It would be premature to label Colorado’s Fourth District one of the nation’s swing districts, but that could change as a result of the 2012 election season.
A court will decide the new outline of the district next month but the district is undergoing a more profound transition. It is becoming the thing Iowa is supposed to be: A moderately conservative middle-American political testing ground, where unaffiliated independents make up roughly a third of the voters, where the aging still-mostly-white population is increasingly ethnically mixed and where high-tech and R&D industries are replacing manufacturing and farming as the main drivers of the economy. It’s a Republican district coveted by Democrats.
One of those Democrats is state Senate President Brandon Shaffer, who has been eyeing the district’s congressional seat for some time. This year he is running to unseat freshman Congressman Cory Gardner, who rode the Tea Party wave into office last year. Shaffer told the Colorado Independent that Gardner has misread the district. Shaffer says CD4 voters are looking not for hard-line ideologues but for problem-solvers who can balance priorities.
“People are angry at the extreme politics in Washington,” Shaffer told the Colorado Independent. “I don’t know this just because of the media. I know this from conversations I’m having at doors. They’re angry and that’s not going away.”
Shaffer also knows that CD4 voters have a history with extreme politics that might play to his advantage.
The 2010 Fourth District contest drew national attention because in 2008, for the first time since the Nixon era, voters here sent a Democrat to represent them in Washington. Pro-gun successful entrepreneur Betsy Markey defeated incumbent social-conservative crusader Marilyn Musgrave. The district’s voters seemed fed up with political excess on the right, which appeared to mirror the mood of the country after the Bush years.
In November 2010, the same thing happened, except reversed. District voters saw excess on the left in federal stimulus spending and healthcare reform and threw out Markey to elect Gardner, a fresh-faced Republican state representative from rural Yuma County.
Gardner won over voters with a campaign that stayed focused on small-government and low-tax themes and that mostly avoided dramatic proposals and ideological accusations– the kind of thing that won hearty applause for other Colorado GOP candidates on rural campaign trails but also horrible headlines in Denver and Fort Collins.
That was then. Now, after just a half year in Washington, Gardner has established a high-profile voting record forged in the far-right corner of the Tea Party 112th Congress, where historic anti-abortion, anti-environment and anti-gay efforts have vied weekly with destructive budgetary standoffs for national headlines. Gardner’s record in Congress is explosive material, especially compared to the modest record he ran on in 2010 made from votes on the the sort of small-bore practical bills that typically crowd state legislative calendars.
“The latest jobs report reminds us that unemployment is unacceptably high,” Gardner wrote in a newsletter to constituents last week. “Employers are looking to Washington to put forward a pro-growth agenda that will get government out of the way and let America work. Dozens of job creation bills passed by the House are awaiting action in the Senate.”
As an example of such a bill, Gardner points to the Jobs and Energy Permitting Act he sponsored that aims to open up Alaskan shoreline for oil drilling, which he says will create 50,000 jobs.
Over the next 14 months, Gardner will be selling constituents on the fact that he took action to address problems presented by the nation’s miserable economy, but the kind of action he has taken, like opening up Alaskan shoreline to drilling, will be easy to paint as radical stretching– particularly in places like Larimer County, the most populous county in Gardner’s district, home to its most highly educated and Democratically inclined voters and home to a scandal-plagued local Republican Party.
“Cory wasn’t always like this. I worked with him in Denver. We went to law school together,” Shaffer said. “But he hasn’t demonstrated an ability to moderate the radical politics [of the campaign] to get things done in DC. He has sided with Washington radicals time and again.”
Great plains, majestic mountains, voting women
CD4 includes the Great Plains eastern section of the state and the northern Front Range that runs along the eastern edge of the Rockies. It’s a stunningly beautiful place and residents here, the same as everywhere in Colorado, feel the natural landscape as a vital part of their culture and know it is an integral piece of the local economy. CD4 is a place where outdoor tourism and sporting thrives. Small government, yes, but environmental protections, too.
Already, Fort Collins-based Clean Water Action has targeted Gardner as out of step with the district for his votes against long-standing environmental regulations like the Clean Water Act. The group told the Colorado Independent it has knocked on 25,000 doors in the district to draw attention to Gardner’s record.
Such efforts will likely fail to sway significant numbers of Republicans, much less Tea Partiers, but they may well spur independents and Democrats to get out to the polls next year. Tens of thousands of voters who cast ballots in presidential election year 2008, when Markey defeated Musgrave, didn’t show up in 2010, when Markey lost to Gardner.
On that score– getting out the vote– it’s not just the environment that Shaffer will be talking about with constituents.
Gardner’s support this year for a series of hardcore anti-abortion bills that would have limited women’s access to health care may be key in deciding the race.
Women voters outnumber men voters in most of the key battleground counties in the state, which include CD4 anchor counties Larimer and Weld. Right before the 2010 election, there were roughly 10,000 more active women voters than men voters in Larimer County and 6,000 more active women voters than active men voters in Weld County. Gardner defeated Markey by roughly 30,000 votes in a non-presidential election year that saw something like double that number of the voters who cast ballots in “Democratic wave year” 2008 stay home.
Republican District Attorney Ken Buck, a resident of CD4, ran for U.S. Senate in 2010 and, against all odds, lost in a nail-biter election to Democrat Michael Bennet. Buck lost because women voters, turned off mainly by his rigid stance against abortion, went over to Bennet in droves.
“Cory has voted against women repeatedly– on health care votes and on budget votes,” Shaffer points out. “Those policies would have put women’s health at risk. It’s extremism in Washington that manufactured the recent economic crisis. The clash [over the debt ceiling] could have been avoided.
“The voters here in 2008 saw that Marilyn Musgrave wasn’t a true representative of their interests. I think you’ll see the same thing in this district and many districts this year around the country.”
This report is part of collaboration with WNYC’s “It’s a Free Country,” a series covering the 25 most captivating 2012 congressional races from around the country.