Home to the state’s only agricultural university, Rocky Mountain National Park and many ranches, Larimer County has traditionally been a Republican stronghold in Colorado. But, as President George W. Bush’s approval ratings play gutterball, the unpopular war in Iraq continues and the economy continues to implode, Larimer County’s electorate is starting to swing in a moderate direction with upticks in the number of Democrat and unaffiliated voters. That shift is being eyed by strategists and politicos carefully this year as the northern Colorado county could be one of a handful to play a pivotal role in the November election.
As of last week, 73,969 voters in Larimer County — or 35 percent — were registered Republicans, while 59,123 — or 28 percent — were registered Democrats, according the Larimer County Clerk’s office. Unaffiliated voters have surpassed GOP voter registration, with 36 percent, or 74,416.
By contrast, in 2004, registered Republicans numbered 39 percent of the electorate, while Democrats claimed 26 percent. Unaffiliated voters numbered 35 percent of the electorate.
With so many contested races in Larimer County this year, including the 4th Congressional race between Republican Rep. Marilyn Musgrave and Democrat Betsy Markey, as well as the State House District 52 race between Democratic Rep. John Kefalas and Republican Bob McCluskey, the importance of the shift in political leanings among Larimer County residents is coming into focus.
“Why Larimer is changing — and why the Mountain West for that matter is changing politically — can be broken down in a number of ways,” said Kyle Saunders, a political science professor at Colorado State University. “Part of it is an increasingly urban and more diverse electorate, a changing economy, and a general momentum throughout the United States (away from the Republican Party).
“However, we should also pay attention to the strategy employed by the Democratic Party over the last few years in this region, what they have been doing in the West so effectively. The Democrats have played to a moderate electorate to the tune of individual rights and stayed away from divisive social issues, whereas the Republicans chose as their battleground issues terrorism and harder social issues over the past few cycles.”
Fiscal conservatives vs. social conservatives
Last week and for the first time in decades, the number of active Democratic voters in Colorado surpassed the number of active Republican voters, the result of what many political observers said is a growing split among fiscal conservatives and social conservatives. That division is being seen in Larimer County, where new population growth in recent years has brought a more moderate electorate with it.
“The shift away from the Republican Party reflects what is occurring statewide and to some extent nationally,” said John Straayer, a political science professor at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. “The Republican fusion of the fiscal conservative/small government folks and the social/cultural agenda Republicans has worn increasingly thin over time.
“With the public concerned about such bread-and-butter issues as health care, transportation and higher education, the Republican agenda has become less attractive. Overlay that with the dissatisfaction with Bush, the war, growing deficits, plus the enthusiasm with Obama, the trend away from the Republicans is understandable.”
But, just what impact the shifting voter demographics will have on important races in Larimer County is hard to pinpoint, Straayer said.
“A numerical surge like that means that folks are not happy, and unhappy voters are looking for alternatives,” he said. “I don’t know if you could predict a Dem victory based on the numbers from one county, but it does mean that (Republicans) are very unlikely to get the same percentage they received in prior races.”
That could spell bad news for McCluskey, a former state representative from Fort Collins who is battling with incumbent Kefalas for the HD 52 seat, which covers the eastern and northern part of Fort Collins and is in many ways symbolic of Colorado’s growing nature as a swing state. The two battled for the House District 52 seat in 2004 when McCluskey won by 500 votes. In 2006, Kefalas ran to victory, winning with 53 percent of the vote. This year they are at it again, and by all accounts it’s another close race.
The battle for Colorado’s 4th CD between Musgrave and Markey is also close, and Larimer County could play an important role in the outcome. Despite voter registration numbers in the 4th that favor Republicans by 13 percent, recent polls indicated Markey, a never-before-elected former U.S. Senate staffer, stands a clear chance of unseating Musgrave.
Although observers don’t believe some conservative strongholds in the 4th, which encompasses the north Front Range and the Eastern Plains, will shift support from Musgrave, a growing number of unaffiliated and Democratic voters in Weld County and in Larimer could be just enough to tip the scales.
Two years ago, Musgrave struggled in a three-way battle with Democrat Angie Paccione and Reform Party candidate Eric Eidsness. Eidsness, a former Republican, received more than 10 percent of the vote and Musgrave inched past Paccione by less than a 3 percent margin, one of the smallest of any Republican incumbent in the House and the closest of her career. In Larimer, Paccione gained more votes than Musgrave receiving 48 percent of the vote compared to Musgrave’s 40 percent. Eidsness won 11 percent.
Already a bad year for Republicans nationwide, Paccione looked strong against Musgrave in 2006 until she was slammed in the media and subsequently with negative advertising for a previous bankruptcy and for unpaid student loans. Paccione was never able to recover but Markey’s campaign this year is hopeful the Fort Collins business owner and former field director for Sen. Ken Salazar will be able to make up the 3 percent margin that Paccione was unable to do.
Despite a Republican registration advantage within the county, other Democrats have succeeded in Larimer in recent elections, including Gov. Bill Ritter, who overwhelmingly won the county in 2006 with 56 percent of the vote.
In 2004, President Bush beat his Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry in Larimer, getting 51 percent of the vote. But, during the same election, Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar outpaced his Republican opponent Pete Coors with 50 percent of the vote in Larimer compared to Coors’ 46 percent.
That isn’t to say the Republicans can’t expect to see a strong turnout on Election Day in Larimer County. Popular Republicans in the county include Sen. Steve Johnson, a joint budget committee member from Fort Collins, and Rep. Don Marostica of Loveland, and Sarah Palin seems to have excited a number of northern Colorado residents, as seen by the large number of people who attended her rally in Loveland this week.
Editors note: This is the second installment of a multi-part series The Colorado Independent is running on important Colorado counties in the 2008 election.