Colorado is a place where election trends go to die, put to rest by the crazy-quilt diversity of the place. You've got your leftwing nirvana in Boulder and your Christian conservative mecca in Colorado Springs. You've got steel workers, melon growers, investment bankers, ski bums. Colorado is ranching, fiber optics, migrant field hands, marijuana millionaires. Famous for its mountains, Colorado is, in fact, mostly flat.
No surprise, then, to find Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, sailing toward the governor's office in a year when the national trend appears to favor Republican hopefuls. "Hick," as the popular mayor is widely known, leads former Rep. Tom Tancredo by double-digits, according to a recent Opinion Research Corp. poll for CNN and TIME.
What's more, Tancredo isn't a Republican, either. He used to be one, but this year he has tossed a bomb into the GOP by running on the American Constitution Party line. The GOP nominee, Tea Partier Dan Maes, lags in third place.
The story in most of the country is of Republicans standing together to create a unified opposition to the ruling Democrats. In Colorado, it's a tale of Republicans ripping themselves apart. That is, when they haven't been shooting themselves in the foot.
Last summer, before the self-destruct button had been pushed, Colorado Republican Party chairman Dick Wadhams warned of the consequences. "If it plays out with Tancredo going ahead and filing as an American Constitution Party candidate and he stays in the race, it's the worst nightmare," he said. "It'll affect our entire ticket."
Prescient words. The wreckage from the governor's race could cause collateral damage in the race for Colorado's U.S. Senate seat a race that had Republican officials in Washington salivating just a few months ago.
Why? Because the seat is currently held by Democrat Michael Bennet, who was named to fill the vacancy left when Ken Salazar was appointed Secretary of the Interior last year. The choice of Bennet, the superintendent of Denver's public schools, irritated a number of Democrats who preferred other candidates themselves, for example. So Republicans saw a weak incumbent with scant political background running in a state where the GOP often does well.
In Colorado and in Washington, party brass closed ranks around former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton, lavishing money and endorsements on her cautious, establishment campaign. But the rank-and-file was restless. Tea Party activists preferred Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck. Here, as in so many other places this year, the rank-and-file prevailed.
According to the CNN/TIME poll (and a more recent Rasmussen survey), Buck leads Bennet by 4% or 5% with remarkably few voters still undecided. What once looked like an easy pick-up for the GOP may now come down to questions of motivation and turnout. This at a time when Colorado's GOP organization is shattered.
Could Bennet's boat be lifted by Hickenlooper's wave? Could Buck be dragged down by the chaos on the Colorado right?
"At this point, I think it's Buck's to lose," a politically active Colorado attorney says. "The Obama backlash in the swing suburbs [of Denver] will likely provide the margin." One thing's for sure: It won't be as easy as the GOP thought it was going to be.
To understand how the Colorado GOP finds itself in this bind, you have to go to the Republican primary for governor. Like the Senate race between Norton and Buck, that too started out as a battle between insurgents and insiders. But it ended in farce.
Former Rep. Scott McInnis was the groomed and blessed candidate of the establishment, chosen over (among others) the loose cannon Tancredo. McInnis seemed to have things in hand when suddenly he was derailed by a plagiarism scandal. McInnis blamed sloppy staff work for apparently purloined passages in policy articles under his byline, but he lost whatever momentum he had managed to create.
Meanwhile, in the loopier precincts of the Tea Party movement, Maes was blundering along, getting fined for campaign finance violations (among other things, Maes paid himself $42,000 in reimbursements for mileage on the campaign trail) and fretting that a program to promote bicycling in Denver is actually "part of a greater strategy to rein in American cities under a United Nations treaty."
Seeing the two Republicans sputtering as the August primary approached, Tancredo demanded that they both quit the race-presumably to make room for him. When they refused, Tancredo jumped in anyway, and his fame as a scourge of illegal immigration guaranteed that he would immediately split the conservative vote. Now autumn finds Tancredo enjoying boisterous rallies featuring celebrities the likes of Dog the Bounty Hunter. Maes, meanwhile, has been mired in a weird dispute over what role he played-or didn't play-in cleaning up a bookmaking operation as a police officer in rural Kansas 25 years ago.
And Hickenlooper, a geologist-turned-beer pub-entrepreneur-turned-sky diving pol, has set the cruise control on his bandwagon and appears to be traveling clear highway.
Wadhams, the state GOP chairman, could dull his pain by capturing one of the houses of the state legislature as Colorado pols prepare for the once-a-decade realignment of electoral boundaries. That seems to be where the bulk of the party's energy is now being concentrated-whatever energy they have left.
And looming over the entire political landscape are three ballot initiatives that would cut state property and income taxes, reduce state fees, and essentially ban state borrowing. Passing these measures would likely force far greater changes in Colorado government than a change in the governor's mansion or the U.S. Senate. State revenues could be reduced by billions of dollars, and even local governments would be allowed to issue bonds only when approved by voters.
A bipartisan group of business and community leaders have raised more than $5 million to oppose the initiatives, but a Denver Post poll in September showed that the group has a real battle on its hands. One of the measures, to cut taxes and fees, was approved by 51% of respondents. Voters were evenly split on the measure to restrict borrowing, with a large number still undecided. Opposition was strongest to the proposal to cap and perhaps reduce property taxes-a step that would further squeeze school budgets already hammered by the recession.
Classic Colorado politics, in other words: a mixed bag, a split decision. As usual, the Mile High state is experiencing plenty of turbulence, but nothing that could be called a wave.