COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- It's become conventional wisdom that the keys to the White House in 2008 will run through Colorado, where rapidly changing demographics give Barack Obama a serious shot at nabbing the previously reddish state's nine Electoral College votes. Yet as Obama and Republican rival John McCain focus heavily on the Centennial state, an equally heated battle is brewing for the state's open U.S. Senate seat.
The pending retirement of Republican Sen. Wayne Allard gives Democrats a serious opportunity to pad their slim 51-49 majority (including two independents that caucus with the party). Democratic nominee-to-be Mark Udall is a lynchpin in Democratic efforts to win 56 or 57 Senate seats (and even an unlikely but not-out-of-the-question, filibuster-proof 60).
Polls show five-term Rep. Udall currently leading Republican standard bearer-in-waiting Bob Schaffer by sizable, though not insurmountable, margins. Udall was first elected to the House in 1998 -- the same year as his cousin, Rep. Tom Udall of New Mexico, who is heavily favored to win an open Senate seat in neighboring New Mexico.
During his decade in the House Udall has amassed a fairly conventional Democratic voting record -- among other things, for expanding research to more embryonic stem cell lines, no on the Bush tax cuts, and against the 2002 Iraq war resolution.
While Schaffer's campaign mocks the Democrat as a "Boulder liberal," his own record as a congressman from 1997 to 2003 could make it difficult to reach beyond Colorado's conservative base -- a not insignificant voting bloc, to be sure, but not enough produce a statewide victory.
Schaffer was an active member of the Republican Study Committee (RSC), the caucus of House Republicans organized to promote a conservative social and economic agenda. He voted to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and drilling in the Great Lakes -- potentially troublesome stances in environmentally-minded Colorado. Udall, a former executive director of Colorado Outward Bound, voted against each proposal.
Demographic patterns in Colorado also favor the Democrat. Urban centers like Denver and Boulder are increasingly filled with transplants from coastal California and liberal enclaves of the East Coast, bringing along their left-leaning politics and voting patterns.
THEN THERE'S the Hispanic population, which makes up nearly 20 percent of the state. A Public Policy Polling survey conducted July 9-10 found Barack Obama leading John McCain by a whopping 58-34 percent margin among Latino voters, the bedrock of his 47-43 statewide edge over the Arizona senator.
Schaffer voted a hard line against illegal immigration while in Congress and his support among Latino voters is not likely to be considerably higher. The same Public Policy poll gave Udall a 47-38 percent edge over Schaffer.
Democrats have won a series of big political victories in Colorado recently. In 2004 they picked up an open U.S. House district and Democrat Ken Salazar won the other Senate seat. Two years later Democrats won the governorship, an additional U.S. House seat, and control of the state legislature.
Schaffer also faced personal embarrassment in recent days, apologizing for his son's college website, which contained stickers declaring "Slavery Gets S.... Done," while another showed an image of Jesus holding an M-16 in front of a Confederate flag, among other impolitic slogans and pictures.
Voters are likely to care less about such personal issues than Schaffer's conservative record, which extends to his nine years served in the state legislature before entering Congress. Even a few years ago that would have been an asset in a state the twice backed George W. Bush. As Democrats look to run-up their Senate numbers in 2008 it may prove a liability.
If so, then Barack Obama will not be the only Democrat enjoying a happy election night as Colorado returns roll in.
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