Colorado turns a deeper shade of blue
DENVER — Colorado voters helped re-elect Barack Obama, legalized marijuana and appeared poised to give the Democrats control of both houses of the state legislature.
It was the latest sign that this once-reliably Republican state is inching toward the Democrats’ corner, helping the party win the fast-growing West and geographically box in the GOP.
Colorado has been transformed by an influx of educated, moderate coastal transplants and a growing Hispanic population. Democrats have been able to win over these groups better than Republicans.
“This is why we’ve been winning. Here we’ve been like surgeons since 2004, trying to really understand this electorate,” said Jill Hanauer, a veteran Democratic strategist who founded Project New America, which specializes in political demographic research. “The Democrats who run and win elections in Colorado are going where the voters are.”
Tuesday’s results were certainly not a sea change in the still fairly centrist state. Voters returned all seven congressmen, four of whom are Republican. And Republican Mitt Romney fared better than John McCain did in 2008.
Colorado is evenly split between Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters. It has long rewarded independent, centrist-oriented candidates and elected several prominent Democrats to governorships and the U.S. Senate. But, until Obama’s commanding win here in 2008, it had only sided with the Democratic presidential candidate once since 1968.
Democrats have the governorship and both U.S. Senate seats and took the state legislature for the first time in decades in 2004.
Dick Wadhams, a former state GOP party chairman, said that what at first glance may appear to be a leftward swing is really a result of what he called Obama’s superior campaign.
The president won re-election by maintaining key margins in two big Denver-area swing counties — Arapahoe and Jefferson — which is also where the Democrats won enough seats to take back the General Assembly after losing it during the 2010 Republican wave.
“I would be careful to draw too many sweeping conclusions about what happened tonight,” Wadhams said, noting that the legalization of marijuana is partly due to Republican libertarian support. Several prominent conservatives, including former Rep. Tom Tancredo, backed marijuana legalization.
Still, on Tuesday night, Republicans were still reeling from the drubbing. “I think that it can’t be understated how effective the Obama machine is about turning people out to vote,” Republican House Speaker Frank McNulty said. “I am impressed.”
Obama modeled his Colorado race on Sen. Michael Bennet’s successful 2010 campaign. Bennet staved off a tea party challenger that year by focusing on women’s issues and immigration, and he ran up big margins with Hispanics and unaffiliated suburban women voters to put him over the top.
This year, voters here and in Washington state legalized marijuana, several years after approving medical marijuana.
Propelled by social issues, Democrats were expected to take control of the Colorado state House again, ending the Republicans’ two-year reign in the lower chamber.
Republicans had a 33-32 advantage, and they were able to use it to block civil unions for two years in a row, including with a filibuster in the latest session.
Senate Democrats, who unanimously supported civil unions and proposed tuition help for illegal immigrants, were expected to retain control of the chamber, although it wasn’t immediately clear what the final seat tally would be. Democrats currently have a five-seat advantage.
Laura Chapin, a Democratic strategist, said that Republicans continue to be hurt by their base’s stances on social issues.
“Colorado has changing demographics. ... The Democratic party has figured out how to speak to that and the Republican party has not,” Chapin said. “What happened in Colorado is a microcosm of what happened nationally.”