JeffCo Election Day countdown: The view from the eye of the hurricane

[dropcap]H[/dropcap]OLLY Lindsey is the voter all those TV ads are aimed at.

She has lived nearly all her life in Jefferson County. She’s middle-class, churchgoing, was raised in a Republican household, graduated from the School of Mines with a pair of geology degrees, supports fracking, and works with her husband at a petroleum-focused software startup.

Lindsey is just the woman voter the GOP is counting on to help elect Cory Gardner and flip the U.S. Senate.

Except she’s a Democrat, and not voting for Gardner, or anybody like him, ever.

“The Republican Party has just gone wacko,” she says. “They’re trying to put words in my mouth. They’re trying to legislate my body. They’re trying to screw with my neighbors’ children.”

As goes Jeffco, so goes Colorado, the saying goes. And with Colorado’s status as “the most hotly contested political state in the union,” according to Rachel Maddow, no less than the balance of power in the Senate and the makeup of the Supreme Court are being placed on the shoulders of women voters living in the suburban expanse between the Rockies and Denver.

[pullquote]“More than climate change, more than the Middle East, more than Medicare, in Jefferson County it’s the school board that’s on people’s minds.”[/pullquote]

“It doesn’t seem fair that you have to be the pivotal county in every election,” Sen. Michael Bennet told the crowd at a Democratic rally in Lakewood Tuesday, headlined by the party’s big dog, former President Bill Clinton. “But that is the burden you have chosen to bear.”

This year — a mid-term election when voter turnout is the key to victory — Sen. Mark Udall’s seat hangs in the balance. AFP, which Udall said stands for “Americans for Plutocracy,” brags it has knocked on 140,000 Colorado doors since June, many in Jeffco. The combined Democratic campaigns knocked on 145,000 doors just last week, Udall said, exhorting volunteers to double down.

Such a massive get-out-the-vote effort alone would have made the political scene in this string of Front Range suburbs newsworthy in itself.

But in Jeffco, the story doesn’t stop there. In a year when turnout is a major concern, voters here are galvanized by a host of other issues that include the most controversial school board in the nation, a few thousand telegenic high school kids boycotting classes over the threat of reforms in how they’re taught U.S. history, scores of new residents buying homes that abut the site of a former nuclear weapons plant, a job-hopping county clerk/treasurer/commissioner and the looming presence of the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners. Jeffco’s soup of embroilments are boiling in the lead-up to Nov. 4 and no doubt will spill out long past the election.

“I’ve talked more about politics in the last six months than I have in 30 years of being in Jeffco,” said Margaret Lessenger, a petrophysicist and former charter-school organizer. “We’re politicizing schools. It’s just a terrifying step.”

A Colorado Independent story about millennials’ political participation suggests that the high school kids who took to the streets in September to protest the Jeffco Board of Education have lost interest in what the board is up to.

But Jeffco adults – at least Democrats – can’t stop talking about it.

“They railroaded out a perfectly good superintendent,” said Arlene Munyon, a Democrat from Golden who was waiting on a bench before Tuesday’s rally. “If there’s a recall election, I’ll be the first to sign up.”

Speaker after speaker took digs at the board. Referring to the Tea Party theme of “taking our country back,” Bennet said, “They don’t say from whom they want to take it back, to where they want to take it back or what century we’re headed toward – although you in Jefferson County may have a sense of that.”

When Ed Perlmutter — the U.S. congressman who represents much of the county — goes door to door, the Jeffco school board is the No. 1 issue voters bring up.

“More than climate change, more than the Middle East, more than Medicare, in Jefferson County and in Adams County as well,” he said. “It’s obviously on people’s minds.”

Campaigns on both sides have taken advantage of the school board’s upheaval and flap over the teaching of Advanced Placement U.S. History. Candidates on the right describe the students as “pawns” of the teachers’ union. Three Republican state senate candidates in Jefferson County were excoriated last week for look-alike mailers that connected their incumbent Democratic opponents with “Jeffco schools … in crisis,” accusing them of “keeping funding from the classroom while giving more power to corrupt union bosses.”

The mailers included the Jeffco School District logo and a doctored Denver Post photo of protesting kids. Cease-and-desist letters followed, but the glossy postcards were already on kitchen tables around the county.

Candidates and advocacy groups on the left sent volunteers with voter registration forms into the student walkouts, looking for fired-up 18-year-olds and their increasingly outraged parents.

“Voters are realizing the dangers of letting those with extreme views be in office,” said Chris Harris, Udall’s communications director. “It awoke awareness … Udall came out (for the protests) and Cory Gardner has been MIA.”

He added what everybody in both Senate campaigns and every other statewide race already knows: “Suburban women in Jeffco are a huge swing electorate.”

Cindy Lay of Wheat Ridge said she’s insulted by Gardner ads that call Udall a one-issue campaigner and quote The Denver Post’s endorsement that “Gardner’s election would pose no threat” to abortion rights. She doesn’t buy it. “We thought they’ve already been decided, years ago,” she said. “But here we are again.”

Right-leaning women are just as fed up.

Karen Pennington’s family of four — including two college-aged children — “received an incredible amount of mail,” much of it addressed to her daughter, a 20-year-old unaffiliated voter.

“No political ad made it further than the trash can in the garage,” said Pennington, who’s from Arvada. “I particularly despise the ads that are paid for by some anonymous group with no name behind it that we can see (and) the 5- to 15-year-old ‘quotes’ from newspapers presented as current information.”

Pennington, no fan of President Obama or former Jeffco School Superintendent Cindy Stevenson, made up her mind after watching debates, listening to interviews on talk radio, and reading the Arvada Press voter guide.

“I voted. I’m done with it,” she said, eager to disentangle herself from the political net cast around her, her daughter and women all over her county. “I am so disgusted with the whole process.”

Linda McConnell of Evergreen, a Democratic volunteer, agrees with many of the criticisms lobbed at Udall about his so-called “one-issue” campaign — and wishes Udall hadn’t drummed up abortion rights quite so hard.

“His base is already on board with that. Talk about what you’ve done,” she said

At Tuesday’s rally, Bill Clinton obliged, giving the crowd what amounted to a list of positive talking points about Udall and Gov. John Hickenlooper — from job creation to wildfire-fighting air tankers, rural development under the Farm Bill to air quality controls at natural gas wellpads.

“Every positive stereotype that you have is embodied in this person,” he said of Udall.

Clinton closed with a stern warning about conservative dark money having flooded Colorado because “the Republicans want to pop the President one more time.”

There followed a quiet moment, followed by a response that showed exactly what makes Jefferson County so politically gripping.

“Not all of us,” said a voice from the crowd. A woman’s voice.

[Photo: Peter Banda of The Associated Press interviews a Udall supporter at a Democratic get-out-the-vote rally Tuesday at the Sheraton Denver West in Lakewood.]