As Weld County goes, so goes the purple state of Colorado

With its rodeos, farmers and a strong Republican tradition, Colorado’s Weld County might seem like the last place Democrats would focus their 2008 election efforts. But it’s not.

Weld is one of 16 counties in the 4th Congressional District, which encompasses most of the rural eastern plains as well as larger cities along the north Front Range including Fort Collins, Longmont and Loveland.

The county is an important stop for the campaign of Democratic candidate Betsy Markey, who recently opened offices in Greeley. This is where she hopes to get enough votes to push past three-term Republican incumbent Rep. Marilyn Musgrave.

“We all know how important Weld County is,” said Markey campaign manager Anne Caprara. “There is no doubt it is the crucial part of this district for us and really for the rest of the state as well. A lot of the demographics that Republicans have traditionally relied on in Weld County are not the same as they have always been. We see a lot of opportunity there.”

The strategy isn’t totally crazy.

Voter registration in Weld County still favors Republicans, who hold onto 39 percent of the electorate, while 24 percent of voters are Democrats and 36 percent are unaffiliated.

Despite the Republican majority, Weld County voter registration numbers have slowly trended toward unaffiliated for years.

In addition, Democrat Gov. Bill Ritter won the county by 300 votes in 2006 over Republican opponent Bob Beauprez, and Musgrave’s margin of victory in Weld has decreased steadily during each re-election cycle she has run.

Why Democrats are smiling

The number of Weld County Republicans has remained relatively flat since 2004, rising 2 percent to 50,110 as of last month, according to Secretary of State data.

The reason Weld County, which houses the city of Greeley and the University of Northern Colorado, has seen shifting demographics is not easy to pinpoint, said Colorado State University political scientist John Straayer.

“I think there are probably a number of things going on, and you can’t rely on just one reason to explain it,” Straayer said. “Weld County is growing, you have a university there; it has become an attractive place to retire. I think in many ways the people who are attracted to the area have had a mild moderating effect on the electorate overall. I don’t want to overstate that, but I think it’s certainly the case.”

Changing demographics brought on by population growth aren’t the only factor that could be in play, Straayer said, citing a growing divide among the Republican Party in the 4th Congressional District and in Weld County.

“If you look at the Republican Party it is changing in some aspects,” Straayer said. “I think the party itself statewide has been (split) and has shifted, and as the 4th electorate has moved to be more moderate in recent years the Republican Party, in small steps, has been moving the other way.”

In other words, as issues like guns, gay marriage and abortion were a focus of voters in the 4th CD in recent years, today a souring economy, the ongoing struggle for water and high fuel prices are rising to the top of voters priority lists, and Musgrave isn’t known well for any of them.

Instead, Musgrave has built a reputation around her conservative voting record and stance against gay marriage. But that isn’t to say the Fort Morgan Republican isn’t trying to reinvent her image, speaking out on energy issues and teaming up with other Colorado Democrats, including Senate candidate Rep. Mark Udall, on earmark reform in the last year.

A political newcomer, Markey is without a voting record and is able to focus her campaign on the economy and renewable energy. But whether Markey will be successful at convincing voters she is the better choice or whether Musgrave’s reinvention will have an impact is yet to be seen.

The power of incumbency

But not all is lost for Musgrave in Weld County.

The Fort Morgan Republican has soundly beat her Democratic opponent in Weld County each election she has run in, even if her margin of victory is shrinking.

In 2002, Musgrave beat Loveland Democrat Stan Matsunaka with 54 percent of the total vote including 56 percent in Weld County. In a second race against Matsunaka, the former state Senate President in 2004, Musgrave gained 50 percent of the total vote, including 53 percent in Weld.

Continuing the trend, in 2006 when Musgrave ran against Fort Collins Democrat Angie Paccione, she carried 45 percent of the total vote, including 48 percent in Weld County. Reform Party candidate Eric Eidsness took 11 percent of the total vote and 13 percent in Weld County.

In total, Musgrave’s margin of victory in 2006 was less than 3 percent, the smallest margin of her career. 

Musgrave’s campaign staffers did not return interview requests seeking comment Monday. However, despite the narrowing gap, the congresswoman has won re-election before and the power of incumbency cannot be overlooked, said Colorado State University political scientist Kyle Saunders.

“Musgrave can still very much win this race,” Saunders said. “She has name recognition, she has incumbency, and she still has quite an advantage of (people) who voted for her in 2006, but (her margin) is tightening, which makes the point about Musgrave’s need to win the unaffiliated voters, provided she can mobilize her partisan base to come to the polls for her.”

Wooing the unaffiliated voter

Since 2004, the number of unaffiliated voters in the 4th CD has increased by less than 1 percent, making the 12 percent increase of unaffiliated voters in Weld County important.

Voters with no party affiliation can work for or against the status quo. In Weld County, the status quo can be defined differently depending who you ask.

Ed Jordan, chairman of the Weld County GOP, said two years of Democrat-controlled State Capitol will bring unaffiliated voters to Weld County polls — and many of them will lean toward conservative ballot issues and Republican candidates.

I believe in 2006 things weren’t going well for Republicans across the nation, the state and in Weld County,” Jordan said. “But I think this year voters have seen what the Democrats have done, particularly in the state House where they have control, and I think they are going to respond by supporting conservative issues and candidates at the polls.”

The Weld County GOP, which has largely been successful at wooing the county’s unaffiliated voters, will see success again this year as will Musgrave, who is still “very popular” in the area, Jordan said.

“I believe the unaffiliated voters in Weld County are more aligned with the Republican philosophy and values,” he said. “And this year we have some really good candidates who stand up for the values and beliefs that represent up to 80 percent of our county. I think we will do quite well.”

Despite fighting in a county that historically leans Republican at the polls, Weld Democrats say they have a bigger ace in the hole when working to attract unaffiliated voters – Barack Obama.

Obama for president has garnered much support in Weld County, where an Obama campaign office set up before the state’s caucuses has reached many voters, said Mary Stack, second vice chair of the Weld County Democrats.

“We are very optimistic because of the huge support we are seeing for Barack Obama out here; his campaign has been working very hard,” Stack said. “They have had some very smart, dedicated people working out here since before the caucuses, and we think the ground support he has built up could really help Betsy Markey as well.”

Although it’s too early to say for sure how voters will respond this November, one thing that most everyone seems to agree on is the bellwether nature of Weld County.

“I think of the 4th Congressional District as the ‘purple’ district in Colorado, and if it goes for the Democrats the state is more likely to go for the Dems,” Saunders, the CSU political science professor said. “Just like if the purple states go one way or another, so goes the presidential election.”