For Obama and Democrats, Colorado Becomes Less Welcoming
By Dan Balz
DENVER--In 2008, Colorado became a symbol of the changing politics in a
region once firmly in Republican hands -- and also of the grass-roots power
and energy fueling Barack Obama's candidacy. Today, the state embodies
the uneasiness spreading throughout Democratic ranks as Obama
struggles with major challenges and the 2010 midterm elections
Colorado has been one of the Democratic Party's major success stories.
Between 1968 and 2004, Republican presidential candidates carried the
state in all but one election. Last year, Obama crushed John McCain
in Colorado, part of a broader shift in the balance of political power
in the Rocky Mountain West.
Obama's victory and earlier Democratic wins here have transformed the
state. Early in the decade, Republicans controlled virtually
everything -- the governor's office, almost all other statewide
offices, the congressional delegation and both houses of the Colorado
legislature. Today, Democrats are in control of all of those.
A year ago, Denver enthusiastically hosted the Democratic National
Convention, which culminated with Obama's acceptance speech before
more than 80,000 people at the Denver Broncos' football stadium.
Legions of volunteers, young and old, fanned out across the state
throughout the fall to rally the vote for Obama's campaign.
Today, the energy that powered Obama to victory has begun to
dissipate. Some of his supporters remain on the sidelines; others are,
if not disillusioned, questioning what has happened to his presidency.
As they look toward 2010, Democrats are nervous. Gov. Bill Ritter,
appointed Sen. Michael F. Bennet and at least one Democratic member of
the House will probably face difficult election campaigns next year.
Roy Romer, a former Democratic governor, called the state of play
"very much tougher" for Obama and the Democrats than it was a year
ago. "The slippage is there, and it's because things are tough and
solutions aren't easy, and they [voters] don't see progress toward
solutions," he said.
"The political environment is tough for Democrats, tough for
incumbents, tough for all politicians," Mike Stratton, a veteran
Democratic strategist based in Denver, said a few days ago.
The Obama of 2008 seemed perfectly attuned to a state known for its
youthfulness, future-oriented outlook and positive spirit. If he
struggled at times with older voters in Rust Belt states, he always
found a welcome in Colorado, easily defeating Hillary Rodham Clinton
in the Democratic caucuses before cruising past McCain in the general
Today, Coloradans appear more downbeat. Anxiety has replaced optimism.
The recession has changed habits and attitudes. Obama's agenda has
raised questions among independent voters because of its ambitious
scope and potential impact on the deficit. His style has left some
original supporters concerned about his toughness.
Grass-roots organizers such as Jeff and Gale Haley, who volunteered
for the Obama campaign last year and are now helping to organize
support for health-care reform, say it is critical for Obama to take a
harder line in his effort to pass a health-care bill. "I think he
certainly realizes that if he loses on this one, that sets the tone
for the rest of his administration," Jeff Haley said.
Bennet, who was touring northeastern Colorado last week, said: "We
need to be able to demonstrate -- the administration needs to be able
to demonstrate, people that are running for office need to be able to
demonstrate -- that we're up to those challenges and that we're
providing constructive policy solutions to meeting those challenges.
If we can do that, we're going to be okay. If we can't do that, we're
going to be overcome by the anxiety that's out there."
Bennet was the surprise pick to fill the Senate vacancy left when the
president nominated Ken Salazar as interior secretary. Bennet came to
the Senate with no experience in elective politics; when he was
tapped, he was superintendent of the Denver school system. Before
that, he was chief of staff to Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper and had
acquired private-sector experience with an investment company.
Bennet has a quick mind, and has impressed other Democrats as an
innovative and sometimes out-of-the-box thinker. He has worked to
learn how to be a politician, traveling the state so constituents can
get to know him and raising money as rapidly as he can. Still, given
the state of the economy, he is far from secure in his seat, and
Republicans see him as a vulnerable target.
"Bennet has not solidified himself as an incumbent senator," said Dick
Wadhams, the Colorado Republican Party chairman.
Bennet is preparing for a difficult general-election campaign, but his
most immediate problem is a likely primary challenge from Andrew
Romanoff, a former speaker of the Colorado House.
Romanoff was a leading candidate for the Salazar vacancy before Ritter
tapped Bennet, and other Democrats see his challenge to Bennet as
motivated more by personal pique than by principled differences with
him. Whatever his motivation, Romanoff creates one more obstacle in
Bennet's path as he tries to win his Senate seat outright.
Ritter also has problems. Foremost is the challenge facing every
governor this year and next: how to run a state in the middle of a
recession that has created a sizable budget deficit.
Colorado's economy is far from the worst in the country, but Ritter,
like other governors, has been forced to cut spending. In one of his
most unpopular decisions, he has raised the fee for automobile
registrations. He also has alienated organized labor. Some critics,
including Democrats who will support him, say he has lacked the
decisiveness needed in a time of big problems.
For all the edginess among Democrats, Republicans have their own
hurdles. Their party faces primary contests for both governor and
Senate. Republicans here must resolve some of the ideological schisms
that reflect broader divisions nationally. Demographic and other
changes have given the Democrats parity with Republicans in party
registration, with the state now divided almost evenly among
Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters.
Although Colorado has shifted from red to almost solidly blue in its
representation, it remains a purple state politically, especially
given the size of the unaffiliated vote, which can shift with the
tides. Some strategists say Democrats may have reached their
high-water mark in 2008. What happens over the next 14 months will
show whether they can consolidate and solidify those earlier
victories, or whether Republicans can begin their comeback.