Swanky Douglas County paints a new political reality

(Photo/eioua, Flickr)
(Photo/eioua, Flickr)

With its swanky private country clubs, large estates and high per-capita income, Douglas County just south of the Denver metro area is a major Republican stronghold in Colorado. The county, which has the state’s highest average median household income at $82,929, has only gone for a Democratic presidential candidate three times since 1920 — twice for FDR in the 1930s and 40s, and once for Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

Indeed, county voter registration numbers have historically favored the GOP by whopping margins. In 2004, the 81,382 registered Republicans in Douglas County, or 52 percent, gave the party a working majority of voters. At the same time, Democrat voters numbered 30,402, or 19 percent, while unaffiliated voters made up the other 29 percent, or 46,172 people, according to Secretary of State data.

Fast-forward to 2008 and the electorate, although still soundly Republican, has seen 4 percent of the GOP base shift to Democratic or unaffiliated status. As of Oct. 22, the number of registered Republicans in Douglas County numbered 87,131, or 48 percent. Democrats picked up ground, accounting for 21 percent of the electorate, or 38,953 voters, while unaffiliated voters make up the remaining 31 percent, or 55,542 people.

That 4 percent, some political observers say, could have a more dramatic impact on the county’s politics.

“In 2004, in Douglas County if you were just a Republican you didn’t have to appeal to anyone to win elections because you had a majority of voters in the county who were most likely going to come out and support you,” said Norman Provizer, a professor of political science at Metro State in Denver.

“But, today, even though it’s an enormously strong Republican county, you don’t have that working majority any longer and so as a candidate you have to appeal to other voters. You can’t rely on partisan support to be elected. In that sense, there has only been a 4 percent shift since 2004 but that shift can make a difference.”

Provizer said it’s still unlikely that a Democratic candidate for any major office will win Douglas County this year, but the small shift of voters favoring more moderate policies could have an impact.

If moderate voters there, and in many other traditionally conservative counties around the state, were to split their votes between Republican and Democratic tickets, it could be enough to make a difference. In 2004, when Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter was able to keep a relatively narrow gap between himself and ex-Congressman and Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Beauprez in Douglas County — as well as other conservative counties — and was able to win statewide by a large margin.

“Although Ritter was known as a pro-business Democrat, the same kind of thing could happen again this year for other Democrats,” Povizer said.

The reason for the shift in voter registration is not easy to pinpoint on one factor, Provizer said. Much of the nation’s disenfranchisement for the Republican Party as a whole does not stop at the county lines of traditionally conservative places in Colorado, he added, while pointing to other factors like population growth that has brought more moderate voters.

“It’s not that people are going to the Dems, it’s that they are moving away from the Republicans,” Provizer said. “What happened over time is that the Republican Party has focused very much on social issues because they saw it as their way to power. Both parties do this, but they saw the social conservative base as a place where they could highly mobilize their base. In recent elections there was some validity to that because these were highly charged issues that you could get a lot of turnout on, but that has come at a cost.

“I think we might have reached the tipping point where everyone is thinking that maybe it’s gone too far. The key factor here is that there is nothing like sitting on the brink of defeat that will make you rethink what you’re doing. As long as you’re winning you don’t do that.”

Douglas County is not alone in this trend. As The Colorado Independent has noted, similar shifts have been seen in Arapahoe, Larimer, Mesa and Weld counties. Political experts in each case pointed to a weakened Republican Party brand, the unpopularity of President Bush and the souring economy as factors. The recent crash of the stock market, where many middle- to upper-class voters lost substantial chunks of their 401(k) retirement packages, might have an impact on which way Douglas County voters pull the lever next week, Provizer said.

“You find a mix of views out there on this subject, but I do think that what happens is people who were locked into the Republican Party and were happy to vote for President George Bush twice, the financial crisis has to have shaken your confidence in something that you really believed in,” he said. “I am not saying they won’t vote Republican ever again, but it makes you wonder about the things you have put your faith in, it shakes you up every time you open your investment portfolio.”

As for this year, don’t expect any big Democrat upsets in Douglas County, bad economy and all, but keep it on the radar. Politicos interested in making early predictions about who will win statewide might keep Douglas in the corner of their eye, Provizer said.

“An interesting indicator of how this election will go could be seen in Douglas County,” he said. “No one is expecting Barack Obama to win there, but how big that gap is between he and McCain will be a telling sign. I think that if that gap is narrower in Douglas County that could be an indicator that you don’t have to stay up all night for the results. You will know who won.”