The tide has turned for Democrats

The story of Colorado’s evolution from center-right battleground to a place that Democrats now largely control is a familiar one. Ten years ago, Colorado had a Republican governor and two Republicans in the United States Senate. Today, Republicans post a goose egg for these three top-of-ticket offices.

But just beneath the surface of this good news story for Democrats is a regional trend that is very different – even as Democrats have come to dominate statewide elections over the last decade, the party of Hickenlooper, Udall and Salazar have effectively written off the state’s rural bookends, the Western Slope and Eastern Plains.

In Colorado’s parts east and west, the Democratic Party is wounded, weak, and in some cases, dead, except for ceremonial purposes of hosting barbecues and writing nasty letters to the editor about Janet Rowland.

In the two rural congressional districts that comprise the rural halo surrounding Colorado’s Denver metropolitan area, not only will Democrats not win, they won’t even compete. And while Democrats and supporting liberal organizations will spend millions advocating for Democratic state House and state Senate candidates in suburban swing towns like Jefferson, with only a couple exceptions, the vaunted liberal money machine is not likely to spend a dime on behalf of most of their preferred candidates because most have not even a remote shot at winning.

It wasn’t long ago that story in rural Colorado was much sunnier for Democrats.

In 2004, the same night that George W. Bush swept to a decisive victory in Colorado, the voters in Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, encompassing the Western Slope and Pueblo, elected John Salazar to represent them in Congress. Salazar we re-elected in 2006. That same year, Gov. Bill Ritter performed more strongly in western Colorado and along the Eastern Plains than any candidate in recent memory.

In 2008, a little-known aide to then-U.S. Senator Ken Salazar named Betsy Markey trounced the incumbent congresswoman in the rural 4th Congressional District, a congressional seat that encompasses many of the most conservative communities in the state. And while Salazar’s victories along the Western Slope were hard-won, Markey’s ascent to Congress was anything but. On the night Barack Obama was elected president, Markey cruised to a near-double-digit win.

Farther down ticket, Democrats netted real gains too. Mesa County elected a Democrat to the statehouse. Ultra-conservative Delta County had a liberal state senator representing it in the state Senate. Garfield County elected an anti-fracking zealot county commissioner.

But boy oh boy have things changed.

Now a decade removed from Salazar’s ascent to the U.S. Congress, the party of Jefferson and Jackson is mostly out of business in rural Colorado.

In 2010, Salazar and Markey were sent packing. Blind loyalty to the Obama Administration — first in supporting an unpopular stimulus program, then getting pressured against their better judgment into voting for Obamacare — cost them their jobs. In two short years, Markey went from winning by near-landslide to losing by landslide.

Down-ticket gains have similarly crumbled. With the exception of controlling one state Senate seat that covers Aspen, Delta and the San Luis Valley, Democrats have effectively ceded the terrain west of the Continental Divide. And even the one Senate seat that Democrats currently control is in jeopardy, thanks to the surging candidacy of Orchard City Mayor Don Suppes.

Democrats and frack-banners, meanwhile, no longer have a representative on the Garfield County Commission.

This trend must feel like a tidal wave for the Democrats running for Congress in the 3rd and 4th Congressional District this year. Say what you want about Nancy Pelosi, she is one prolific fundraiser. Her various political entities will spend literally hundreds of millions of dollars on congressional races across the country. But here is the bad news for rural Colorado Democrats — virtually none of that Pelosi-generated campaign cash (as in zilch, zip, nada) — will be spent helping the Democratic nominees against Scott Tipton in the 3rd Congressional District and Ken Buck, the GOP nominee in the 4th Congressional District.

Democrats in Washington aren’t oblivious to the fundamentals of what’s happening across rural Colorado. Spending money in rural Colorado is not likely to yield election-night returns.

While the Republican Party has its own very large cross to carry in suburban communities, the Democrats aren’t without their own big troubles. Not competing in any real way in two congressional districts they once controlled is certainly that.

Josh Penry is a former minority leader in the Colorado Senate. He is a graduate of Grand Junction High School and Mesa State College.


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