Tracing the Line in Colorado, a State Split Left and Right
By JACK HEALY
Two Democrats, Gov. John W. Hickenlooper and Senator Mark Udall, are
in fierce re-election races, and both parties are spending millions in
a state not quite red or blue.
ERIE, Colo. — To trace the border between the liberal and conservative
corners of the American West, head down East County Line Road, a
two-lane asphalt stripe parting the plains here in Northern Colorado.
To the east lies Weld County, a conservative stronghold where 20,000
oil and gas wells pump day and night, and Republicans are so dominant
that they are running unchallenged for county assessor, clerk and a
commissioner’s seat. Fifteen miles to the west is Boulder, where a
Buddhist-inspired university offers classes in yoga and the Tibetan
language, and nature activists are working to carve out legal rights
for ecosystems and wild species.
Straddling those divisions is Erie, a town of 21,500 whose perch along
County Line Road embodies the shifting politics and demographics of a
Western swing state where Republicans are waging a spirited battle to
reclaim power after recent years of Democratic gains. Two prominent
Democrats, Gov. John W. Hickenlooper and Senator Mark Udall, are in
fierce re-election fights, and both parties are spending millions to
claim a bellwether win.
“Colorado is subjected to extremes,” said Roy Romer, a former
governor. “It’s not just blue and red. It’s also urban and rural. We
have a history to this.”
To some, the social and demographic changes that have shaded Colorado
blue in recent elections are welcome. But Colorado’s political
leanings have tilted back and forth in surprising ways since it became
a state in 1876, sometimes marching in lock step with Republican
ranching and mining magnates, and other times bolting to support
populists or so-called Silver Republicans who detested the
once-dominant gold standard.
“This is not a blue state,” said Ted Trimpa, a lawyer and political
strategist who helped to craft the Democratic rise to power in the
statehouse over the past decade. “This is very much an independent
state, and more and more reflects where people in the rest of the
The contest between Mr. Udall and his Republican challenger,
Representative Cory Gardner, a second-term congressman from far
eastern Colorado, has become one of the most competitive and expensive
Senate races in the country. It is a must-hold seat if Democrats have
a shred of hope of retaining their Senate majority. For Republicans,
it offers a long-sought chance to reclaim a marquee statewide office
and show that they can once again win in a Western state that is
growing more urban, Hispanic and socially liberal.
The campaign has touched on energy drilling and the economy, President
Obama’s health care law and the size and role of government, but at
its core has been a battle for the votes of women and Latinos. In
2010, Democrat Michael Bennet defied a nationwide Republican surge to
win a Senate race here, in large part because Democrats hammered his
Republican opponent on abortion and contraception. As for Latinos,
they now represent 14 percent of Colorado’s electorate and 21 percent
of its population, and while many are reliably Democratic, Republicans
have been going door to door to try to sway them.
Democrats are pressing their advantages with both groups in
campaigning against Mr. Gardner, casting him as an anti-immigrant
conservative who wants to broadly outlaw abortion. Mr. Gardner does
oppose abortion, but he has tried hard to soften his conservatism and
appeal to the center, saying he wants to make birth control available
over the counter and no longer supports a “personhood” referendum that
would grant legal rights to embryos.
This will also be the first major election to test Colorado’s new
all-mail voting system, in which ballots were sent to all registered
voters three weeks before Election Day, ideally — in the eyes of those
who proposed the change — increasing turnout. The new law, which will
also allow people to register to vote up through Election Day, was
approved by the Democratic-controlled legislature over loud Republican
Analysts say this may be the closest Senate race in the country, and
so candidates are fanning out across the heavily Democratic
neighborhoods of Denver, the deeply Republican suburbs of Douglas
County and growing bedroom communities like Erie.
Here, new homes (“From the $300s!" declare billboards) are cropping up
on old pastureland, gazing out at new oil-and-gas well pads.
Construction and a drilling boom have helped to pull Colorado out of
the recession, pushing unemployment down to 4.7 percent and reviving
tax revenue. But economists say that job growth has not kept up with
the state’s explosive population growth.
One of Erie’s largest employers, a gun-magazine manufacturer named
Magpul, is leaving town out of disgust with new gun-control laws
passed last year by Democrats. As many as 200 jobs are leaving for
Texas and Wyoming. Joe Wilson, a former mayor and National Rifle
Association member, said he was not upset with Magpul for leaving, but
with politicians for tightening gun laws.
“It was nuts in a down economy to have an industry ejected from the
state,” he said. “It shocked people.”
Erie’s partisan hues mirror the rest of the state. About 30 percent of
voters here are Democrats and 32 percent are Republicans, but each
party is outnumbered by independent voters. Residents say the town’s
politics and demographics are changing fast with the arrival of more
people priced out of the Boulder area.
“Everybody’s a transplant at this point,” said Shawne Beeson, who
moved here in September from the northern Denver suburb of
Westminster, beckoned by good schools and affordable homes. He opened
a computer-repair shop in a shopping plaza.
“I’m just part of what’s happening,” he said. “I think this place is
going to become a lot more Boulder. As prices shift, they’re all going
to come here.”
As a die-hard Democrat, Mr. Beeson said, living in a politically
diverse town has required some concessions to civility. He said he
listened politely when he disagreed with a customer, but admitted that
he once snapped at a man who was fuming about this summer’s influx of
young Central American refugees.
“I sort of went off the rails,” he said.
Growth and Diversity
The last two decades brought growth and diversity in Denver and the
towns that spill eastward from the Front Range of the Rockies and
cluster along Colorado’s two major interstates. The area is now a
polyglot quilt of immigrants from East Africa, Central America and
Southeast Asia. Vietnamese noodle houses line Federal Boulevard in
Denver. Somali and Burmese refugees slaughter cows at the meatpacking
plants outside Fort Morgan.
Twenty-five years ago, Colorado’s population was about two-thirds the
size it is today, and much whiter and more conservative. In 1991,
Focus on the Family moved its headquarters to Colorado Springs,
becoming a clarion voice of Christian conservatism in the national and
local culture wars.
On the northeastern plains, near the Nebraska border, Mr. Gardner’s
hometown, Yuma, embodies a white, rural conservatism that is changing
fast. It is a solidly Republican agricultural and ranching city where
hunters arrive every autumn for pheasant season, and Mr. Gardner’s
family still runs a farm-equipment business.
In the last 30 years, though, waves of once-migrant workers from
Mexico’s Chihuahua State have settled here, drawn by jobs picking
beets and pumpkins and working in the dairies and hog-feed lots.
Latinos now make up about 40 percent of Yuma’s population, compared
with 4 percent in 1990. Half the preschoolers and nearly half the
elementary-school students in Yuma come from Spanish-speaking
families, said Margo Ebersole, with the Rural Communities Resource
“The Latino community has been growing faster by threefold than any
other community in Colorado,” said Jessie Ulibarri, a Democrat and one
of a dozen Hispanic legislators in the state house. But cultural
acceptance has not always matched demographics. “People look at us and
still perceive us to be perpetual foreigners,” he said. “I don’t know
how many times I’ve been told by people that if I stand up for
immigrants, I should go back home.”
Over the summer, when the push for immigration reform stalled in
Washington, Hispanic activists flocked to Mr. Gardner’s district
offices in northeastern Colorado to pressure him to vote for a
comprehensive package that passed the Democrat-controlled Senate,
supported by Mr. Udall. But Mr. Gardner says that granting citizenship
or its benefits to millions of undocumented immigrants “will only
encourage more illegal immigration.”
Toward the southern border of the state, where the county names change
from Lincoln and Custer to Huerfano and Costilla, a Republican state
representative named Clarice Navarro-Ratzlaff said she believed
conservative messages about small government, low taxes and family
values could resonate with the state’s Hispanic population.
As she drives across her district, Ms. Navarro-Ratzlaff said she
sometimes stopped at homes with “Latinos for Obama” signs in the yard.
She tells her story, of being a fifth-generation Coloradan who was
raised by a single mother. Of how she worked nights in a pickle plant
and is still paying off her college loans. She talks about how she
registered as a Democrat because her mother told her to, but found a
home in the Republican Party. And in a state where borders and state
lines were drawn up around Hispanic families who had lived here for
centuries, Ms. Navarro said the Republican message on immigration has
the potential to resonate.
“Our Hispanic culture believes in securing our borders,” she said. “We
want to honor the law-abiding citizens that have followed the
appropriate steps to becoming an American. Democrats have used this
against us, but the fact remains that illegal is illegal.”
The tourists are back in Estes Park, a summertime Brigadoon at the
foot of Rocky Mountain National Park. Last September, all of this was
water, mud and devastation.
As the worst floods in a generation carved a $2.9 billion trail of
devastation through the state, they washed out roads in Estes Park,
swept homes off their foundations and wrecked the floors of Julie
Pieper’s main-street restaurant, Mama Rose’s.
On this diamond-clear summer day, Ms. Pieper was serving up
turkey-bacon wraps and homemade potato chips to about 100 supporters
who had come to see Mr. Udall. A passionate mountain climber who lives
in the mountain town of Eldorado Springs, Mr. Udall completed a quest
this summer to scale Colorado’s 100 highest peaks. He looked at home
weaving through the sun-bronzed crowd, which included hikers, kayakers
and Dr. Thomas F. Hornbein, a climber whose ascent up the West Ridge
of Mount Everest remains one of the greatest feats of mountaineering.
Mr. Udall’s pitch to the crowd was “rugged collaboration.” He said the
phrase exemplified how government agencies and nonprofits, residents
and businesses worked together after the floods. People took in
neighbors who had been washed out. They set up zip lines to cross
torrential rivers. In a year, much of the devastation has been
repaired or is well on the way.
“The response was spectacular,” Ms. Pieper said. “I’ve got friends who
are Republicans who support this crew because of the response.”
Mr. Udall has attacked Mr. Gardner for his votes during last year’s
government shutdown, which came as flood-stricken towns remained cut
off from the world and scores of families were still homeless. In
Estes Park, he called it irresponsible and “disqualifying, in my view,
to being a United States senator.”
Mr. Gardner said he had pushed to find a solution to the shutdown as
it dragged on for two weeks last October, and said he and Mr. Udall
had worked together to get federal money for recovery here. “We were
in helicopters together overseeing the efforts in the days following
the flood,” Mr. Gardner said in an interview. “It is below the office
of the United States Senate to attack a member of the delegation he
knows was a partner.”
The Udall campaign and other groups have also attacked Mr. Gardner for
co-sponsoring the Life at Conception Act, a bill that would grant full
legal rights to people from “the moment of fertilization.” It would
potentially outlaw abortion at any stage and — critics contend — some
forms of birth control. While Mr. Gardner said he no longer supported
a similar “personhood” measure on the ballot this November in
Colorado, he has been forced in debates and interviews to explain why
he is still backing the federal bill.
Colorado, Ever in Transition
For Democrats, the focus on abortion is part of a strategy aimed at
making Mr. Gardner appear as anti-woman as possible to voters like Ann
Cerny, a pathologist’s assistant in Erie. She said her views on
spending and government made her a Republican at her core, but that
working with fetal tissue samples every day in her lab had put women’s
health issues front and center this election.
“As a woman, I want to make sure women’s health care is O.K.,” she
said. “Personhood, anything with abortion — that’s my job. I have to
have freedom of choice.” Her conclusion: “I cannot vote Republican.”
But to Debbie Brown, a former Republican campaign manager who now
leads a statewide women’s group, the attention to reproductive issues
is maddening. In 2010, Ms. Brown watched Democrats win 56 percent of
the women’s vote in the 2010 Senate race, in part by portraying
Republicans as dogmatic enemies of abortion and birth control. She
organized the Colorado Women’s Alliance as a conservative
counterweight to liberals whom she says are obsessed with reproductive
“What else you got?” she asked over coffee one rainy morning. “I could
care less about birth control. It’s widely available, and I think
that’s awesome. There’s not a crisis.”
While Mr. Gardner’s campaign argues that his positions are being
distorted by the Udall camp, Ms. Brown and her group are trying to
change the definition of what constitutes an election-year “women’s
issue.” What about energy? she asked. What about jobs, wages and
health care? In panels she has assembled, Ms. Brown said women felt
that the laserlike focus on reproductive issues was a ploy for their
When money is so tight that your family disconnects the phone line and
cable and wears sweaters to save on heating, worrying about abortion
laws seems like an unaffordable luxury, said Margo Branscomb, a single
mother in the southern Denver suburb of Centennial.
“Everybody needs to stay out of the bedroom,” she said. “It should be
an individual’s choice in all respects, whether it’s a wedding or all
these social issues.”
In Erie, from behind the counter of his gold and silver shop, Levi
Hatgi is watching the changes rippling through Colorado. He works with
a Smith & Wesson handgun strapped to his hip, but says guns need to be
kept out of certain people’s hands. He says politicians have tilted
tax policies to favor big corporations over small businesses, and he
knows small-business owners who have been hurt by the Affordable
Health Care Act. But he says he feels alienated from Republicans
because of their tight embrace of religion.
It has been a year since he and his fiancée, Megan Huckaby, moved to
Erie, and Ms. Huckaby has drawn one firm conclusion about its place
here in this battleground: “It’s right on the line.”