Colorado is finally taking a shine to Democrats. But is it blue enough to accept Obama?

A guide to the swing states.
Sept. 23 2008 4:22 PM

The Colorado Purple

The state is finally taking a shine to Democrats. But is it blue enough to accept Obama?

Read the rest of the Swingers  series.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama

DENVER—The good news for Barack Obama is that Colorado is more Democratic today than it was four years ago, when John Kerry lost the state by almost five percentage points. The bad news is that a Colorado Democrat is not necessarily an Obama Democrat.

In 2004, Democrats recaptured majorities in both chambers of the Colorado Legislature and replaced retiring Republican U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell with Ken Salazar, a pro-gun moderate. Two years later, they elected pro-life Democrat Bill Ritter as governor. Both men are part of a long tradition of conservative Colorado Democrats, and their statewide organizations will undoubtedly help Obama. Even more encouraging is the recent success of a semi-obscure five-term congressman from Boulder who is running for Colorado's open Senate seat. If Mark Udall can win in Colorado, the thinking goes, so can Barack Obama.

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The problem is that Udall is not a typical Colorado Democrat. His district includes Boulder, the state's liberal enclave, and he has the voting record to match. He supports universal health care, civil unions, and abortion rights, and he opposes drilling on Colorado's Roan Plateau and the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Udall (the son of former Arizona congressman Mo Udall) also voted against the authorization of military force in Iraq in 2002.

Obama's positions line up well with Udall's. Because this is Colorado, however, Obama has to be careful not to identify his campaign too much with Udall's. To win the state, Obama needs the Salazar and Ritter voters in the center. Westerners like to describe themselves as "independent," but Colorado has the numbers to back it up. A quarter of the population—and a third of registered voters—has no party designation. These voters are most heavily concentrated outside Denver in Jefferson and Arapahoe counties.

The state has its havens of orthodoxy, like Colorado Springs, home to Focus on the Family, and the aforementioned Boulder. But most voters sit somewhere in between. Ask politicos in the state to describe an average unaffiliated voter, and you hear everything from "Wal-Mart moms" to small-business immigrants to anti-war pro-lifers to fiscally conservative environmentalists. The one thing everyone seems to agree on: "Unaffiliateds," supposedly, are put off by negative attacks.

If so, the candidates—and the 527s that support them—didn't get the memo. Colorado attack ads make "Celebrity" look polite. One now-famous spot depicts two veterans mocking Udall for supporting a "Department of Peace." "Boulder liberal," they keep repeating. "Radical Islam wants Americans dead," the narrator tells us. "What part of dead does Mark Udall not understand?" Another ad portrays the Department of Peace as a hot-boxed VW bus. An ad against Udall's opponent, Bob Schaffer, a former member of the U.S. House, shows a club of 10-gallon-hat-wearing oil barons sitting around a poker table, toasting to "Big Oil Bob."

As for whether the ads work, the results are still unclear. Polls show Udall leading Schaffer by about five points. He's winning unaffiliated voters by a 2-to-1 margin. And of course, the Udall campaign claims the anti-Udall ads are doing more good than harm.

So why isn't there more coordination between Udall and Obama? At his appearances in Colorado last week, Obama was introduced by Ritter and Salazar. Udall spokeswoman Tara Trujillo unconvincingly cites logistics: "We don't know if Obama's going to be in town until a couple days beforehand."

More likely, the reasons are deeper. In Colorado, fiscal conservatism is not exclusively Republican. Guns and religion are important issues, not simply things for people to cling to. Bipartisanship is practically a fetish. "If there's a gang, [Salazar] joins it," says independent pollster Floyd Ciruli. Thus Udall is more of a barometer for Obama's success—if he's doing well, then Obama should do well—than a model for it.

Politics aside, Obama is also trying not to repeat John Kerry's tactical mistakes of four years ago. Unlike Kerry, who at this point in 2004 was yanking ads from the state, Obama's campaign has opened 26 offices. "We've never had as much staff in the field as we have right now," says state Democratic Party Chair Pat Waak. Last week, Obama visited Grand Junction and Pueblo—not exactly the belly of the beast, but somewhere toward the back of its throat.

None of which worries Dick Wadhams. The chairman of the Colorado Republican Party has two jobs this election: First, to make sure his state does not swing Democratic for the first time since 1992. And second, to get Schaffer elected to the Senate over Udall. (They are running for the seat left open by Republican Wayne Allard, who is retiring.) Wadhams' strategy is almost a mirror opposite of the Obama campaign's: lump Obama and Udall together at every opportunity. They're both typical tax-and-spend liberal weenies ("mile-high, inch-deep"). The name Udall doesn't escape Wadhams' lips without the prefix Boulder liberal. After a while, they start to sound like Udall's first and middle names.

Of course, Wadhams can get exercised about Obama, too. The candidate's acceptance speech, he says, was a "self-worship rally" that displayed the "elitism" of the Democratic Party. Republicans also dismiss the Democrats' field organization, which Wadhams called the "One Field Office for Every Voter Plan." "Theirs is more of a shotgun approach," says state GOP spokesman Tom Kise. "Ours is more of a laser, very strategic."

These attempts to peg Udall and Obama as fey liberals may be the Republicans' only hope. In everyone's favorite phrasing, the "fundamentals are strong" for Democrats. The state has seen an influx of new voters in the counties surrounding Denver. Meanwhile, Democrats are catching up in the registration game. During most of the '90s, there were about 150,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats. Their advantage has shrunk to about 60,000. Turnout has been rising. Larimer County, north of Denver, saw 93 percent Democratic turnout in 2006. For a midterm election, that's unheard of.

Even in deeply conservative El Paso County, which includes Colorado Springs, Democrats are optimistic. They can't win the county, says Democratic state Sen. John Morse. But "if we can get 40 percent," he says, "then we win."

It's a modest goal—but then, El Paso County has voted for the GOP presidential candidate for decades, and in 2004 Kerry won only 32 percent of the vote. And, truth be told, such modesty is in keeping with the Colorado Democrats' general demeanor. Obama may want to change the world, but Colorado Democrats will be happy with changing the minds of 8 percent of voters in El Paso County.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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