It’s the party, stupid: Democrats open the doors to Colorado, to the West, to America

Colorado state capitol building. (Photo/manufrakass, Flickr)
Colorado state capitol building. (Photo/manufrakass, Flickr)

January 2007 marked a milestone in Colorado. It was the first day of the legislative session — and the first time that Democrats controlled both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office since John F. Kennedy was president. When Gov. Bill Ritter took the floor, only one thing could have possibly upstaged the new governor’s arrival: the announcement, that day, that Denver had been selected the site of the Democratic National Convention for the first time in a century. The chambers erupted in cheers.

A year and a half later, Colorado has emerged as not only a battleground state but also as a symbol for the changing demographics of the American West and the Democratic Party.

Once soundly Republican territory and flyover regions for both parties, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and, to lesser degrees, Montana, Wyoming and Kansas are playing a major role national politics. Very possibly the West — not Florida, not Ohio, but the West — will be where this election is decided.

Not to mention, the biggest campaign issue for both sides is playing out right here in Colorado.

Ritter’s “New Energy Economy” is the envy of many states, and for once Colorado is seen nationally as forward-thinking. Excel Energy produces more wind power than any public utility in the country after legislative action and a recent voter-approved requirement mandating renewable energy. Companies including Conoco-Phillips and Vestas, a wind turbine manufacturer, are planting thousands of jobs in the Centennial State. More progress in on the way.

Yes, it is by no accident the Dems chose Denver to throw their biggest party of the year.

Barack Obama’s speech will surely be a testimonial to the importance of Colorado. He needs Colorado. His campaign from the beginning has touted inclusion, and the message has played out here. He drew a crowd 19,000-strong in subfreezing temperatures to Denver University in February. Colorado Democrats caucused in record numbers, overwhelmingly supporting Obama, and 80,000 people signed up for tickets to see him accept his party’s nomination.

On Thursday half of Mile High Stadium’s seats will be filled with Colorado residents. The symbolism is apparent to all, but the context of how important it is for the Obama to speak to 30,000 Colorado voters is probably more easily missed.

Voter trends in the state could have their strongest impact in what some call the “battle of the suburbs” happening within an expanding Denver metro area, home to 50 percent of the state’s population, and in growing communities such as Grand Junction and Greeley. The Democrats will be relying on white college graduates — whose numbers have grown rapidly since 2000 — and Hispanics, who heavily vote Democratic and who largely embody the growing minority vote to beef up 2004 totals. Obama’s message of a strong middle class and support for working families will not be lost on those demographics.

This week most media outlets will focus on Obama, the campaign and his Mile High speech. But for many Democrats it’s not just about the candidate or his campaign. It’s about a party redefining itself and its base. Opening the doors Thursday night, not only to the elite media and party bigwigs, but to the masses of Coloradans in a purple, Western state, symbolizes more than just an important speech.

It’s the Democratic Party, energized by a new leader, opening the doors to Colorado, to the West, to America. The message will resonate well here, where the people are steeped in a tradition of expectation that they are on the same level as their leaders — unlike the East Coast, where governments and constituents are more accepting of an “elite” class.

No, this week marks not just protests, delegate parties and a speech. It is a pivotal moment in the Democratic Party and the progressive movement — and Colorado, the most unlikely of places four years ago, is right in the middle of it all.

What a great time to be a politico, huh?

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