RIFLE, COLO.—Wendy Gutierrez is a small-town gift-shop owner, so she knows firsthand that many consumers aren't shopping as much as they were a year ago. "People are afraid—they are afraid to spend any money," she says as she enters one of her two stores in northwestern Colorado, a region that's now hopping with natural gas drilling. "You would think we're in a recession proof area, but my sales are down by more than 50 percent." Gutierrez is a registered Republican, but considers herself independent-minded and says she hasn't decided on a candidate yet. "I don't think either candidate knows what to do to solve the credit problem," she says.
The Western Slope, as this part of Colorado is known, has long been considered a conservative stronghold, and registered Republicans like Gutierrez still far outnumber Democrats here. The terrain is rugged, the skyline is dominated by burnt mountains and pristine plateaus, and for the past quarter century or so, the themes of individualism and limited government that were popularized and articulated by Ronald Reagan have resonated strongly here, as they have throughout much of the American West.
So it was certainly no small matter when Sen. Barack Obama, swinging through Colorado for a series of campaign stops in mid-September, decided to hold a rally in Grand Junction, a few towns down the road near the Utah border. President Bush won that region in 2004 by a 2-to- 1 margin and wound up capturing the state's nine electoral votes by 5 percentage points. In the past 40 years, in fact, Democrats have won Colorado only once, and that was in 1992, when Ross Perot siphoned off 23 percent of the vote. This year, however, Colorado is very much in play, and that's largely because of political and demographic shifts taking hold around the state. Red areas, like Grand Junction, have become less red, and blue areas have become larger and more powerful.
People who know Colorado politics, in fact, typically talk about the state as comprising four main regions, each with its own partisan flavor: the eastern plains (red), Denver and the northern suburbs (blue), Colorado Springs (very red), and the Western Slope (red). These divisions are still more or less true, but lately they've yielded some surprising results. A Democratic senator, Ken Salazar, was elected in 2004. Gov. Bill Ritter, also a Democrat, was elected in 2006. Both replaced Republicans. The state's other senator, Republican Wayne Allard, is retiring, and in the race to fill his seat, Democrat Mark Udall is not only leading in the polls but also running on a liberal platform emphasizing green energy. And the state legislature is now controlled by Democrats.
Why the blue turn? Colorado, like many western states, is growing quickly—its population jumped 13 percent from 2000 to 2008—and the influx has set in motion a series of demographic shifts. Young voters and Hispanics have been drawn to Denver and its suburbs over the past decade by the region's high-tech boom. Hispanics today make up almost 20 percent of Colorado's population, and they favor Obama by a more than 2-to-1 margin over John McCain, according to recent polls.
Republicans in Colorado have also suffered from a backlash of sorts, or, more accurately, a disintegration of their power at the state level. The party's increasing conservatism, with its hard lines on cultural issues and tax policies, alienated independents, observers say, and state Democrats became more skilled over time at fielding successful candidates. This was most evident in 2004, when John Salazar, a moderate Democrat and Ken Salazar's brother, seized control of western Colorado's congressional seat by emphasizing local issues, like water rights, over national ones. (Republicans had held the seat since 1992.)
The most recent polls show Obama with a slim 4 to 5 percentage point advantage over McCain here, with more than half saying the economy is the issue that matters most to them. The race isn't just close, however; it's also volatile. McCain enjoyed a large bounce after selecting Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, and temporarily overtook Obama in state polls. But as voters have learned more about Palin, and as the Wall Street financial crisis has taken over as the top news story, Obama has steadily regained his lead.