Colorado was once known as the square state with lots of farmers and cattle, where Republican politics were a way of life. Not anymore. For the first time in decades, the Grand Old Party has lost ground as evidenced by the latest voter registration data provided by the secretary of state. In fact, as of last weekend, active Democratic voters outnumbered active Republican voters statewide — a reality many experts said seemed unlikely five or 10 years ago.
As of Saturday, Colorado voter registration rolls showed 876,498 active Democrats, 870,435 active Republicans and 789,200 active unaffiliated voters, according to the secretary of state’s office. Despite the lead among active voters, Republicans still maintain a slight advantage over Democrats in registration numbers when inactive voters are included in the tally. When both inactive and active voters are combined, Republicans have nearly 13,000 more voters, with 1,062,773 people registered, compared to the 1,049,912 registered as Democrat. The total number of active and inactive unaffiliated voters is 1,069,634.
“The state has never been as Republican as its reputation,” said Bob Loevy, a political science professor at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. “That reputation came from Colorado’s tendency to vote Republican in presidential elections and the Republican control of the Legislature. But that was based, as in all states, on redistricting. Once the Democrats gained control of the redistricting process in the state, as they did a couple of years ago, we have seen a shift begin.”
That shift is being played out in more concrete ways through polling advantages in the presidential race as well as state races where Democrats have taken a lead in recent weeks.
With Colorado considered one of the last remaining toss-up states, both presidential campaigns have been dumping money into the state, mostly to attack their opponent. Yet Democrat Barack Obama has taken a slight lead in the polls and, at the state level, Republican Bob Schaffer — who is battling Democrat Rep. Mark Udall for the state’s open U.S. Senate seat — has fallen behind, as has incumbent Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, who is running a tough race against the never-before-elected Democrat Betsy Markey.
A split in the party
Political experts agreed it’s hard to explain the shift in Colorado’s electorate by pointing to just one reason and instead said they believe it’s a combination of factors. In addition to redistricting, Loevy said national influences like President George W. Bush’s low approval rating, the unpopular war in Iraq and the souring economy are all factors in the GOP’s softening numbers in Colorado. The emphasis on a socially conservative agenda in recent years is also a major factor, he said.
“The socially conservative agenda of the Republican Party that was initiated under President Reagan and greatly strengthened under George W. Bush, the anti-abortion, the anti-gay rights, the anti-stem cells push, those have not played out well at all with many Republicans who are more fiscally conservative than they are socially conservative,” Loevy said. “I think that plays a big role.”
Other observers agree, including Robert Preuhs, a political science professor at Metropolitan State College of Denver.
“Both parties have become more polarized in recent years, with the Republicans moving to the right and the Democrats moving to the left, and that has brought more independents and unaffiliated voters around,” Preuhs said. “But on the Republican side, a lot of folks were attracted to the party because of their fiscally conservative nature and have not been as big on the moral and social issues, like gay rights and abortion.
“As the Republicans started making those morality issues a large part of their platform, I think some moderates within party were turned away.”
That reality has played out in Colorado’s 4th Congressional District in northern Colorado and the eastern plains where Musgrave, a three-term incumbent, has struggled to get ahead of her Democratic challenger.
Musgrave, a staunch social conservative who has taken very public stands against abortion and gay marriage — and indeed was the sponsor of the failed Federal Marriage Amendment — has lately worked to appeal to the fiscal moderates within the party. This election cycle, Musgrave has publicly refrained from talking up controversial social issues and instead has highlighted her bipartisan work, including working to stop the Army’s expansion of Pinon Canyon in southeastern Colorado and to secure increased protection for Rocky Mountain National Park.
New Colorado growth spells blue
Another reason Colorado is swinging to the left can be explained by the type of new population growth the state has witnessed in the last two decades. Unlike in years past, where much of the state’s population growth came from more rural areas, the last 20 years has seen an influx of people heading to the state’s more urban areas, especially along the Front Range. That urban growth has carried more progressive-minded people to Colorado than conservative, Preuhs said.
“You just get a different electorate with growth,” he said. “We don’t really have a lot of migration from traditionally conservative places like the Deep South and instead have seen our growth coming from places like California and the East Coast. The growth, particularly in Denver County and the more metropolitan areas, has tended to be a little more moderate in political orientation, at least in the last 10-15 years, and we have seen that happening across the country.”
The propensity of new growth to bring more of a moderate electorate is not just playing out in Denver. Larimer and Weld County in Northern Colorado and Mesa County on the Western Slope have also seen population growth that has brought with it relatively moderate voters.
Democrats in Colorado shouldn’t get too excited too fast, though, Preuhs said. They could lose their support here just as the Republicans have in recent years if they’re not careful.
“We are by no means a liberal, Democratic state. We’re not California, and we’re not Massachusetts,” he said. “We are more in the middle ground.
“As long as the Democrats continue to run more moderate candidates like Gov. Bill Ritter and Sen. Ken Salazar, and the national politics stay in their favor, they will probably keep control. But, politics has a way of cycling [itself], and the Democrats will most likely pursue their policy and it will work for a while, but then a war may happen or the economy will go bad and the people will blame the party that is in control. That is how it works.”