DENVER -- When Democratic state chairmen gather in Florida next month to lick their wounds from the Nov. 2 election, their agenda will include a careful study of one bright spot in a generally sorry performance: Colorado, a solidly red state that went almost completely blue this year.
Despite a large Republican advantage in registered voters and the popularity of President Bush, who carried the state easily for the second time, Colorado Democrats picked up a U.S. Senate seat and House seat that had been considered safe for the GOP. They reversed Republican majorities in the state House and Senate to take control of the legislature. And they backed expensive ballot measures that passed by large majorities despite opposition from the GOP.
In the process, the Democrats tarnished the stature of Gov. Bill Owens, a popular but term-limited Republican who has made no secret of his ambition for national office. Candidates closely tied to Owens lost the Senate and House races. The governor campaigned in vain for Republican legislators and against a new transit tax that won broad voter approval.
Colorado Democrats say their success carries a lesson for the national party. "We campaigned on pragmatism," state Democratic Chairman Christopher Gates said. "We set ourselves up as the problem solvers, while the Republicans were hung up on a bunch of fringe social issues like gay marriage and the Pledge of Allegiance.
"The notion that moral issues won the 2004 election was disproven in Colorado," Gates continued. "We offered solutions, not ideology, and won almost everything."
Democrats here also made a tactical decision to distance themselves from John F. Kerry. Ken Salazar, the moderate Democrat who won the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by a Republican, said during the campaign that "my schedule has just been too busy" to allow him to appear with Kerry during the presidential candidate's many visits to the state.
Both parties agree that the Democrats did a better job of registering voters and turning them out. Further, Colorado Democrats reversed a traditional GOP edge in fundraising, largely through "the four horsemen," four multimillionaires who helped plan and finance the statewide Democratic effort to win control of the legislature.
Political analysts say that Owens and Republican leaders hurt their party by failing to deal with the state's fiscal dilemma when they controlled the legislature.
"Here's a state with an $800 million deficit and a set of conflicting constitutional amendments that make it almost impossible to deal with the deficit, and the legislature was debating the Pledge of Allegiance," Denver-based pollster Floyd Ciruli said. "That allowed the Democrats to say, 'There's a fiscal crisis in our state, and the Republicans aren't doing anything about it.' "
During its 2002-2004 session, the Republican-led legislature worked on high-profile bills to redesign the state's congressional districts and to require recitation of the pledge in schools -- both measures later voided on constitutional grounds. The legislators also focused on which magazine covers could be displayed in stores and on a resolution condemning same-sex marriage, which is already illegal here.
Ciruli noted that the sense of Republican inaction on the fiscal crisis was a key motivator for four wealthy Democrats -- high-tech entrepreneurs Jared Polis, Tim Gill, and Rutt Bridges, and medical-equipment heiress Pat Stryker -- who poured $1.6 million into a Democratic fund for state legislative races that are usually run on the cheap.
John Andrews, the outgoing president of the state Senate and leader of the Republican legislative campaign, argues that "the fiscal impasse is the responsibility of the Democrats," because they voted against GOP proposals to deal with fiscal issues. But Andrews agrees that "we might have been better off" if the Republican majority had found a way to pass bills dealing with the crisis.
Andrews said he also regrets that he and Owens "never came up with a statewide message on how Republicans would manage this issue." The result, he said, is that "the Democrats had Bill Owens on the defensive."
Colorado Democrats set the stage for taking back a U.S. Senate seat last spring, when all prognosticators considered Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R) a shoo-in for reelection. Then news broke of alleged financial kickbacks in Campbell's office. State Democrats rode the issue hard, demanding a Justice Department probe of Campbell's involvement in the scandal. Under growing pressure, Campbell announced his retirement, citing health reasons.
The state's top Democrats then agreed to hand the Senate nomination to Salazar, the state's Hispanic attorney general, who emphasized his middle-of-the-road philosophy and his ability to work with both parties. Republicans split badly over the Senate race. Owens first endorsed one candidate, then changed his mind a week later and personally recruited brewery magnate Pete Coors to make the race.
While leaders of the Christian right around the country have taken credit for Republican victories elsewhere, the consensus here is that the most conservative Coloradans may have hurt the GOP.
Some Republican conservatives refused to support Coors for the Senate because of his company's use of a "bikini team" to sell beer. In the 3rd Congressional District, another Democratic pick-up this year, the most conservative Republican candidate won a five-way nomination -- but then could not get the support of moderate Republicans in the general election. "We lost some important races because of dissension in our own party," Andrews said.
The Democrats' success may suggest that cutting taxes is not the sure path to victory that it used to be. "Our polling and the election results show that the anti-tax agenda has run out of gas," Ciruli said. "Instead of demanding tax refunds, people are saying: Let's build schools; let's reduce the lines at the motor vehicle department."