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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.”