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By Jill Stewart
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Menconi, whose Republican-dominated west-slope jurisdiction includes the affluent resorts of Vail and Beaver Creek, has experienced firsthand the mind expansion he chalks up to the demographic shift. After a recount confirmed his initial election in 2000 by the slim margin of 39 votes, Menconi was subjected to a flurry of recall threats by local Republicans based upon accusations ranging from importing a posse of unregistered snowboarders from a neighboring county to support his liberal leanings at the voting booth, to a lack of patriotism when he chose to attend a religious service over signing a political platitude handed down by the National Association of County Commissioners condemning terrorism after 9/11.
Facing a pair of well-known local conservatives in his bid for re-election this year, Menconi surprised more than a few observers when he won handily, defeating his closest rival by more than 1,200 of the 18,457 votes cast in a county that is only 26 percent Democrat.
"A lot of Republicans locally have said that the partisanships of the local party hurt them greatly. The difference wasn’t just based on one thing, though," Menconi said. "We ran a real issue-based campaign. You can build your campaign around fear, or you can offer an intellectual message about solutions. My opponent didn’t have a message and I did. Locally, people who ran lukewarm lost. They played it too safe."
Menconi’s decisive victory in Eagle County, which only four years ago was considered one of the most conservative of Colorado’s ski communities, was representative of the blue swing seen statewide. While Republican candidates won the majority of races in the county in 2000, this year Democratic candidates swept every race in Eagle County (including the presidential race) except one. Similar results were seen as far away as rural Gunnison County, another notorious Republican stronghold where Democrats swept the ticket.
Don Lemon, co-chair of Eagle County’s Republican Party, speculated that younger voters helped push local politics to the left, while others argued that the right simply dropped the ball by alienating voters with brash overconfidence and extremist elements of their party that didn’t resonate with the region’s centrist voters. One local newspaper pointed to the hardcore conservatism vocalized by the county's Bush/Cheney campaign co-chair, Henri Stone, in response to a rash of campaign-sign destruction prior to the election as an example.
"I’ve been criticized for comparing the sign burning to cross burning and the actions of Brown Shirts, but I won’t take back one word," Stone told the Vail Trail in October.
In a post-election retort, Vail Trail editor Tom Boyd wrote, "This may appeal to Republican insiders and the hardcore base, but it’s not a good way to appeal to unaffiliated voters, who (at 37 percent) are the true majority in Eagle County."
Ultimately, the swing throughout Colorado may boil down to the historic independence of its voters and the sheer electability of a given candidate. Coloradans have a long history of splitting tickets, and it should come as no surprise in this election, given that there were more newly registered independents in the state than Republicans and Democrats combined. But Democratic insiders, including the Bighorn Center’s Bridges, Menconi and others, agree that in order for change to occur at a national level in 2008, the party needs candidates with a stronger message than merely "I’m not Bush."
"Coloradans tend to vote for people who address issues we care about," Bridges said. "The simple answer is: Pay attention to the voters you are supposed to be representing. To say this party needs a single, coherent message that everybody has to stay in lockstep with pretty much guarantees it will remain a minority party for all eternity. The message that wins in New York City is not the message that wins in Alamosa, Colorado. When it comes down to it, the old saw that ‘All politics is local’ really is true. The sooner the party figures that out, the sooner we turn things around."