Lucero, local Republicans survey Larimer’s shifting political landscape

Tom Lucero rallies the crowd at the April 15 'Tea Party' protest in Denver. (Photo/Wendy Norris)
Tom Lucero rallies the crowd at the April 15 'Tea Party' protest in Denver. (Photo/Wendy Norris)
Conservative Republican and CD 4 hopeful Tom Lucero hosted a campaign breakfast Tuesday in Loveland at a strip-mall cafe and ended up talking to eight likable, earnest people there about the need to affect major cultural change if they were ever going to restore a sense of personal responsibility in the United States and succeed in abolishing income taxes and the Internal Revenue Service.

“We have to replicate Obama’s Chicago-style politics, Saul Alinsky’s ‘Rules for Radicals,’ if we’re going to beat the [Democrats],” he told the small group of almost-all retirees. They nodded in agreement but said nothing.

Lucero faces a tough slog between now and Election Day 2010, and he knows it.

He has served the maximum-allowed two terms on the University of Colorado Board of Regents and is looking for a job — as the next U.S. representative of Colorado’s 4th Congressional District.

But his own Larimer County, a must-win area, is in transition. The bellwether northern county has faded over the last few cycles from far-right Republican red to conservative-Democratic purple. Indeed, Larimer County took a star turn in the November election, when voters overwhelmingly helped unseat hardcore social conservative Congresswoman Marilyn Musgrave in favor of moderate Democrat Betsy Markey, a long-time Fort Collins resident. Part of that undoing was the result of high profile, local Republican leaders — former U.S. Rep. Jim Johnson, former state Rep. Bill Kaufman and former Republican Party Committee member Betty Ehn, among others — openly defecting from the race amid heated disputes over Musgrave’s campaign tactics and policy priorities.

Sipping a coffee, taking a measure

The Penguin Cafe breakfast attendees were deeply concerned. In discussion spiced with references to membership in Fox News personality Glenn Beck’s 9/12 movement, they all agreed that the country is becoming socialist and that the local GOP was unprepared to meet the challenges presented by today’s army of digitally organized Democrats.

But Lucero wasn’t discouraged. He pointed to the energetic tea party crowds that came out this spring to protest Obama’s big-spending policies. He pointed to how, as a CU regent, he had helped establish the Center for Western Civilization as part of an incremental approach to bolster conservative views on campus, no easy task.

Despite his upbeat efforts, the breakfast conversation kept ringing alarm bells.

Lucero admitted that a lot of people in Larimer choose to identify themselves as conservatives or independents, not as Republicans. The party has fallen out of favor, he said.

Voter registration data supports that impression. As the Colorado Independent reported just before the election last fall, the Larimer County voting population was split into rough thirds with unaffiliated voters coming out on top: 28 percent registered as Democrats, 35 percent as Republicans and 36 percent as unaffiliated. Comparing those figures to figures from 2004 — 26 percent Democrats, 35 percent unaffiliated and 39 percent Republican — makes it clear GOP voters have been peeling off.

“I keep telling people here, you have to choose,” said Lucero. “If you register as a Republican, you can have an influence. It’s in the primaries that you can make a difference and that’s coming up. We have to build that base of voters now.”

Grassroots and Astroturf

One of the breakfasters responded gloomily by relating a story about visiting the Fort Collins GOP office in the fall in search of McCain-Palin lawn signs.

“I guess they were too busy for me. There were just a few young people in the office and they took no interest… I have to ask: Do we have a totally inept GOP organization in Northern Colorado?”

Republican leaders have made mistakes, Lucero admitted. The McCain campaign was badly managed and alienated locals.

“A man like you, who comes into a campaign office to get signs, will probably be eager to make calls and do canvassing. That was a clear lost opportunity.”

Lucero said the party basically “made it as difficult as possible to get involved” but that he knows there is an “organic conservative movement” in Larimer and that candidates like him just need to “build on that momentum.”

The need to emphasize such a basic observation — that there is an “organic conservative” presence in front-range Colorado — would have been unimaginable just half a decade ago.

The GOP representative formerly known as …

Lucero was notably careful to put none of the blame for the local GOP’s woes on Musgrave. In fact he never mentioned the three-term devout Pentecostal congresswoman who the American Conservative Union celebrated in 2006 with a top-dog 99 lifetime rating.

Lucero’s silence regarding Musgrave would come as no surprise to Larimer Democratic Chairman Adam Bowen, who said in an interview that perceptions of the two main political parties have changed over the last three election cycles. Musgrave’s aggressive values agenda, he said, which targeted abortion and sex-ed and gay marriage seemingly above all else, alienated voters.

“Pro-business and fiscal conservatives looked at what was happening with the economy and they saw a narrow Republican social agenda,” he said. “The budget deficit and debt of the Bush years put the lie to Republican fiscal conservativism.”

“Look at the races and the vacancy committees here. You see that business Republicans run for these positions and are defeated. The most active Republicans here are far-right social conservatives and they’re driving folks out of the party.”

For Bowen there is also an important history of grassroots Democratic action in the county that is paying dividends now.

“We never had the big money behind us. Larimer is a microcosm of the kind of organizing [Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard] Dean took national last year.”

It is a crucial point Lucero’s breakfast club found easy to concede. They referred each other to the “Facebook classes” held at a bar in Fort Collins.

“Do you know Tweeter?” one asked. “I mean I guess you can get 10,000 people on a Tweeter and that can have a huge effect.”

Lucero nodded. The others nodded.

“So, how many of you are on a computer at this point?” someone else asked.

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