The New Battlegrounds: Arapahoe County, Colo.
Colorado is lovely in the fall. But by all rights, it shouldn't be on a Democratic presidential candidate's travel schedule once October rolls around. In the past 40 years, only one Democrat has claimed the state's electoral votes. Democrats trail both Republicans and independents in party registration. Outside of Birkenstock-and-muesli enclaves like Boulder, Colorado is still culturally a frontier state.
Yet with Election Day about a month away, the battle for Colorado is fiercer than the annual Buffaloes vs. Rams college-football showdown. Barack Obama recently passed through on his ninth visit, while John McCain has made 10 stops of his own. Sarah Palin swung through twice in just her first two weeks on the GOP ticket. And Coloradans can't turn on Dancing with the Stars without seeing the campaigns' dueling ads on energy and the economy.
The two candidates have traded leads in the Rocky Mountain state. In late August, McCain held a 49% to 44% advantage in the state, but in the latest TIME/CNN/Opinion Research poll, Obama is ahead, 51% to 47%. Both men need Colorado in their columns on Nov. 4. By carrying the state's nine electoral votes, Obama could build a winning combination of states that doesn't rely on, say, Ohio, while McCain needs to hold on to Colorado to offset what was almost unimaginable a few weeks ago: potential losses in Virginia, Missouri and Florida.
Over the past decade, Colorado has become Democrats' best shot at a boothold in the once reliably Republican Mountain West. Democrats now control the governorship and both houses in the state legislature and have a good chance of picking up a second Democratic seat in the U.S. Senate next month. The shift came about largely because the state GOP continued to nominate right-wing candidates, while Democrats recruited centrist politicians who often combined prosecutorial backgrounds with aw-shucks demeanors. And it is because neither McCain nor Obama fits either mold that the state is even close this year.
The financial crisis has elevated economic concerns here, which may provide a new twist to the campaign, giving the pragmatic voters of downscale Arapahoe County an unexpected and decisive role in November. In recent days, voters in that demographic have started to break toward Obama. "If John McCain does not carry the state of Colorado," says Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, "his path to the White House gets awfully darn narrow."
The campaign office for Democratic congressional candidate Hank Eng is in Littleton, at the western end of Arapahoe County, which wraps around to the east of Denver before shooting 70 miles (112 km) out toward the prairie. Littleton is the county seat and one of Arapahoe's few remaining affluent suburbs. Eng's campaign operates out of a strip mall that has seen better days, wedged between Pathways Home Care Center and an unadventurous-looking storefront called Adventures in Dance.
Some of the shine has come off Arapahoe since the days in the 1960s when a brand-new ranch house with a one-car garage was all a suburbanite could hope for. The more affluent left it behind over the years for wealthier counties like Douglas, which is where Eng's Republican opponent has set up his headquarters. To get to Mike Coffman's office in Highlands Ranch, you have to drive past mile after mile of McMansion developments with names like Berkshire Residences and soon-to-be-opened box stores that still have the plastic wrap on. In the late 1980s, the area was home to just a few hundred residents; today more than 100,000 live in Highlands Ranch.
Eng and Coffman are running for the seat of retiring GOP lawmaker and erstwhile presidential candidate Tom Tancredo, who built a political career in Arapahoe out of his anti-immigration crusade. (His presidential campaign slogan: "Secure the borders. Deport those who don't belong. Make sure they never come back.") When Tancredo first entered political life 30 years ago, the county's most prominent homegrown politician was Republican Senator Bill Armstrong, a conservative of the William F. Buckley mold. Arapahoe voted for Ronald Reagan by a 39-point margin in 1980.
That was then. Today Arapahoe's famous sons are Democratic governor Bill Ritter and Andrew Romanoff, the Democratic speaker of the house. The Republican Party is 4,000 voters away from losing its registration advantage in the county. And in 2004, Bush won by less than 3 points here, roughly half his margin across the state. Democrats now hold 8 of 11 state house seats in Arapahoe, and they are one seat away from taking over the county commission. What explains the shift? At the same time that nearby Jefferson and Douglas counties were wooing away Arapahoe's upwardly mobile families, two of the county's three military bases closed, taking with them conservative voters. And the immigrants who moved in to replace them and once caused the backlash that launched Tancredo have become an essential voting bloc. More than 100 different languages are now spoken in Aurora public schools, and the area boasts two Russian-language newspapers as well as half a dozen African grocery stores. "The county changed," explains Ritter, who grew up on a small wheat farm near Aurora. "Working-class families moved in and became the anchor to Arapahoe."
In general, Colorado and its high-tech, adventure-travel economic base are somewhat insulated from the kinds of industrial shifts that have walloped Rust Belt states. But the exodus of wealth from Arapahoe has made it more vulnerable to economic downturn. In 2006 the county's foreclosure rate was five times the national average, and it's still one of the highest in the state. "When a flattening economy like we're experiencing now comes along," says Ritter, "they're going to be hit harder."
The sensitivity of Arapahoe voters to economic changes makes them unusually pragmatic. Although generally frugal about government spending, they support high levels of education funding across party lines and voted to suspend the Taxpayers' Bill of Rights that Colorado adopted in the 1990s after the measure gutted many public services. Like most other Coloradans, Arapahoe residents spend a lot of time in their cars and trucks. As gas prices skyrocketed, politicians have scrambled to respond. Both Obama and Democratic Senate candidate Mark Udall altered their stands on offshore drilling over the summer. And one of the McCain ads in heavy rotation lately embraces the use of "clean coal" and tied the issue to the economy. "For Coloradans, coal means thousands of jobs. Economic growth. More affordable electricity," intones the announcer. "But Obama-Biden and their liberal allies oppose clean coal." (Joe Biden was critical of coal plants at a Colorado campaign event, but Obama's energy plan does include clean coal.)