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
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
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.”