Colorado: A model for 2012
November 17, 2010
How did the GOP manage to lose the election of a senator and a governor in Colorado in spite of the national mood?
Even in Republican-dominated Grand County (44 percent of active registered voters are Republican; Democrats, 25 percent), 49 percent voted for Democrat John Hickenlooper for governor, besting his nearest rival by 11 percent.
Republicans held a narrow advantage over Democrats in registration statewide, but Democrats should not have won in this Republican wave year. The result of the election will influence strategies for the 2012 election as both parties will be studying the Colorado outcome for lessons learned. Whether those conclusions will shape races in other states is yet to be seen, since some of the factors were specific to Colorado.
John Hickenlooper, the Democrat governor-elect, had some unique assets. He had sterling credentials in the hospitality business, making his mark as a successful restaurateur, a perfect fit for Grand County’s resort based interests. Both of his opponents seemed too extreme for many traditional Republicans. National pundits attributed Hickenlooper’s win to former congressman Tom Tancredo’s bid as a third party candidate, splitting the Republican vote, but Hickenlooper garnered more votes than the two opponents combined statewide.
The lesson for Democrats in Grand County: likable, business oriented, fiscally conservative, moderate Democrats can do well and contribute significant numbers in statewide races. Even President Obama in his 2008 wave year did not carry Grand County (though he lost it by less than 200 votes).
Sen. Michael Bennet lost the county by 453 votes (garnering 43 percent of the total.) Six percent fled to minor party candidates instead of voting for either Ken Buck or Bennet. Just over 50 percent voted for the Republican Buck, underwhelming given the Republican registration advantage. Bennet was viewed as being too close to Obama.
On the other hand, the Denver Post endorsed him, calling him a centrist because of his business background and his temperament. Some independents must have perceived him as moderate enough for their votes.
There were also factors at work statewide, other than voter affiliation, that did not exist in our county. In Grand County, the Hispanic vote was not significant, but it certainly was a critical contributor to the outcome statewide for both Democrats.
Tom Tancredo is the quintessential anti-immigrant, nationally renowned for his extreme pronouncements that many Hispanics considered as bordering racism. There was a reason Hickenlooper had a Hispanic running mate; he saw the importance of the Hispanic vote even before Tancredo crashed the race. Both Hickenlooper, Denver mayor, and Bennet, former Denver school superintendent, were popular among the large number of Denver Hispanic voters.
There are 400,000 registered Hispanics voters in Colorado, about 17 percent of the registered electorate. An estimated 80 percent of them are Democrats. If Hispanics turn out to vote, they can make a difference, and turnout they did, no doubt with an eye on Tancredo’s name on the ballot. The number of votes for Democrats in Denver exceeded expectations.. Like Harry Reid’s win in Nevada, the Hispanic turnout was helpful to both Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet.
The lesson for Republicans next time around: Tread softly on legislation that may seriously aggravate Hispanics, including endorsing Arizona type initiatives.
There was one other issue in the Senate race that offset Bennet’s unpopular tie to President Obama. His opponent, Ken Buck, had angered Republican suburban college-educated women in the primary by beating Jane Norton and indicating some male chauvinistic inclinations with his remarks about his not wearing high heels, on and off again extreme views on social issues such as abortion and birth control, and his enmity to federal support of education. The result: Instead of carrying the suburban votes by 65 percent, the number he needed to offset a large Denver vote according to election night commentators, Buck garnered only 60 percent.
Lesson for the next Republican candidate in Colorado: Do not tick off suburban women by being extreme on social issues .