The Magazine

The Colorado Model

The Democrats' plan for turning red states blue.

Jul 21, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 42 • By FRED BARNES
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Colorado, for the past half-century anyway, has not been a solidly Republican state. "We're not a very ideological state or a very partisan state," former Republican senator Bill Armstrong says. Colorado voters tilt slightly to the right, though you'd never know it from recent elections. The state was strongly affected by waves of newcomers. Starting in the 1970s, Colorado elected Democrats Gary Hart, Tim Wirth, and Ben Nighthorse Campbell to the Senate, Pat Schroeder to the House, and Democrats to the governor's office for 24 consecutive years. Bill Clinton won the state in the 1992 presidential race. So the notion the current rise of Democrats is a historic, unprecedented breakthrough--that's pure myth.

Republicans rallied in the 1990s when a fresh influx of immigrants from western states arrived. They were more conservative. Highlands Ranch, a town south of Denver, was nicknamed Orange County East because thousands of newcomers from conservative Orange County, California, settled there. After Campbell switched parties in 1995, Republican Wayne Allard won the other Senate seat in 1996, and Republican Bill Owens was elected governor in 1998, giving the GOP all the top statewide offices, four of the six House seats, and the state house and senate.

George W. Bush won Colorado by 9 percentage points in 2000, and Republican control appeared to be firmly entrenched two years later when Owens was reelected over a hapless Democrat opponent, 63 to 34 percent. Championed by National Review as America's best governor, Owens was viewed as a logical Republican presidential nominee in 2008. But by 2004, the Republican heyday had begun to unravel. Owens and his wife had a highly public separation and later divorced. And Republicans made critical mistakes and squabbled among themselves just as Democrats were uniting.

Two policies helped set the stage for the emergence of the Colorado Model. Term limits, enacted in 1990, forced experienced Republicans out of state office, leaving open seats easier for Democrats to win. And a new campaign finance law limited individual contributions to $400. This allowed independent TV and radio ads and direct mail financed by the Gang of Four to have a disproportionate impact on elections.

On many levels, 2004 was a disastrous year for Republicans in Colorado. Bush's margin of victory was cut in half from 2000. Democrats not only took over the legislature, but a gregarious rancher named John Salazar, a Democrat, won the U.S. House seat west of the Rockies, where Republicans have an overwhelming edge in voter registration. (He was reelected in 2006.) An even bigger blow to Republicans was the U.S. Senate victory by Salazar's younger brother, Ken.

Owens, whose backing was critical, initially endorsed conservative congressman Bob Schaffer for the Senate seat being vacated by Campbell. Schaffer is a likable conservative from northern Colorado who retired from Congress in 2004, honoring his promise to serve only three terms in the House. Then Owens changed his mind and supported beer company chairman Pete Coors, insisting he was the only Republican who could beat Ken Salazar, then state attorney general. Coors defeated Schaffer in the Republican primary, only to run a poor campaign against Salazar.

The bitterness of the Coors-Schaffer race was in contrast with Salazar's undisputed claim on the Democratic nomination. Democratic congressman Mark Udall had announced for the seat the moment Campbell said he would retire. So had Rutt Bridges. But a day later, after a tumultuous 24 hours of negotiations, Udall and Bridges appeared at a press conference to endorse Salazar, who ran as a moderate and an "independent voice" for Colorado. Among Democrats, unity prevailed, and Ken Salazar won.

In 2005, Republicans split over Referendum C, designed to waive the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (known as TABOR) for five years. Passed in 1992, TABOR limited spending hikes to inflation and population growth, required any surplus to be refunded to taxpayers, and mandated a referendum to raise taxes. Conservatives fervently opposed suspending TABOR. But Owens and a handful of Republican leaders joined with Democrats to pass the referendum in order to fund education and transportation initiatives.

Things got worse for Republicans in 2006 as the Colorado Model began to take hold. Another bitter primary, this one for governor, pitted congressman Bob Beauprez against Marc Holtzman, the ex-president of the University of Denver. Beauprez won the nomination, but the "Both Ways Bob" label slapped on him by Holtzman stuck, and Democrat Bill Ritter won the governorship in a landslide. Democrats gained legislative seats as well.

Like Salazar, Ritter had gotten the Democratic nomination without a struggle. This was all the more amazing because he ran as a pro-life, pro-business Democrat. Feminists tried to find a pro-choice Democrat to oppose him but failed. Again, unity behind one candidate prevailed.

In 2008, Republicans are still reeling from the string of setbacks and show few signs of recovery. One bit of progress: Schaffer faces no serious opposition for the Republican nomination to hold the Senate seat of Allard, who kept his promise to retire after two terms. Schaffer is already being trashed in TV ads by an environmental group, the League of Conservation Voters, as "Big Oil Bob." Schaffer worked for an energy company after he left Congress.

"The bitterness of Coors-Schaffer in '04 still exists," says John Andrews. "The bitterness of Referendum C persists. And the bitterness of Marc Holtzman versus Bob Beauprez in 2006 persists." Moreover, Andrews says, "I'm not sure our party has learned the lessons it needed to learn. Republicans and conservatives missed our moment to be the next wave of the Reagan revolution at the state level. We didn't seize the center, and we didn't seize the imagination of Colorado voters."

That's a remarkable indictment of Republicans by a leading Republican. But it strikes me as a fair assessment. Gill and Stryker, the wealthier half of the Gang of Four, remain determined to drive Marilyn Musgrave out of office after she narrowly won reelection in 2006. Gill, who is gay, is also active in opposing foes of gay rights in other states.

How much they're actually willing to spend against Musgrave and Schaffer is unclear. The leaked memo said a budget of $11.7 million was "little more than our own thinking about what a successful [independent] operation for the presidential, U.S. Senate and [Musgrave] elections might look like." Republicans often trail during the summer before the election, and Schaffer is no exception, running behind Mark Udall in public polls. Barack Obama is a slight favorite to win Colorado in the presidential election. If he does and also wins New Mexico, Democratic consultant Mike Stratton points out, "Obama doesn't need to win Ohio."

Republicans desperately need Schaffer to hold Allard's seat to avert a filibuster-proof Senate in Washington, a Senate in which Republicans can't block or even modify liberal legislation. Schaffer and his campaign manager, Dick Wadhams, insist Udall is vulnerable as a "Boulder liberal" who can't credibly pose as a moderate as Salazar and Ritter did. Neither of them had a voting record. Salazar was state attorney general, Ritter the Denver district attorney. "Udall doesn't have that advantage," Schaffer says. Udall, by the way, lists his residence as Eldorado Springs, not Boulder. Colorado voters tend to view Boulder as a haven for hippies and out of the Colorado mainstream.

Undeterred, Udall is running to the center, saying he plays a bipartisan role in the House. That will be news to House Republicans. "Udall will get to where he needs to be," says Eric Sonderman, a public relations executive in Denver. The question is whether he can effectively respond to Schaffer's call for exploiting Colorado's vast oil shale reserves. Schaffer's position is increasingly popular, and he intends to dwell on it relentlessly. To propose drilling, Udall might have to defy his wife, Maggie Fox, the state director of the Sierra Club, the ardent environmental group. According to a former aide of Bill Armstrong, she has the distinction of being the only person Armstrong ever ordered to leave his Senate office. (Armstrong doesn't recall the incident.)

Absent the Democratic headwind, Schaffer would have a reasonable chance of winning. But his prospects could be further hampered by an antiabortion referendum on the ballot this November declaring that life begins at conception. If abortion becomes a major issue, Schaffer, who is pro-life, might lose the votes of suburban Republican women. "We don't need this," Wadhams says. In recent years, Republican female voters have tended to stray.

Republican hopes of a renaissance rest largely on winning the governor's race in 2010. That won't be easy. For one thing, they lack a candidate. The Republican bench of attractive candidates with statewide recognition is bare. The most prominent ones--Armstrong, Owens, former senator Hank Brown--have retired. Armstrong is president of Colorado Christian University. Aides of Allard have hinted he could be talked into running, but that's a long shot.

In 18 months as governor, Ritter has managed to anger business, labor, and the Denver Post, which had promoted him as a candidate. After promising labor leaders he would sign legislation gutting the Labor Peace Act, he bowed to business pressure and vetoed it. The act makes it difficult for unions to organize new workers.

Labor leaders were apoplectic. At the Gridiron Club dinner in Washington a few weeks later, Ritter was confronted aggressively by Teamsters president James Hoffa Jr., who told him "all of labor is upset." Hoffa warned the Democratic convention might "blow up" if other issues were not resolved in a way favorable to labor.

Then, late on a Friday afternoon last November, Ritter issued an executive order permitting state workers to join a union. Organized labor was pleased, but Denver Post publisher William Dean Singleton wasn't. He ordered a front-page editorial that criticized Ritter harshly. "This may be the beginning of the end of Ritter as governor," the editorial said. It certainly was the end of Ritter's warm relationship with the newspaper.

For the fall ballot, Ritter is pushing a referendum to impose a $300 million increase in the severance tax on the mining industry, further alienating the business community. He personally called leaders of the Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce in the faint hope he could persuade them to back the referendum. The chamber refused.

For all his problems, Ritter will have what Republicans do not have, if he seeks reelection: the full force of the Colorado Model engaged on his behalf. At the same time, his Republican rival is bound to be tormented by the phalanx of liberal groups and targeted by the rich liberals, who are free to spend an unlimited amount of money.

"Colorado is being used as a test bed for a swarm offense by Democrats and liberals to put conservatives and Republicans on defense as much as possible," says Andrews. The initial results of that test are favorable. "The wind's at our back here," says Andrew Romanoff, the Democratic House speaker. The Colorado Model, by nearly all accounts, is working in 2008. And it should continue to be a powerful political force in Colorado (and other states) for many years--that is, until conservatives and Republicans come up with a way to counteract it.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD. Hannah Sternberg provided research assistance for this article.