Election 2004  
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What (Good Things) Happened in Colorado?

A political strategist explains why Democrats in Colorado cleaned the Republicans clocks on Nov. 2.
 
 
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I read with interest, and perhaps a bit of bemusement, outgoing Colorado Senate President John Andrews’ explanation in the Weekly Standard for why the Republican Party of Colorado suffered major losses — a U.S. Senate seat, a Congressional seat, and both the State Senate and House — in November. “Why did a state so reliably red for so long – a state that's gone Republican in seven of eight presidential races since I came here from the Nixon White House in 1974,” Andrews asks, “vote deep blue all down the ticket below Bush-Cheney?” Andrews rightly ascribes the Democratic success to the failure of the Republican Party to offer a positive agenda and the extraordinary funding capabilities of the Democrats. But those two elements were only a small part of the reason for the Democratic success.

So what did State Sen. Andrews miss? Statewide victories for the Democrats in traditionally Republican states were not the norm in this election, so it makes sense for everyone to take a look at what happened in Colorado. Here are some reasons for why the Democrats did so well:

1.) Change vs. stay the same – The past two years there has been little more than bad news coming forth from the State Capitol. Insufficient education funding, torpid job growth, on-going state budget fiscal crises, rising health care costs and reductions in benefits all led to an environment where voters were seeking a change.

2.) Salazar – Ken Salazar exemplified the attributes voters sought. His Senate campaign stressed his personal values — hard work, commitment to family and Western roots and ethics — and successes as attorney general on local and state issues. These provided an overarching thematic for the Colorado Democratic Party. In contrast to John Kerry, Salazar, in large part because of his background as attorney general, was perceived as the candidate who was better on issues related to terrorism and personal safety. In suburban counties Salazar outpaced Kerry by significant margins and based on the exit polling data ran eight percent ahead of Kerry among women; “security moms” voted for Ken Salazar but not John Kerry. The Democrat was the safe choice.

3.) Coordination – Many groups participated in the effort to elect Democrats, among them the Colorado NARAL, Colorado AFL-CIO, Colorado Education Association, Colorado Trial Lawyers, and the Environmental and GLBT communities. This time their commitment to win galvanized them. From a tactical standpoint, the limited overlap in activities brought an efficiency and breadth in resource allocation. The result was the ability to target broader audiences with greater communications. In the past, due to limited communication budgets, Republicans were rarely targeted, but in Colorado, due to hefty Republican registration advantages, a Democratic candidate generally needs support from at least 15 percent of the Republicans to win. The cooperation of the groups and the funders assured that targets were broadened to include younger Republicans and areas outside Democratic and Independent precincts, and that the full spectrum (radio, cable TV, direct mail, door-to-door and telephones) of communications vehicles were employed.

4.) Initiatives – By no means planned by Democratic strategists, initiatives and referenda played a critical role in the molding of the political environment and the mobilization of activists. Additionally, they served as a diversion for the Republican leadership. Just as the gay marriage initiatives in most battleground states were instrumental in the dialogue on a presidential level, four initiatives in Colorado played a similar role. Amendment 37, an initiative to mandate the use of renewable energy forced discussions of energy and environmental policy, mobilizing thousands of progressive activists. A major funding measure increase for light rail, FasTracks, passed with the help of significant members of the Republican business community, creating an intra-party rift with opponent GOP Governor Bill Owens. In tandem with Amendment 35, a tobacco tax initiative, which passed with nearly 60 percent of the vote, FasTracks mitigated GOP traditional attacks on tax increases: how could the GOP attack Democrats for tax increases supported by members of the GOP? Finally, Amendment 36, the Electoral College Reform initiative, forced Republicans, and Owens in particular, to put time, energy and resources fighting an issue with limited state impact.

5.) Community Counts –The reason local and personal issue messages resonated with the electorate was that the candidates who delivered the messages were entrenched in their communities. Many of the Democratic candidates had limited Democratic Party connections but were well-known for their non-political civic and community activism. As one Republican state senator put it, “I don’t know how you did it, but you’ve got all the ‘go-to guys and gals’ in every community running for office as a Democrat.” Of course, it helped that many of the Republicans, particularly those who emerged from primaries, were simply too wacko for Colorado, thus giving credence to a messages that Democrats were “mainstream” while Republicans were “too extreme.”

6.) Engagement – In some part because of the mood for change, and in some part because of the nature of candidates like Salazar, the 2004 electorate was extraordinarily engaged. Voters considered the issues and the candidates, and voted. Turnout was high across the state, particularly in areas where there were competitive State Senate and House races. Many of the voters were new to the system and they tended to be younger and to vote for the Democrats. Based on the outcome of the down ballot CU Board of Regents race — the traditional indicator of party support in a state election because of its low visibility — Democratic results generally were four to six percent better than in 2000.

7.) Message – The messages of the Democratic campaigns were highly focused on real alternatives to the current situation. They made significant efforts to present policy alternatives and responses in a positive light. Importantly, these alternatives reflected local and personal concerns that mattered to voters. Local water worries, regional transportation difficulties, huge funding problems for specific educational institutions (CSU), and loss of individual health care benefits dominated the issue agenda and supported the notion that Democrats had answers to these problems while Republicans were directionless, too ideological, or flummoxed.

8. ) Stay focused on the message – Democrats did not insert guns, gays or abortion in their agenda unless it was to signal that a Republican was ideologically intransient, and symbolic of Republican willingness to put ideology above getting things done for the state and for the local community. Moreover, in contrast to national Democrats, there were no attempts to craft a message around the funders, the operatives, or the organizations themselves. The focus was on policy and issues, not the legislative and campaign process.

Much of Democratic success in Colorado this election can be ascribed to research, planning, forethought, and the spontaneous convergence of unexpected attitudes and activities that created a political “perfect storm.” The challenge for Democrats in Colorado is to do it again in two years. With an open Governor’s seat and slim majorities in both houses of the legislature, the opportunity exists. To stay in the majority, Democrats must deliver accomplishments on the issues that matter to voters: education, healthcare, and transportation. Another session dominated by partisanship, ideological intransigence, and limited results will jeopardize the gains Democrats made in this election.

Rick Ridder is president of RBI, a Colorado-based political strategy and research firm with international, national and local clients. The firm was a consultant to the Alliance for Colorado Families, an organization which helped Colorado Democrats take over the State House.