News & Politics

8 Steps Democrats Could Take to Win Swing States in 2010

Progressives in states across the country are looking at the "Colorado Miracle" to see how they might be able to replicate its successes during this year's mid-term elections.

Editor's Note: This essay is based upon the authors' new book,The Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado and why Republicans Everywhere Should Care, published by Fulcrum Books.

When the polls opened at 7:00 AM on Election Day 2004, the mercury outside matched the mood of Colorado’s Democrats over the recent years: cold. Colorado’s Republicans controlled the governor’s mansion, both US Senate seats, five of the state’s seven congressional seats, and both chambers of the state legislature.

Their GOP faithful arrived at an election night party to a banner of “Victory in the Rockies,” which was representative of the confidence they so boldly held.

Across Denver, the Democratic crowd was greeted by a banner that simply read “Believe.” But what started that night and would end 48 months later would be nearly unbelievable.

When the polls closed on Election Night in 2008, Colorado’s Democrats had flipped the political table. In four short years, now they controlled the governor’s mansion, both US Senate seats, five of the state’s seven congressional seats, and, for the first time since John F. Kennedy was president, the majority in both chambers of the state legislature.

They called it the Colorado Miracle. By any measure, it was one of the most stunning political reversals in American history. 2010 will test Colorado’s Democratic powers-who-be, but progressives in states across the country are looking at what happened here to see how they might be able to replicate its successes.

These are eight of the things Democrats did right in Colorado:

1. “Main Stream Candidates"

In Colorado, a state in which one-third of its voters are registered as unaffiliated, Democrats have been successful in part because, as one Republican strategist said, “They have maintained their fringe better than we have.”

Translated, the successful Democratic candidates in Colorado been long-standing members o f their communities at the state legislative levels and have positioned themselves as moderate problem-solvers.

“It’s funny because [Republicans] are trying now to look at our playbook and say what pages can we borrow out of that to shift the landscape again,” said Governor Bill Ritter (D-Colorado). “I was a pro-life Democrat running in a governor’s election, and it might have been different if I was running in a US Senate election, but I still had a bevy of people I trust saying, ‘you can’t win a primary.’”

So in 2006, the former prosecutor didn’t draw a challenge within his own party.

“That is maybe the single best indication of how Democrats in this state are at a place where they figured, we as a party, need to really live up to this slogan we have about being a big tent party. Republicans say that as well, but we really believe in it,” said Ritter. “We really believe it.”

2. Focused Message

Democrats sharpened a message that Republicans were solely interested in a social agenda, what they called “God, guns, and gays,” and provided voters with an alternative. As the post-9/11 economic environment took its toll on the state budget, Democrats found their opportunity and talked about issues people cared about: job creation, healthcare, education, and the environment.

“I have a note here [in my files],” former state House majority leader Alice Madden (D-Colorado) remembered, “that says, ‘In 2004, the Republican majority leader, who was busy counting votes to become Speaker, said the biggest threat to Colorado was gay marriage… It frankly wasn’t all that hard [to win the majority] when that’s all they were talking about.”

“There was a sense—and the Democrats very skillfully took advantage of this—that Republicans were focused on the wrong issues while Rome burned,” said Alan Philp, a former executive director of the Colorado Republican Party. “This is when the budget was in a mess, and the Republican legislators hadn’t really dealt with it.”

“If you start with the basic concept that [politics] isn’t rocket science, the technology available to everyone is the same, and the access to resources is about the same, then it comes back to some basic concepts,” said Beth Ganz, the former head of America Votes, who was in charge of Colorado’s NARAL chapter in the mid-2000s. “It’s where the candidate recruitment and the policies you’re promoting really do come into play. The Republicans often talk about issues that people don’t care about every day, and that is where the disconnect has been. They always look for wedge issues, and voters care about quality healthcare for their families, their kids’ education, and how their bills will get paid.”

“You can talk a lot about gay issues, about abortion, about things like this that I don’t discount as being important issues, but if your roads are crumbling, your schools are falling down around you, and you have a healthcare system that’s entirely broken, then people in this state are going to look to leadership and say, ‘what are you doing?’” said Governor Ritter.

3. Money Matters

With good candidates and good issues, Democrats in Colorado finally got some good finances to help. As one of the progressives’ big money-backers said afterward, “We got tired of showing up at a gun fight with a knife.”

The amount of money brought to the elections, especially the state legislative races, dwarfed what had been spent before. And yet they would argue that money only gave them an introduction to voters, it was the policy they were selling that won elections. They have grown the number of large donors each cycle since.
“It would be great if the [Republicans] believed that [it’s about money] because maybe that’s why we’ve been able to continue [our success],” said US Representative Jared Polis (D-Colorado), who was one of the big donors early on for Democrats. “Because if that’s what they think it is, they’re clearly missing the mark and they’re not likely to correct their course. And that’s fine with me…It’s not just resources. In fact, it could have been done with less resources, looking by the margins we won by in a lot of these races, but the story is where the political mainstream is, where the candidates are, how hard they work. It’s what issues the Democratic and Republican leadership respectively focus on when they’re in charge.

4. Infrastructure

Colorado’s progressives understood what both federal campaign finance reform and an initiative at the state level had realistically accomplished. By imposing limits on candidates and parties, traditional duties such as get-out-the-vote efforts could not be accomplished through traditional means. So, in essence, they outsourced it to the nonprofit sector.

They established an organization called the Colorado Democracy Alliance (CODA), which introduced large donors to nonprofits throughout the state that were working on progressive causes. Those groups could also share resources and things such as donor lists rather than duplicating efforts.

CoDA’s been likened to a political venture capital fund, and the analogy fits well. After evaluating the relative strengths and weaknesses of various nonprofits, and taking into account CoDA’s broader objectives, at the end of the process the board votes and the staff produces a list of “funding recommendations” to be circulated to the donors. At that point, donors make direct contributions to the newly selected members of the CoDA network.

“It’s about creating an organization that worked effectively together across agenda lines to promote a common idea,” said Bill Menezes, the former head of Colorado Media Matters, which received funding from CODA. “There are certain things we value in this state. It brought together lots of elements, diverse voices, but there is an overarching shared vision. It’s like the way Henry Ford decided people would want cars and he had to decide what’s the most efficient, effective way to get them to the people…The concept to get communities of interest together is still there. Are the Republicans ever going to pull in the same direction? Common sense says no.”

“Our job is to build a long-term progressive infrastructure in Colorado while we’re conceding nothing in the short term, in terms of progressive goals at the ballot box,” said the former executive director of CODA, Laurie Hirschfeld Zeller, to a group at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. “We provide services to our members in terms of research, advice on their giving, activating their collective interaction, to help make the progressive sector stronger. But our role is really to harness the financial resources as well as the brains and the energy of the progressive sector. And I want to stress that it’s not just individual donors. One of the things that has been crucial in making the work of the Colorado Democracy Alliance effective in Colorado has been our partnership with institutional donors and activists organizations, in labor particularly. That’s been a major part of how we get our work done here.”

“The Left’s donors set up organizations, didn’t micromanage them, and let them do their jobs,” said Jon Caldara, who runs the libertarian-leaning Independence Institute. “Republicans don’t have the patience or outlook to do that. Republican donors need to sever their contributions from candidates, who come and go in every campaign cycle, and instead use them to build a lasting infrastructure…The Right gets mesmerized by personalities. But to win, you need to win the battle of ideas and put foot soldiers on the ground. And you can’t do that without a long-term infrastructure.”

5. Election Day is Not the End of the Fight

Democrats in Colorado have turned electioneering into a 24/7, 365-day a year endeavor. ProgressNow, an online grassroots organizing and fund-raising non-profit, may be the best example of that.

“We wanted to set up a nonstop communications shop that would run all year long, not just during the election,” Huttner said. “We wanted to distill the think tank research to talking points that were more understandable and then blogging. That’s evolved into online organizing and networking.”

By 2009, ProgressNow boasted an astonishing 375,000 e-mail addresses in Colorado, all of which could be contacted with the click of a mouse. It was the largest such database in the state. With access to that many voters, ProgressNow had a direct line to the people who decide elections.

“Ultimately the commodity we’re dealing with is political power,” said Huttner. “It’s all about building political power at the state level. We’re trying to replicate our model in every state.

More than three dozen nonprofits working on progressive causes have been the beneficiary of largesse from the mega donors. Inside the lobby of the building where many of these 501(c)(3)s reside is an Ethiopian proverb: “When spider webs unite, they can tie up lions.”

“You will not be able to beat this model through your Republican party,” said Caldara. “This is beyond party. The only way to fight this is to put in a better infrastructure with long-term, multiyear objectives. This mindset of raising money from a few rich guys in the final months of a campaign is a sure loser. And if your Republicans don’t act like principled, limited-government fiscal conservatives, they will lose…Republican donors are too short-sighted and too micromanaging. They don’t have a long-term vision, and they keep giving money to candidates instead of organizations that will still be there after the election. Republicans need to learn that Election Day is not the end of the fight.

6. Have Good Lawyers

In 2002, Congress passed McCain-Feingold, which restricted the amount of money federal candidates could raise from donors. That same year, Colorado citizens enacted Amendment 27, a constitutional amendment that capped state-legislative contributions at $400 per donor and statewide candidate contributions (such as governor, treasurer, and secretary of state) at $1,000. Authored by the nonprofit Common Cause, Amendment 27 lowered the amount candidates could raise and spend. These laws effectively took message control out of the hands of candidates and handed it to outsiders.

Speaking to a group of lawyers in Denver in 2008, Democratic attorney Mark Grueskin summed up the new reality of political giving: “With the increased imposition of contribution limits, political money finds a way to the political system—always does, always has…And those of you in this room are simply among the blessed, because you get to help people give politically. They’re going to give. And now they do it through nonprofit entities.”

The cost of participation in elections through the independent sector is high, especially at the state level. Political nonprofits are subject to byzantine tax, corporate, and accounting rules and require constant guidance from lawyers and accountants. That guidance is expensive, which is why there’s no such thing as a mom-and-pop political nonprofit. Small and medium donors need not apply.

There’s never been a sniff of any legal troubles throughout the Democratic success in Colorado, much to the consternation of their Republican counterparts.

7. Unity

This is maybe the most important component to what happened. Interest groups that likely had policy goals in conflict with one another set aside those differences because they all believed the state would be better off with Democrats than Republicans. If you wanted to talk policy, you weren’t allowed at the table for the discussions on how to help progressive candidates win. The only conversation was a political science one: polling, messaging, organizing, and winning.

On the flip side, Republicans throughout Colorado continued to beat each other up in divisive primaries, pitting social conservatives against fiscal conservatives, and everyone against self-described moderates, leaving numerous candidates weakened well before a Democrat and his/her supporters took off after them.

“[Colorado] Republicans have forgotten that politics is a game of addition, not subtraction,” said former US Senate majority leader Norma Anderson (R-Colorado).

“The [Republicans] are befuddled in part because they’re wrestling for the soul of their defense,” said Governor Ritter. “They don’t know if they want to play with conservatives or if they want to play with moderates. They don’t know if they should all be linebackers or if they should all be safeties. They don’t have a sense of how to defend this because they, on the other side, have an ideological split that keeps them from being unified and really able to make their case to Coloradans.

“Since Ronald Reagan, there’s really been a coalition in America of gun conservatives, tax conservatives, and social conservatives who have forgiven each other their trespasses. Where they didn’t agree, they didn’t bother. They weren’t bothered by their lack of agreement because what they believed in was Republican rule. And as Republican rule did not deliver on the promise to those groups the way they wanted, they began to be more suspect of the [their fellow Republicans].”

8. The Party is Dead

“In the past, the party ran this whole apparatus, they called it the ‘coordinated campaign,’” said Polis. “The party chairs were largely responsible for the fund-raising. The candidates helped raised money for the parties. It all went into one pot.” After campaign finance reform, that pot shrunk to the size of a teacup. Polis knew that campaign finance reform “basically guaranteed that the party itself, Republican or Democrat, could not possibly be the main entity that…ran campaigns. The biggest thing is it took parties out of the mix as a money entity.”

The vacuum left by the Colorado Democratic Party also created a tremendous opportunity for the outside groups. Everyone knew that the party had been notoriously inefficient when it came to spending its money. In Polis’s view, this was a function of how people get into decision-making roles in state political parties. Party leaders “were selected because they travel the state,” he observed. “They know people. They show up at every dinner. People like them. They manage the palace intrigues effectively.”

But that was also a weakness. Applying a businessman’s eye for organizational effectiveness, Polis honed in on the managerial inefficiencies of political parties.

“There’s no reason to think [party leaders] would be good at running campaigns and making tough decisions…In fact, to the contrary. They would have a tendency to put valuable resources into races they’re probably not going to win because they want to win friends. So, if they like so and so and they’re running in a very Republican district, they’re going to give them help which takes it away from a very competitive district. So it wasn’t a very good way to allocate resources.”

Rob Witwer is a former member of the Colorado House of Representatives. He has successfully managed several local campaigns and has served as legal counsel to the Colorado Republican Party, the governor of Colorado, and several legislative, congressional, and gubernatorial candidates. He has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Amherst College and a law degree from the University of Chicago Law School. Witwer practices law in Denver and lives in Golden with his wife and four sons. Adam Schrager covers politics for KUSA-TV, the NBC affiliate in Denver, Colorado. In twenty years in the business, he has won numerous broadcast journalism accolades, including more than fifteen Emmy awards. He has a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Michigan and a master’s degree in broadcast journalism from Northwestern University. Schrager’s first book, The Principled Politician: The Ralph Carr Story, has been praised by historians and politicians nationwide. The biography, which chronicles former Colorado governor Ralph Carr’s defense of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor, led state lawmakers to name the state justice center and a Colorado state highway after Carr. Schrager, his wife, and their two children live in the Denver area.
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