A Battleground and Bellwether
AUG. 16, 2014
DENVER — GIVEN all of the smoky talk about Colorado and marijuana, you arrive here with the feeling that you’re stepping into some freaky, one-of-a-kind laboratory.
And you are.
But the experiment goes well beyond the responsible legalization and regulation of pot. It extends to questions of whether drillers and environmentalists can peacefully coexist, whether a country bloodied by gunfire can muster any sane response, whether Democrats can use demographic trends and certain social issues to establish a durable advantage, and whether Republicans can summon the specter of an unwieldy government to prevent that. Colorado is where all of this is being hashed out.
“It’s a test tube, and people keep shaking it,” the state’s governor, John Hickenlooper, said when I remarked that seemingly every big issue finds vivid expression here, and that Colorado has become the nation’s mirror, rocky and stoned. It’s in the news much more often than its size — it’s the 22nd most populous state — gives it any right to be.
It’s pivotal in the battle for control of the United States Senate. Senator Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat, is up for re-election in November. Republicans smell blood. And the forces shaping the race between him and his opponent, Cory Gardner, are the same ones that are shaping the parties’ national fortunes.
Will President Obama’s dismal approval ratings doom Democrats? Will Republicans’ habit of nominating social conservatives — Gardner fits the bill — alienate so many women, independents and millennials that the party defeats itself? Right now the Senate contest here is a tossup.
In many ways, Colorado is the new Ohio, a political bellwether. The percentage of its voters who chose Barack Obama in each of the last two presidential elections almost precisely matched the percentage of voters who did so nationwide. And nearly all the currents that buffet national politics swirl around the Rockies, which run like a ragged spine through a state that’s both very flat and very tall, bursting with agriculture and booming with high tech, outdoorsy and urbane, a stronghold of the religious right (Colorado Springs) and a liberal utopia (Boulder).
In other ways, “Colorado is the new California,” in Hickenlooper’s words. It floats trial balloons — marijuana being one example, education reforms being another — while other states watch to see which take flight and which wheeze and crumple to earth.
That’s partly because it’s a place without foregone conclusions. The Colorado electorate is divided almost exactly into one-third Republican, one-third Democratic and one-third neither of the above. So conservative and liberal proposals alike are pushed in the Legislature and put before voters; discussion isn’t proscribed by the one-party dominance that you find in a red or blue state.
“We really duke things out,” said Chris Onan, a co-founder of Galvanize, a firm here that provides seed funds, office space and other support for tech start-ups. “There’s never just one position.”
Even the state’s weather is in flux and in extremis. Colorado is a meteorological drama queen, and the sorts of cataclysms that climate change could bring — raging wildfires, biblical flooding — have recurred here with scary frequency.
“It’s almost Old Testament,” said Hickenlooper. “We had 13 federal declarations of disaster in four years. I think that’s more than any other state in the history of the country.”
Hickenlooper, a Democrat, is also up for re-election. And his race, against Bob Beauprez, a former Congressman, has been tighter than political analysts had initially expected it to be.
But an even more interesting contest is the one in the state’s Sixth Congressional District, where the efforts of a three-term Republican incumbent, Mike Coffman, to fend off a fierce Democratic challenge will hinge largely on his ability to woo Latino voters. Their share of the electorate here, as in the nation, has risen significantly, and they now represent roughly 20 percent of the state’s population. In recent Colorado elections, they have heavily favored Democrats.
“For its predictive value in seeing where the Hispanic vote nationally is going to go, the Sixth District could be key,” Eric Anderson, a political analyst here, told me. It’s “a petri dish inside the petri dish” of the state, he added.
Although Coffman previously supported measures to declare English the official U.S. language and to deny automatic citizenship to babies born in this country, he’s not singing those songs anymore. No, he’s practicing his Spanish, in weekly sessions with a tutor. His Democratic challenger, Andrew Romanoff, is fluent.
Money from outside the state is pouring into the Coffman-Romanoff battle, as it is into the one between Udall and Gardner, which is clearly going to be the most expensive Senate race in Colorado’s history. And the Latino vote could give Udall the edge he needs.
But the Udall campaign’s emphasis until this point is in line with a Democratic strategy nationwide for the midterm elections. In three of the six TV commercials that it has released, the focus is on Gardner’s anti-abortion record, and the hope is to cast him as a dutiful and menacing foot soldier in the “war on women” that Democrats decry.
Udall’s campaign also reflects the Democratic dread of Obama’s unpopularity. When the president traveled to Colorado recently for a fund-raiser for Udall, there was no hug or handshake between the two men, and a photo of both of them would have required a very wide-angle lens. Udall stayed far outside the state.
Gardner’s strategy, evident in his constant invocations of Obamacare, is to lash Udall to the president and to tar the Obama administration as a force for ever bigger government.
WHEN I asked Udall’s campaign spokesman, Chris Harris, how much of a handicap Obama posed, he didn’t defend the president’s record but instead stressed Udall’s independence and dissents.
“If any Democrat has been a pain in the White House’s you-know-what lately, it has been Mark,” he said, making clear that Udall “follows his own compass” and had held the administration’s “feet to the fire over the N.S.A.” That detail suggested Democrats’ worry that the National Security Agency’s privacy infringements are especially repellent to the party’s young voters.
It’s surprising that Udall and Hickenlooper aren’t in better shape, given that Colorado’s unemployment rate has fallen to 5.5 percent from over 9 in late 2010. Business Insider just ranked Colorado’s economy the best among the 50 states.
But Colorado distills the national mood in the following sense, too: While raw numbers have improved, reality hasn’t caught up, and people feel a pessimism that transcends the day’s statistics. In a statewide poll in late June, only 27 percent of Coloradans said the country was on the right track, while 65 percent said it was on the wrong one.
Colorado has shown us the horror of gun violence: the blood bath at Columbine High School in 1999, the massacre in Aurora in 2012. And in their aftermath, it demonstrated the push for — and perverse resistance to — better gun control. Its legislature enacted new firearms restrictions in early 2013, only to see the National Rifle Association lead successful recall efforts against two of the Democrats who voted for them.
Because Colorado is a mecca for both energy companies and wilderness lovers, it’s been engaged in an impassioned debate over fracking that’s both echo and preview of standoffs elsewhere.
Hickenlooper, a former geologist trying to walk a fine line between the camps, once exhibited his conviction in the safety of fracking by drinking fracking fluid. Colorado likes unstuffy politicians who break the mold, which is something candidates with national ambitions increasingly try to do.
Over the last month, Hickenlooper has taken the stage at Red Rocks to play banjo with the Old Crow Medicine Show and has released a video of his attempt to sing a duet of “Counting Stars” with OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder. It was offbeat and off key.
And Udall gazed longingly at the peaks, hoping to find time for an ascent. “He’s climbed 99 of the tallest 100 mountains in Colorado,” said Harris. “That’s who he is.” Harris made him sound like a man eager to get far away from the political muck.
It’s an impulse that most Americans can appreciate. And that they share.