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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Last January, a "confidential" memo from a Democratic political consultant outlined an ambitious scheme for spending $11.7 million in Colorado this year to crush Republicans. The money would come from rich liberal donors in the state and would be spent primarily on defeating Senate candidate Bob Schaffer ($5.1 million) and Representative Marilyn Musgrave ($2.6 million), who are loathed by liberals for sponsoring a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. The overarching aim: Lock in Democratic control of Colorado for years to come.

Leaked memos have a way of revealing who's on top and who's not in politics and which party has energy and momentum. In Colorado, Democrats are third in registered voters (31.2 percent), behind both Independents (34.19 percent) and Republicans (34.14 percent). But in the last two election cycles--2004 and 2006--they've routed Republicans, capturing the governorship, both houses of the state legislature, a U.S. Senate seat, and two U.S. House seats. Democrats are on a roll, and that's not likely to change this year. Republicans are demoralized, disorganized, and more focused on averting further losses in 2008 than on staging a comeback.

The Democratic surge in Colorado reflects the national trend, but it involves a great deal more. There's something unique going on in Colorado that, if copied in other states, has the potential to produce sweeping Democratic gains nationwide. That something is the "Colorado Model," and it's certain to be a major topic of discussion when Democrats convene in Denver in the last week of August for their national convention.

While the Colorado Model isn't a secret, it hasn't drawn much national attention either. Democrats, for now anyway, seem wary of touting it. One reason for their reticence is that it depends partly on wealthy liberals' spending tons of money not only on "independent expenditures" to attack Republican office-seekers but also to create a vast infrastructure of liberal organizations that produces an anti-Republican, anti-conservative echo chamber in politics and the media.

Colorado is where this model is being tested and refined. And Republicans, even more than Democrats, say that it's working impressively. (For Republicans, it offers an excuse for their tailspin.) Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute, a conservative think tank based in Denver, says Republicans around the country should be alarmed by the success of the Colorado Model. "Watch out," he says, "it's coming to a state near you."

It probably is. With enough money, its main elements can no doubt be replicated in other states. But a large measure of political shrewdness and opportunism is also required, political traits that have eluded Republicans in Colorado while becoming the hallmark of their opponents. Democrats are wisely running candidates, statewide and locally, who campaign as centrists, not as liberals.

In 2004, in their first offensive against Republicans, the rich liberals worked surreptitiously. They'd been brought together by Al Yates, the former president of Colorado State University, and later were dubbed the "Gang of Four" by the press--or, sarcastically, by Republicans, the "Fab Four." Two of the four, Tim Gill and Rutt Bridges, made millions in computer software. Jared Polis, along with his parents, grew rich from building and selling Internet companies. The fourth, Pat Stryker, is heir to a medical products fortune and runs her family's foundation.

They quietly targeted a handful of Republican state legislators (particularly social conservatives opposed to gay rights), polled to find out what issues might work against them, and promoted their Democratic opponents. Dan Haley, the editorial page editor of the Denver Post, told me he realized a clever, new tactic was being pursued when he received a glossy mailer late in the campaign backing a firefighter who was the little-known Democratic challenger of a Republican incumbent. The firefighter had obviously not paid for the expensive piece of campaign literature.

The firefighter lost, but other Democratic challengers won. Republicans were flummoxed, having been caught totally by surprise. For the first time in 44 years, Democrats gained control of both the state senate and house. The Gang of Four had spent an estimated $2 million. In 2006, Gill and Stryker escalated their spending to $7.5 million, and Democrats won the governor's race. "There's nobody on the Republican side putting in that kind of money," says Republican consultant Walt Klein.