What’s Not the Matter With Colorado?

When rich speculators prosper while farmers lose their land; when government officials spend money on weapons instead of cures; when the upper class is extravagant and irresponsible while the poor have nowhere to turn — all this is robbery and chaos. It is not in keeping with the Tao.

—Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching

I could be the only person in Colorado who looks at a map of our state’s election results and sees the yin and yang. Well, me and the burgeoning shaman population of Boulder County.

But I’m speaking literally, viewing what might be interpreted as a rudimentary, albeit rectangular, symbol of those conflicting forces — blue and red — which, in their opposition and constant pull, actually keep the world and life in balance. The dividing line runs essentially down the spine of the Colorado Rocky Mountains, with the western slope liberally shaded in blue (along with a large eastern dot known as Denver) and the eastern plains forming a southerly red curl linking Nebraska to New Mexico.

Of course I’m speaking metaphorically as well, given the mixed message that Colorado voters sent from the voting booths on November 2 — one about what our state wants in a president and another about how government should be run right here at home. Perhaps this pair of complementary opposites does indeed represent The Way. (It’s probably just coincidence that the name Lao Tzu — the guy responsible for the famous literary embodiment of the yin-yang — literally translates to "Old Boy.")

Colorado was the unquestionable anomaly of the intermountain West during the recent election, coupling stronger-than-expected support for President Bush (52 percent to Kerry’s 47 percent) with its renouncement of state Republican leadership. The Centennial State emerged as the only one in this election to shift political powers in both state legislative chambers. It also caused a minor earthquake when voters added more Democrats to Congress in Washington.

Led by the narrow Democratic victories of the brothers Salazar (Ken taking the U.S. Senate seat that fell to the GOP after Ben Nighthorse Campbell switched parties, and John succeeding Representative Scott McInnis in the Republican-heavy 3rd Congressional District), the state’s party balance in Washington swung from 7-2 Republican to 5-4 Republican. Ken Salazar is the first Colorado Democrat elected to the Senate in 12 years.

On the state level, Democrats won back a surprising 18-17 majority in the Senate and picked up six Republican seats in the House to create a 34-31 majority. It’s the first time since John F. Kennedy was elected president that Colorado Democrats captured both chambers of the state Legislature.

But when it comes to finding answers as to how the red and blue managed to achieve such a harmonic convergence this election, the theories are as divergent as the parties themselves.


Some experts attribute Democratic victories to discontent about the state’s fiscal crisis, which next year could force $263 million in cuts in higher education, state parks and health care for the elderly. Meanwhile, the wars in Iraq and against terrorism offer the best explanation as to why voters stuck with the commander in chief. But for all the talk of superior Republican "values," some experts trace the party’s shortcomings directly to the hard-line dogma of state Republican leaders, exemplified by conservative efforts to ban race-based college admissions, limit teachings on homosexuality and censor left-leaning college professors.

"When the state is facing fiscal disaster, that’s just not where you want folks spending time," said Rutt Bridges, founder of the Bighorn Center for Public Policy, who helped fund Democratic House and Senate candidates. "If the issues come down to assault weapons and gay marriage versus health care and fixing a lousy economy, practicality wins out over ideology every time."

For many, the thinking is reflective of what they consider the real reason behind Colorado’s new bluish hue: a demographic shift that is slowly changing the state’s attitude from "retro" to "metro." Coined by University of Phoenix founder John Sperling in his book The Great Divide: Retro vs. Metro America, the descriptions refer to "old America" and "new America," defining retro states as bastions of conservative, religious residents who are economically dependent upon industries like agriculture and mining. Metro states are home to more high-tech economies and religious-moderate residents more accepting of differences in class, ethnicity and sexual orientation.

Although Colorado has traditionally fallen in line with the Rocky Mountain retro states, the explosive growth seen in recent years — including an influx of residents from California and the Northeast — has created a unique blend of metro ideals melded with a strong desire by retro residents to preserve the quality-of-life elements serving as the initial catalyst. As it happened, the moderate Democrats best appealed to each side’s sensibilities.

"I can’t prove it, but I think there has been a real shift, with such a large growth in population that people are concerned with the environment and growth, and so they are voting for candidates they think can protect that," said Arn Menconi, a Democrat who managed to retain his seat as one of three commissioners in Eagle County, one of the fastest-growing in the state. "At the same time, I think the population shift, both statewide and in Eagle County, has included people who are more highly educated."

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."


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