DENVER - Colorado voters have front-row seats for this year's most high-voltage state election: A flurry of tight races for the Statehouse and governor's mansion and a slate of initiatives on some of the country's most volatile issues, including immigration and gay marriage.
Much of the national attention will fall on the highly competitive contest to replace term-limited Gov. Bill Owens (R),
one of country's nine open gubernatorial races this year. But just as important is the pitched battle for control of the narrowly split General Assembly
, where Democrats won majorities in both chambers two years ago for the first time in 44 years.
Those 2004 Democratic victories and passage of a momentous 2005 ballot measure suspending the state's Taxpayers' Bill of Rights (TABOR), the nation's strictest tax and spending cap, set the stage for this year's scramble to control the Statehouse.
In addition, voters will take up a string of ballot proposals that will test conservatives' grip in the state, including the nation's first ballot initiative to create "domestic partnerships" for same-sex couples, along with measures on the minimum wage, government spending limits and immigration, which has become the No. 1 issue in races across the state.
"Oh, there's going to be a whole lot of things that will bring people to the polls. We're going to be absolutely smothered in political advertising and rhetoric, and about 80 percent of it will be negative," said political scientist John Straayer of Colorado State University.
Both Republicans and Democrats are looking to the state's election results as a political bellwether of the West, especially whether the state is shifting from red to blue before the next presidential election. But Colorado's political landscape has had a distinctly purple hue for more than 30 years.
Beginning in 1974, the state had 24 years of Democratic governors while the General Assembly was controlled by the GOP. In the same period, the state was represented in Congress by widely divergent politicians, including liberal environmentalist U.S. Sen. Gary Hart (D) and conservative U.S. Sen. Bill Armstrong (R). That ideological divide persists, represented on the right by U.S. Reps. Tom Tancredo (R) and Marilyn Musgrave (R) and on the left by U.S. Rep. Mark Udall (D).
While Colorado's population has more than doubled since 1970, Democrats, Republicans and independent or unaffiliated voters have roughly split the electorate in thirds over that same period.
In 1998, then-State Treasurer Bill Owens (R) was elected governor, finally giving the GOP control of the legislative and executive branches. Owens easily won re-election in 2002 and was hailed as one of the nation's top governors and a possible presidential candidate.
But Democrats launched a well-funded legislative election effort in 2004, capitalizing on the campaign donations of a few wealthy Coloradans and the GOP's inability to solve the state budget crisis, which had led to severe cuts in health care, higher education and transportation.
That election gave Democrats an 18-17 majority in the state Senate and a 35-30 majority in the House — one of 10 states where the Democratic Party gained new statehouse majorities that year.
On top of that, then-Attorney General Ken Salazar (D)
defeated beer magnate Pete Coors, a Republican, for an open U.S. Senate seat in a state where President George Bush (R) won 52 percent of the vote.
"Voters spanked Republicans for their overconfidence and complacency," said former state Senate President John Andrews (R), who left office in 2004 because of term limits.
In 2005, Democratic lawmakers and the Republican governor crafted two ballot initiatives to suspend some provisions of the state's 1992 constitutional tax and spending cap in order to boost funding in neglected programs. One measure, which passed, allowed the government to spend surplus tax revenue instead of returning it to citizens, although a directive on how to spend it failed.
Owens supported the referenda rolling back the state's revenue caps, but he angered conservatives in his state and in Washington, D.C., which had viewed Colorado as the poster child for the limited government movement . Colorado's decision to back away from its spending cap helped to chill enthusiasm for similar measures introduced in 15 state legislatures this year. None passed.
In addition, conservatives' defeat on the Colorado spending cap handed Democrats a success that they are running on this year. "The citizens wanted some leadership and they wanted to tackle [the budget crisis]. They thought they'd given Republicans enough time to do it, and they wanted some new fresh ideas," said state Rep. Jim Riesberg (D),
who is running for re-election to a second term and is the only elected Democrat in Weld County's 4,002 square miles.
But House Speaker Andrew Romanoff (D)
, speaking during a break of a meeting of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council
(DLC) in downtown Denver, said Democrats may not have the same advantages this year. "The 2004 election will have proved to have been easier for a few reasons than 2006: Easier because it was a presidential year and Democratic turnout was up, easier because we had the element of surprise — we lost that advantage. They're on to us now."
The debate over lifting Colorado's strict spending limits has been resurrected as a key issue in this year's gubernatorial race, in which Republican U.S Rep. Bob Beauprez
(pronounced boh-PRAY) faces former Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter (D).
Both candidates are now running unchallenged in the Aug. 8 primary. Supporters of strict spending limits are gathering signatures for an initiative this year that would again cap some spending.
The governor's race has become a focus of national Democrats, who hope to increase their 22 governorships to a majority and put another member of their party in control of a Western state. Democratic governors are favored to win re-election in Wyoming, Arizona and New Mexico; Democrat Brian Schweitzer won the Montana gubernatorial race in 2004.
Beauprez said he opposed relaxing Colorado's spending cap in 2005 because the move wouldn't fix the state's root fiscal problems. He supports this year's proposed ballot measure to limit the growth in state spending.
"It fixed nothing. I never denied that the state needed money. It's hard to argue with numbers. Revenue went down ... and the state had to make real cuts," Beauprez told Stateline.org during a campaign stop in the resort town of Breckenridge, Colo.
Denver-based, pro-business political consultant Katy Atkinson
said that by backing this year's spending limits, Beauprez risks the support of the business wing of his party, which supported the 2005 measure loosening the state's purse strings.
Evan Dreyer, spokesman for Democratic candidate Ritter, countered that "the passage of [the 2005 referendum] kept the state from having to cut hundreds of millions of dollars, and it is helping 2,000 at-risk 3- and 4-year-olds get into preschool, providing property-tax relief to 140,000 senior citizens and will help 770,000 Coloradans save money on prescription drugs." Ritter opposes this year's initiative reinstating some spending limits.
But a recent poll by The Denver Post
showed immigration has eclipsed all other issues in voters' minds. Earlier this year, a state court barred a proposed ballot initiative that would have prohibited illegal immigrants from receiving non-emergency social and health services and imposed penalties for businesses that hire them.
Outrage over that ruling spurred Owens to call a special legislative session, where he and Democrats agreed on a package of sanctions they are hailing as the strongest against illegal immigration in the nation. Two questions will be decided on the November ballot: One, whether to bar employers from deducting the wages of illegal immigrants as an expense and another on whether to give the state the green light to sue the federal government for failing to enforce federal immigration laws.
On this issue, Beauprez says the state did not go far enough: "I'll give the Legislature and the governor credit for taking some little baby steps forward on this problem. There's a whole lot more to be done."
, a Colorado pollster, said that Owens's deal with Democrats [on immigration] has taken a huge issue away from the GOP for the fall, and once again has left conservative Republicans feeling betrayed by their governor. Ciruli predicted that the modest immigration issues to be decided on the November ballot are more likely to be overshadowed by the several gay marriage initiatives that voters may consider.
The Legislature has placed on the ballot a measure that for the first time will let voters decide whether to expand gay rights by creating "domestic partnerships" for same-sex couples, granting them many of the same financial and health benefits reserved for married couples. But signatures also are being collected to put on the ballot three competing measures to prohibit state and local governments from granting gays "a legal status similar to that of marriage," to define domestic partnerships separately from marriage, and to define marriage as a heterosexual union.
To help voters decide between the four gay marriage measures, a print and television ad is featuring a Brittany spaniel puppy named Norman
— which moos. The ad, which doesn't directly advocate any of the measures, explains that Norman was born different. "What the ad is trying to do is to get people to think about how this is about fairness and equality," rather than gay marriage, said Daniel Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida, who specializes in ballot measures. The campaign is funded by high-tech entrepreneur and philanthropist Tim Gill, head of Denver-based Gill Foundation