Will GOP Screw Up Colorado Again?

In no state have the political winds shifted more abruptly since 2012.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper delivers his State of the State address during a joint session of the state legislature Thursday Jan. 9, 2014, at the Capitol in Denver. Behind him, from left, are Majority Caucus Chair and state Sen. Jeanne Nicholson and House Speaker Mark Ferrandino.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper delivers his State of the State address during a joint session of the state legislature Jan. 9 at the Capitol in Denver. Behind him, from left, are Majority Caucus Chair and state Sen. Jeanne Nicholson and House Speaker Mark Ferrandino. 

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In today’s fickle political environment, nowhere have the winds appeared to shift more abruptly than in Colorado.

A year ago, in the wake of the 2012 election, political experts were pronouncing that the Rocky Mountain State had finally pushed out of its swingy status and settled firmly into a blue hue.

“Colorado is no longer politically purple,” proclaimed the Denver Post editorial page editor. “Face it, the only place to find purple in Colorado these days is at Coors Field.”

With Democrats firmly in control of nearly every lever of government -- the governor’s mansion, both U.S. Senate seats and both legislative chambers -- the theory made sense.

Yet evidence is now piling up to suggest that edict was at least premature, if not altogether wrong.

Cue the pendulum swing back.

After carrying the state by five points in 2012, President Barack Obama’s popularity has plummeted there to a near national record low of 37 percent.

Democratic Sen. Mark Udall, who faces re-election this fall, isn’t performing much better, with voters currently equally divided over whether they should send him back for a second term. Gov. John Hickenlooper is viewed as being in marginally better shape to secure four more years, but even his favorability has taken a hit following passage of controversial gun control legislation, which cost two Democratic lawmakers their jobs in a fall recall. Hickenlooper also made a high-profile commutation of a death sentence for a convicted murderer, causing him headaches.

A fresh batch of Quinnipiac University polling may be most disconcerting to Hillary Clinton, who performs worse against potential 2016 GOP opponents in Colorado than any other battleground state that’s been surveyed of late.  A plurality don’t think she’d make a good president. The former secretary of State is even in a virtual dead heat with Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

“She’s the one that says to me there’s something more going on here,” says Rep. Cory Gardner, a second-term Republican representing the eastern plains, referring to Clinton’s poor showing.  “The Democrat overreach has been astounding.”

A bit more than eight months from the election, the elements are once again in place for a red resurrection; whether the GOP is equipped to take advantage of the environment is a whole different question.  

In recent years, Colorado Republicans haven’t shown the ability to produce party unity or durable candidates who can navigate general election terrain by appealing to independent voters.

“There is a problem with the primary process on the Republican side,” says former Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter. “If anybody says it doesn’t matter, they’re wrong.”

The last senate and governor’s races in 2010 are prime examples. Tea party candidate Ken Buck got tripped up during a late October “Meet the Press” interview when he said he believed that being gay is a choice and compared it to alcoholism. He also was placed on the defensive for a decision to not file rape charges as a county district attorney in a case he said may have been “buyer’s remorse.”

Despite facing severe political headwinds, appointed Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet squeaked by the battered Buck by a little more than 15,000 votes. It was a race Republicans should have banked with points to spare.

“I think even Michael Bennet would acknowledge had their been a different candidate, he may not have won,” says Ritter.

The open seat gubernatorial contest that year was never close, but Republicans believe it would’ve been if they could’ve agreed on the standard bearer. Rocked by a plagiarism scandal, the GOP’s preferred candidate, Scott McInnis fell in the primary. To make the situation worse, former Rep. Tom Tancredo ran on the Constitution Party line, dividing the party’s vote share and allowing Democrat Hickenlooper to glide into office.

The nightmare scenario for Republicans: A repeat of these travails in 2014.

Both Buck and Tancredo are back and running for senate and governor, respectively, again facing a long list of primary opponents, some of whom carry glaring vulnerabilities.

How bloody and discordant the intraparty contests become -- and who survives -- will have severe ramifications on burgeoning Republican opportunities in November.

“The tenor of the race right now is healthy and constructive. It hasn’t been a poisonous environment so far,” says Gardner, who is pledging neutrality in the primaries unless he sees a candidate stepping out of bounds. “If something gets out of control and nasty, you bet I will [get involved].”

Still, Republican operatives in the state are heartened by polling showing independents moving back into their column and see an advantage on the overall issue matrix.

Democratic moves to expand background checks on gun sales and ban certain ammunition magazines -- modest pursuits compared to other blue states -- were met with fierce backlash in this ruggedly western state, upending two Democratic state senators in the first legislative recalls in state history.   

A November ballot amendment to hike taxes by nearly a billion dollars for schools went down in a fiery defeat, with two-thirds of voters rejecting it.

While in 2010, the state legalized pot by a comfortable 10 point margin, this year voters will decide whether to change state law to define a fertilized egg as a person.

On top of all that, there’s the corrosive national environment due to continual problems with Obamacare, which is why most Republicans view Udall as an easier target than Hickenlooper.

“It’s going to be an anchor around the necks of Democrats,” says GOP Rep. Doug Lamborn of the president’s signature domestic legislative accomplishment. “The Senate race is actually more winnable. The governor is seen as understanding some of the needs of business and a strong economy and the energy sector, whereas Mark Udall is pretty liberal across the board.”

Despite the Colorado senate race rarely being mentioned nationally as a battleground contest or a potential pick-up for Republicans, Udall’s campaign says they are definitively competing in a swing state.

“I think it’s competitive no matter who they nominate,” acknowledges Udall campaign manager Adam Dunstone.  
The array of opponents, including Buck, have quietly tracked within single digits of Udall and yet there are already emerging signs of old demons rearing their heads.

The Tea Party Express, which helped propel Buck to an upset primary in 2010, is now backing a new, younger candidate in state Sen. Owen Hill.  Local tea party groups though, remain in Buck’s corner.

Furthermore, Buck hasn’t seemed to heed the advice of Republican elders to steer clear of talking about women and their bodies. On a radio program in January, he likened a decision to have an abortion to his own struggle with cancer, a remark that will likely be used to frame him as hostile to women if he’s the nominee.

“The Republicans have the same on the ground problem they’ve always had. Their candidates are just awful,” says Laura Chapin, a Denver-based Democratic strategist currently working for NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Counting on Republicans to make unforced errors with gaffe-prone, tone-deaf candidates explains why Democrats aren’t overly spooked by the reams of gloomy polling data. Once there’s a crisp choice to be presented to voters -- and their names are the likes of Buck and Tancredo -- the numbers will stabilize, they argue.

“It’s tough sledding for Democrats. The body politic is unsettled,,” says Ritter. “Voters can talk about disapproval and being in an ornery mood, but we still have managed to hold the upper hand because of our ability to field these candidates who can appeal to a broad cross section of voters. So they’re going to end up being fine at the end of the day.”

If that scenario bares out, perhaps 2014 will be the year to crown Colorado as truly blue.