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The Advocate's
Big Four Report: Colorado 

The Advocate's
Big Four Report: Colorado 


The Advocate is profiling four battleground states this month -- Colorado, Florida, Virginia, and Ohio -- all of which went red in 2004. Today's story is the first of four pieces focusing on the Rocky Mountain State's political dynamics, LGBT concerns, and how it will all play out on Election Day.

Target State: Colorado

Electoral College Votes: 9

Voted for Bush: 2000 & 2004

Governor: Bill Ritter, Jr. (D)

State Senate: 20 Dem, 15 GOP

State House: 39 Dem, 26 GOP

Races to watch: Jared Polis, openly gay candidate who is expected to win Colorado's 2nd Congressional District; Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, Federal Marriage Amendment author, who is in a tight race to keep her congressional seat.


Although Colorado twice voted for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, the state has been trending Democratic at a local level for the past two elections. Going into the 2004 election, the GOP controlled both state legislative chambers, 18-17 in the Senate and 37-28 in the House. Coming out, Republicans lost control of both bodies, with the Dems taking a 1-seat advantage in the Senate and gaining a 35-30 edge in the House. In the 2006 elections, Coloradans voted to give Democrats a commanding lead in both chambers -- 20-15 in the senate, and 39-26 in the house -- and they elected Democrat Bill Ritter governor.

John Straayer, political science professor at Colorado State University, says the shift is partly due to the political headwind created by an unpopular GOP president, but also the Republican Party's emphasis on conservative social values at the expense of bread-and-butter issues like the economy, education, health care, and infrastructure.

"When the recession hit in 2001/2002, the state was in extraordinary dire straights and there were cuts in higher ed., highways, health care and so forth," Straayer explains. "There was a sense that the dominant party, the Republican Party, which had drifted further and further to the social issues of the Evangelical right, was pre-occupied with those issues, and was not attending to the meat and potato stuff. I think the failure of the Republicans explains the Dem's success more than anything."

One Colorado Republican who rode the Christian right's social agenda to prominence is Congresswoman Marilyn Musgrave -- author of the Federal Marriage Amendment -- whom gay activists have already spent millions of dollars trying to unseat in both 2004 and 2006.

"In fact, of the seven US House seats, the only one that is a real race is in the 4th Congressional with [Betsy] Markey and the incumbent, Musgrave," Straayer says.

Musgrave served in the state legislature during most of the '90s and was elected to the US House of Representatives in 2002 by a margin of 55% to 42%. But her re-election races have grown ever tighter, with Musgrave narrowly defeating the Democratic candidate in 2006, 46% to 43% (a third-party candidate won 11% of the vote).

Straayer says Rep. Musgrave essentially defined herself as a candidate of the Evangelical right, which has slowly but surely become less of a selling point over the years.

"She's got a hardcore base, but that base does not get her to 50% and she seems to have stalled out on that," he says. "She's been trying to talk about other things. I think she's understood that as she's defined herself, there's been more and more discomfort with her narrow agenda. Some people just flat don't like it. And some of the others who may agree on some of those issues have a sense that she's not broad enough to worry about other problems."

Musgrave's Democratic challenger Betsy Markey has opened up a lead of several points in recent polls in what should be a safe Republican district.

"I think it's as much an anti-Musgrave phenomenon as it is a pro-Betsy Markey phenomenon," says Straayer. "[Markey's] getting to be known in the district, but she still doesn't have deep name recognition."

Asked if there's any specific trend that sums up Colorado politics over the last decade or so, Straayer points to the number of women who used to be in the Republican Party versus now. In the 100-member legislature (35 House, 65 Senate), 61 members were Republican in 1998 and 21 of those GOP seats were held by women. Fast forward to the 2008 session completed in May: the GOP had 40 seats with women filling just five of those slots.

"What does that tell you?" asks Straayer. "I've talked to a lot of [those women] and they will say, they didn't leave the Party, the Party left them."

As the Republican Party became a one-trick pony on social issues, women jumped ship he says.

"A little more than their male counterparts, women tend to be concerned with matters related to children, education, health care, families... but the party veered off into the cultural agenda direction," explains Straayer. "That's not a policy environment that's particularly friendly to female candidates -- particularly if they don't adhere to the pro-gun, anti-gay, anti-abortion agenda but want to concern themselves with other things."

Straayer adds that nearly half of the 60 Democrats in the legislature are women.

Overall, the state is leaning toward Sen. Barack Obama in the presidential election, with recent polls giving him a slight edge over Sen. John McCain. Though the excitement has faded a bit since the Democratic primary ended, Straayer still expects to see an impressive number of voters.

"Back in February, when we had the caucuses and the straw poll primary, the turnout and participation was just extraordinary," he says. "I still think you're going to see some pretty robust turnout in substantial measure due to excitement over Obama."

And that should help Democrats down the entire ticket, including Mark Udall, who is running a tight race against Republican Bob Schaffer for an open seat. Recent polls find Udall has a slim advantage of just a couple points over Schaffer, a gap that has been steadily tightening since the summer. The seat was formerly held by a Republican.

Stay tuned to for more on the critical state of Colorado this week.

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