal speaker of the most unpopular Congress in history.” Such a strategy may have worked prior to 2004, but these days attacking liberals in an increasingly liberal state doesn't seem to do the trick. Schaffer and the NRSC are simply preaching to the Republican choir.

If Mark Udall and Barack Obama win in Colorado on Election Day, it may prove that Colorado is a red state no longer. That possibility has Bob Schaffer singing the blues.

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About the Author

Melanie Harmon is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.