In a longtime conservative stronghold, Weld County voters drift from GOP

Water tower in the Weld County farming community of Eaton. (Photo/Fort Photo, Flickr)
Water tower in the Weld County farming community of Eaton. (Photo/Fort Photo, Flickr)

As Colorado inches to Election Day, its status as a swing state has not dimmed — and Weld County, a traditionally conservative stronghold encompassing Greeley and much of the Eastern Plains, is being eyed by many as one of a handful of counties that could make or break the election for either party. Two years ago Gov. Bill Ritter stunned observers by winning Weld by a squeaker. This year, with a hotly contested congressional race and shifting party affiliations — fewer Republicans and more Democrats, percentage-wise — Weld is squarely in the spotlight.

Voter registration in Weld County favors Republicans, who hold onto 38 percent of the electorate, while 26 percent of voters are Democrats and 36 percent are unaffiliated. Despite the Republican majority, Weld County voter registration numbers have slowly trended away from Republicans in recent years, according to data from the Weld County Clerk’s office. Four years ago, Republicans had a tighter grip on voter registration, with 44 percent. Democratic registration, at 21 percent, was lower than today. Unaffiliated voters held the same 36 percent of registration as today.

The reason for the demographic shift, with higher Democratic and lower Republican percentages, is not easy to pinpoint, observers say, but the impact this year could be big.

“Those (numbers) are not good news for the Republicans,” said Colorado State University political science professor John Straayer. “Not all of the unaffiliated voters will vote Democrat, but more will than won’t. A numerical surge like this means that folks are not happy, and unhappy voters are looking for alternatives.”

Democrats seem to be hearing the same message.

Opening the doors

Despite the county’s strong GOP base, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has opened a campaign office in Weld County’s largest city, Greeley, twice — first before the state’s caucuses in February and then again this summer. Obama campaign officials have said the office in Greeley, whose population is more than 20 percent Latino, is part of their larger effort to reach out to Hispanic voters in Colorado.

Meanwhile, Democrat Betsy Markey, who is challenging Republican Rep. Marilyn Musgrave for the 4th Congressional District, has also opened a campaign office in Greeley and has spent much of her time campaigning in Weld County, including spending the night of the Colorado caucuses there. Markey, embattled in a close race with Musgrave that has turned increasingly negative in recent weeks, has openly talked about the importance of picking up votes in Weld if she hopes to beat Musgrave, a three-term incumbent.

Weld is one of 16 counties in the geographically vast 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. Straayer, who has closely watched the 4th CD for more than 40 years, said the outcome of one county probably won’t be enough to swing an election in the 4th, but it will certainly have an impact.

“I don’t know if you could predict a Dem victory based on the numbers from one county, but it does mean that in Weld, Musgrave is very unlikely to get the same percentage she received in prior races,” Straayer said.

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 of her career.

In addition, Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter won the county by 300 votes two years ago over Republican opponent Bob Beauprez. Although Democratic Sen. Ken Salazar didn’t win Weld County over his Republican opponent Pete Coors in 2004, his margin was much closer than any Democratic Senate candidate in decades.

Election Day scramble

With so many more people registering to vote in Weld County this year, Clerk and Recorder Steve Moreno said his office has been working overtime to get county polling locations ready. Despite the efforts, Moreno said he is expecting long lines at the polls this year.

“In 2004, we had two early voting sites and had 10,000 people use them,” Moreno said. “This year we have added three new sites and are expecting that we could have 20,000 voters processed through them before the election. We have sent out mailers to voters explaining the early voting options, have promoted mail balloting and have placed (announcements) in the local media as well. We want people to know what the situation is.”

The efforts of Moreno and other Colorado clerks were made harder this year by what seemed at times to be a never-ending feud between county clerks and the Colorado Secretary of State’s office over what could be considered a certified voting machine. The Legislature got involved to help solve the problem, but for many, like Moreno, it was too late.

“We had planned on buying many more voting machines to deploy across the county, but because of the controversy over the certification process … the (commissioners) and I decided it was not a good idea to invest another $500,000 in machines that might not be available for use,” Moreno said. “We have been able to rent an additional 40 machines from a neighboring county, so we’re hopeful that will help speed lines up on Election Day.”

This is the first in a multi-part series profiling a number of Colorado’s politically important counties.

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