Loyalties shift in vote-rich suburbs

By Philip Rucker
Wednesday, September 22, 2010; 2:40 AM

IN COMMERCE CITY, COLO. Everything about Reunion is meant to be perfect. The houses in this middle-class, master-planned neighborhood 20 miles outside Denver evoke the front-porch intimacy of a small town. Large faux farm silos adorn the grand landscaped entrance. The fishing pond shimmers. The small sign on Reunion Parkway boasts, "Happily ever after starts here."

Politically, Reunion was meant also to be part of the perfect congressional district, one drawn up after the 2000 Census to be an absolutely 50-50 suburban swing district. There would be no better place in America to judge the mood of the electorate.

Today, the mood in many of the houses along Reunion's curving sidewalks is one of disappointment.

"I've never been more disenchanted," said Donna Mastrangelo, 48, who moved here from Arizona in 2005. She supported Barack Obama in 2008 but now thinks the president overreached. Sitting on a park bench on a balmy afternoon, she turned to her husband, Louis, and said: "We can be swayed any which way at this point. . . . I don't want anyone to assume my vote anymore. I want them to work for it."

In 2008, 59 percent of the voters in Colorado's 7th District were swayed by Obama's promise of a government that works for the middle class. That year they reelected their Democratic congressman, Ed Perlmutter, for a second term. The swing district had swung - from Republican in its early years, to Democratic.

After four years of Democratic control in Washington, however, many independents here who voted for Obama now voice varying degrees of disapproval for the president and his party. They say they are frustrated by his inability to forge bipartisan compromise. They say Obama and the Democrats pursued an agenda that was too liberal and have not done enough to shore up the economy.

Sentiments like this can be overheard all around Reunion, and in outer-ring suburban neighborhoods across the country. Democrats rose to power in Washington in part with a concerted effort to expand their base of support to include the moderate, college-educated and increasingly diverse voters who now populate the farther-out bedroom communities around Denver, Las Vegas, Washington and other metropolitan areas that rose up over the past decade.

This is not tea party country. The two dozen independent voters here who spoke to The Washington Post this month were more practical than ideological in their political views. They said they support politicians based on the everyday concerns that affect their lives: schools, jobs, traffic, the economy.

These suburbanites often decide elections, and Democrats are trying hard to keep hold of them.

"The battle of every election comes down to how far out into the suburbs can you push the line of Democratic dominance," said Ruy Teixeira, a fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress and co-author of a 2002 book, "The Emerging Democratic Majority." "The Democrats have had a lot of success pushing that line out from the urban core. But I think Republicans will reassert their dominance in the farther-flung exurbs. Where is that line going to be drawn? That's going to determine how well the Republicans do."

In the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, independent voters in the country's suburban areas said they support Republican congressional candidates over Democrats by a 2-to-1 margin (62 to 30 percent).

"There is no question we are struggling with them today," said Democratic pollster Andrew Myers, who is tracking suburban voters in Colorado and other states. "If ultimately we lose them, it will be like one of the legs of our stool was knocked out."

Anxiety in Reunion

Reunion was built in 2002, a settlement near Denver International Airport, featuring 1,500 homes starting in the $200,000 range. It is one of many subdivisions that sprouted around Denver during the construction boom of the past decade. The median household income and home values here are well above the national average.

But when the real estate market cratered, so did construction. According to county records, 252 homes here have gone into foreclosure, about 16 percent of Reunion's housing stock. Instead of the Wal-Mart Supercenter that was promised at Reunion, there's a Starbucks, a Supercuts and a few small stores. Sun-scorched weeds inhabit the huge plot where Reunion Town Center was supposed to stand.

Alongside Reunion's perfectly groomed sports field one evening, the parents watching their young children play flag football were worried - about the value of their homes, losing their jobs, about the nation's slack economy.

"I'm anxious," said Jennifer Wallace, 35.

A lifelong independent, Wallace said she voted for Obama because she thought he could fix the economy. But recently, she said, her husband was laid off when a Chinese firm swallowed up the die-casting company where he worked.

"The unemployment was supposed to go down, and it's not," Wallace said. "You hear the housing market is coming back, but it's not. Not here. We were the fastest-growing, the up-and-coming, and then it just stopped. We don't even have our grocery store,yet."

Blame drives the vote

Wallace said she knows she can't blame it all on Obama. But she blames him enough that she says she will vote in November for Ryan Frazier, Perlumutter's Republican opponent, and Ken Buck, the Republican hoping to unseat Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat.

Young Nam, returning home to Reunion one evening from his job running a home builder's design center, said he voted for Obama in 2008. He believed Obama could fix the economy and reshape the country's future.

"If you asked me 90 days after Obama's beginning, I was warm to him," said Nam, an independent who backed Republicans in the early 2000s. But the 42-year-old immigrant from South Korea lamented that Obama "made some missteps."

"I think he took on health care when it was not the priority," Nam said. "There were more pressing needs . . . Would I vote for Democrats again? Well, it would be dependent on the platforms and pitches."

Similar to N. Virginia

Robert E. Lang, co-director of Brookings Mountain West and a demographer who studies suburban and exurban political trends, said independent voters here in Denver's emerging exurbs are similar to those in Northern Virginia, a growing territory that was critical to Democrats' successes in 2006 and 2008, but that helped push GOP Gov. Robert McDonnell to a victory in 2009.

"They want government to be light, to be effective, to be tailored to their needs," Lang said. "They gave the Democrats a chance in two cycles, but they're not exactly loyal to anybody. These are people who've seen house price depreciation. They have mortgages underwater or they've lost the retirement wealth they've generated over a decade, and they're going to point the finger at somebody."

Earlier this year few predicted Perlmutter would face competition from a Republican challenger, considering his comfortable margin of victory in 2008. But Frazier, a City Council member from the nearby suburb of Aurora, is a charismatic campaigner. Strategists in both parties say it could emerge as a sleeper race.

"People are starting to have a bit of buyer's remorse," Frazier said in an interview. He said Perlmutter, who supported most of the Democratic agenda, is out of step with the public.

Perlmutter acknowledges that his constituents may prove unfaithful. He hears it all the time as he walks suburban neighborhoods knocking on doors.

"It's a testy year, and I need all the help I can get," the congressman, in a T-shirt and jeans, told one voter as he made his rounds in Lakewood, an older suburb close to Denver.

The man told Perlmutter he probably could count on his vote.

"Could you put up a yard sign?"

That he would have to think about.

Polling director Jon Cohen in Washington contributed to this report.

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