Every Wednesday morning at 6:30, the distinguished raconteurs of the Arapahoe County Republican Men's Club gather to dine in grand style at the Cool River Café in Greenwood Village. Upon arriving at a Men's Club function, members are expected to pay $10 and affix an elephant-shaped nametag to their left lapel. About one-third of the Men's Club leans "to the right of Attila the Hun," according to one recent inductee, and about half favors chalk-striped suits. Given the GOP's recent domination of Colorado politics, the mood at the weekly meetings usually swings from mildly triumphant to swaggeringly neanderthalic. But a few weeks ago, just after the vice presidential debate, the Men's Club seemed tense, even embittered. When the Men's Club president, Richard Schroeder, asked the group how Dick Cheney had fared against John Edwards, he was greeted with five seconds of excruciating silence. Another member counseled of President George W. Bush's recent stumbles, "Look, your quarterback doesn't have a good game every time out. That doesn't mean you change quarterbacks."
On his way out after the meeting, a member quipped, to no one in particular, "Why doesn't he come here and debate us?" "He" was John Kerry, an intruder in the conservative Denver suburbs, who was staying at a resort a few miles down I-25.
Days earlier, Kerry had shocked everyone by choosing to return to Colorado, his birthplace, to prepare—read: to be photographed preparing—for the second presidential debate. It was the latest piece of triumphant news for state Democrats, who have watched Colorado purple at an astonishing clip. An Oct. 7 Gallup Poll put the race here at 49 percent to 49 percent; more recent polls have Kerry within the margin of error. Kerry flies to Pueblo for a rally Friday night. Then there's the state ballot initiative that could deprive Bush of four of Colorado's nine electoral votes even if he wins the popular vote.
A Kerry victory would reverse more than a decade of Democratic futility. The last Democratic presidential candidate to win here was Bill Clinton in 1992. Before that, it was Lyndon Johnson *. Colorado may seem like a friendly beachhead for Southwestern liberalism—it gave the world Gary Hart, Pat Schroeder, and Dick Lamm—but in some ways, it's as rigidly conservative as Arizona. "The wrong impression got created in the '80s and '90s," said Hart, who was waiting on the tarmac the other day for Kerry's plane to land. "Colorado has always been a Republican state." Republicans have almost 200,000 more registered voters than the Democrats.
Six months ago, Kerry's state director, Sue Casey, thought her candidate didn't have a prayer. But in March, Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Republican, announced he would not seek a third term in the U.S. Senate—a term that he could have easily won. The Democrats nominated Ken Salazar, a well-monied, Hispanic attorney general. Then, as state GOP chairman Ted Halaby put it, "There was a trickle-up effect at the presidential level." With Salazar trouncing Republican Pete Coors—the Oct. 7 Gallup Poll put him up 11 points—Kerry and the DNC began to pour money into TV commercials and hire ground troops. Chris Gates, the state party chairman, says Colorado slowly climbed the Democratic National Committee's internal swing-state rankings—which determine the direction the DNC's money and staff flow—starting in the high teens and, as Salazar surged, creeping toward the Top 10.
Kerry troops hope for what the University of Colorado'sScott Adler calls a "reverse coattails effect"—the Senate candidate props up the presidential one. So far, Salazar has outpaced Kerry and then some. He has battered his opponent, Coors, with a combination of hawkishness on terrorism and moderate social policy. Meanwhile, Coors has stung himself with a series of titanic gaffes: He advocated lowering the drinking age to 18 (in a speech seven years ago, newly discovered) and failed to recognize the name of the Canadian prime minister in a GOP primary debate this year. Plus, the New York Times'photo department seems to think he's a Klansman. If Salazar can energize Hispanic voters in inner-city Denver and southern Colorado, he might produce enough new Democrats to put Kerry over the top. But Salazar, who's well aware of Colorado's conservative bent, has so far avoided Kerry at every opportunity.
Even if Kerry falls short, there's still a chance he could claim a share of Colorado's nine electoral votes. Way down the ballot lies Amendment 36, which would change the way Colorado divvies up its presidential electors. In 2000, the winner of Colorado's popular vote claimed all of the state's electors, just as in every state but Nebraska and Maine, where electors are distributed to winners of the states' congressional districts. But if Amendment 36 passes, Colorado's electors would be allocated to each candidate by their share of the popular vote—meaning that if Kerry narrowly loses, he would claim four votes while Bush would win the other five. The amendment contains a provision that would allow it to apply retroactively to the 2004 election.
The amendment has turned the Colorado ballot into a dizzying exercise in game theory. Should Democrats vote for Kerry and then vote "no" on Amendment 36, and risk Kerry's rally falling short and handing all nine electoral votes to Bush? Or vote for Kerry and "yea" 36, and risk gifting Bush a close election with those four electoral votes? And do Republicans fear that Kerry has made up so much ground that they will vote "yea" on 36 to cover their bases?
GOP apparatchiks stand united against the amendment. "We think it's a rotten idea," says Katy Atkinson, a consultant. "And we think it's a stupid idea." To drive the point home, Atkinson has created a group called Coloradans Against a Really Stupid Idea. Her arguments are thus. Splitting electors would reduce Colorado's cachet, since candidates would be fighting over one electoral vote instead of nine. The presidential candidates would begin to ignore Colorado; pork dollars would dry up. Her other convincing argument is a threat: Atkinson has squadrons of constitutional lawyers standing by to fillet Amendment 36 in court. If the race is close, that could delay the certification of the election for weeks. As state GOP chairman Ted Hallaby puts it, "The bottom line is, Colorado could be this year's Florida." Of course, if Kerry wins and Amendment 36 passes, expect Colorado Republicans to perform an abrupt about-face.
For now, Republicans claim Amendment 36 was hatched by nefarious Democrats who wanted to siphon off their electors. "Everyone knows it was put on there for mischief," says Rep. Tom Tancredo. But if that was true when the amendment was conceived a few years ago, you wouldn't know it now. With Kerry threatening to win all nine of Colorado's electoral votes, Democrats have ordered a statewide omerta on Amendment 36. "I am studiously neutral," says Chris Gates, the state party chairman. Gary Hart says, "There are few things I don't have an opinion about these days, but that's one of them." Sue Casey, Kerry's state director, is more blunt: "We have a chance to win here. I think we're gonna win here. I don't want to lose four electoral votes."
My guess is that Amendment 36, which has dominated its share of Ron Brownstein's ("an enormous wild card"!) and George Will's ("November's most portentous vote"!) columns, will prove a lot of hand-wringing over nothing. Goo-goo initiatives always poll well at the outset, when reformers can reduce them to benign catchphrases: Who wants more democracy?! But as opponents begin to pepper the media with counterattacks, the "yea" numbers tend to drop like stones. "It's much easier to be on the 'no' side, because it's like a jury trial," says Katy Atkinson. "All we have to do is create reasonable doubt." Atkinson and Gov. Bill Owens, another Republican, have traversed Colorado slamming Amendment 36 as "unilateral disarmament." An Oct. 8 Survey USA poll had the amendment leading 45 percent to 44 percent. Veterans of state initiatives say unless an amendment is polling over 60 percent on Election Day, there's little chance it will pass.
With Republicans savaging the amendment and Democrats hedging their bets, the "yea" side of Amendment 36 has become a tragic, lonely place. The amendment advocates are led by a whip-smart consultant named Julie Brown, who works in a spare office near the state capitol. With few politicians at her disposal, Brown has been forced to trudge to try to win over tiny groups: the Lakewood Optimist Club, the Sloan's Lake Citizens Group, and, a few weeks ago, the Arapahoe County Republican Men's Club.
The members of the Men's Club sat in angry silence while Brown walked to the podium and ambled through her talking points. When she finished, there was a short pause, and then the members raised their hands and waited their turn to pummel her during the question-and-answer period. A bald, mustachioed Men's Clubber, who was standing near the back, offered a rousing defense of the Electoral College. An elderly man rose and began a harangue that lasted several minutes and expanded to include a diatribe against liberal coastal elites. A gray-haired member cut to the heart of the matter. "It appears you are trying to change our country from a republic to a democracy," he said. "Why are you trying to do that?"
Correction, Oct. 25, 2004: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Harry Truman, not Lyndon Johnson, was the last Democratic presidential candidate to carry Colorado before Bill Clinton in 1992. Return to the corrected sentence.