6 Reasons Colorado Is the Left's Political Epicenter

Marijuana, immigration, gun control, abortion and other issues make Colorado key for liberals.

(Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper is up for re-election.

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If you’re a campaign junkie, you’re used to a handful of states hogging the headlines: Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia.

But this year, you’ll have to look west for the most important political state of 2014: Colorado.

Democrats currently enjoy the trifecta – control of the governor’s mansion as well as both legislative chambers – in Colorado, but their hold is tenuous. Republicans need five seats to win back the House and just a single seat to flip the Senate. In addition, though Gov. John Hickenlooper was initially viewed as a shoo-in for reelection, recent polls show him just 7-8 points ahead of his Republicans rivals.

In other words, it’s entirely plausible that Republicans, currently locked out of power in Colorado, could soon find themselves in complete control of the Centennial State.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

Though the state’s gubernatorial race has been flying quietly under the national radar, especially compared to higher-profile governor’s races in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida, it’s not for a lack of importance.

From guns to pot, voting rights to immigration, and fracking to abortion rights, nearly every important issue being debated in various statehouses across the country is in play in Colorado.

Guns: Following the Aurora movie theater shooting in 2012, Colorado was one of a handful of states to pass major new gun legislation last year, requiring universal background checks and limiting the size of ammunition magazines. The National Rifle Association continued to fight even after it was passed, though, and launched recall elections, successfully unseating two Democratic state senators and prompting a third to resign before a recall campaign could be launched. With every Republican gubernatorial candidate listing gun rights as one of their top priorities, the fate of the state’s landmark gun law could rest with November’s result. Mike Kopp, the former state Senate minority leader and current candidate for governor, sums up the conservatives’ goal on his website: “I am committed to repealing the gun-control laws passed in 2013, and I will fight against future attempts to erode this right.”

[See a collection of political cartoons on gun control and gun rights.]

Marijuana: Colorado is the first state to experiment with legalizing recreational marijuana use; as such, their experience will help guide the emerging national debate over pot. If opponents are able to galvanize enough support to undermine the law, it could significantly set back the legalization movement and chasten other states that are considering liberalizing their drug laws. To be sure, Amendment 64 –the voter-approved pot initiative Coloradans passed in 2012 – is a constitutional amendment, so the state legislature can’t simply repeal it. However, there are plenty of ways a Republican legislature and governor could chip away at legalization. They could pass onerous regulations, tinker with the taxation levels or support conservative counties like El Paso that have banned retail marijuana dispensaries. Many Republicans have already been grasping for ways to attack the law, even seizing on a news report (from a fake, Onion-like site) that food stamps could now be used at pot shops. Proponents of legalization would feel more secure about the law’s fate, though, should former Rep. Tom Tancredo win the Republican nomination, as he was one of the few GOPers to support Amendment 64.

Voting Rights: As other states recently enacted voter ID and other electoral suppression laws, Colorado went the other way in 2013, passing one of the strongest, most progressive voting rights packages in recent memory. The law made three principle changes. First, it allows voters to register on Election Day, a move that has boosted turnout levels 7 to 14 percentage points in other states that have done it, for example Wisconsin and Maine. Second, it automatically sends mail ballots to every voter in the state, saving millions in election costs and making voting easier for residents. Third, it created a real-time statewide voter database to prevent fraud. The law’s number one opponent – Secretary of State Scott Gessler, a Republican – is now running for governor. Gessler has a long history of voter suppression in Colorado, conducting widespread voter purges that turned up no illegal voting, prohibiting election officials from sending out ballots to tens of thousands of active duty military voters because they hadn’t voted in 2010 and pushing for Colorado to become a voter ID state. Republicans are already attempting legislation to suspend the new voting rights law, and there’s little doubt that a Governor Gessler would happily sign its repeal. Voting rights are crucial everywhere in the country, but especially in purple states like Colorado that could swing the 2016 presidential election.

[See a collection of political cartoons on immigration.]

Immigration: Colorado is one of the top destinations for immigrants in the region. The state’s immigrant population increased by over a third between 2000 and 2010, and immigrants now account for approximately 1 in 10 residents. The Center for Immigration Studies estimates that one-third of immigrants in Colorado entered the country illegally. The issue is already a major one in the Centennial State, but even more so with Tancredo running for governor. During his five terms in Congress, Tancredo developed a harsh anti-immigrant reputation, with a history of calling for everything from a five-year moratorium on even legal immigration to the imposition of literacy tests to the impeachment of President Barack Obama because people illegally immigrate. Even Tancredo acknowledges his reputation on his website, touting his tenure as “the most vocal opponent of illegal immigration in Washington.” Last year, Colorado became one of a growing number of states that offers in-state tuition rates for undocumented students. Just three GOP senators supported the measure, which would undoubtedly be a top target for a Governor Tancredo and a Republican legislature.

Environment: Fracking is becoming a major issue in Colorado, with reports increasingly linking water at drilling sites to increases in major health problems, including cancer and infertility. A handful of towns have already voted to ban fracking, prompting lawsuits from the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. In response, climate activists are organizing around a proposed ballot measure that would definitively give towns the right to ban fracking. Though Hickenlooper has opposed the local fracking bans, his administration has been environmentally friendly in other ways, including a new proposed rule requiring the oil and gas industry to capture 95 percent of all toxic pollutants it emits. Unsurprisingly, Republicans are major fracking supporters and opponents of the new emissions rules. As state Sen. Greg Brophy, one of the Republicans running for governor, writes on his website, “I understand how important it is that we aggressively develop all of our natural resources including the use of hydraulic fracturing.”

[See a collection of political cartoons on energy policy.]

Abortion: Women’s health has been one of the top issues around the country for the past few years and Colorado will take center stage in the abortion debate come November. That’s because voters will consider a “personhood” ballot measure that would change state law to define a fertilized egg as a person, a move that would not only limit access to abortion but certain forms of birth control as well. No state has successfully passed a personhood initiative – even voters in Mississippi rejected a measure in 2011 – but Colorado, home to leading social conservative group Focus on the Family, could become the first this fall.

Some of these issues are in play in some states. Abortion rights are at stake in Texas, fracking in Pennsylvania and voting rights in Florida. But only in Colorado is nearly every issue that liberals care about on the line.