Colorado: The West's true swing state

  • Mike Keefe,

Congressman John Salazar has a tough job. His constituents are scattered across a huge swath of Colorado's rural Western Slope, over a political and demographic spectrum that ranges from oil and gas roughnecks in conservative Grand Junction to creative-class telecommuters in liberal Telluride. But most of Salazar's constituents lie somewhere in between and share a strong independent streak; H. Ross Perot carried two counties in this district in 1992. Salazar -- a Blue Dog, NRA-endorsed Democrat who toes a conservative line -- has managed to stay in office for three terms.

Now, polls show that Republican Scott Tipton, a businessman and state representative who lost to Salazar in 2004, may end Salazar's reign. Tipton picked up just enough Tea Party support to beat the Sarah Palin-endorsed Bob McConnell in the primary. But he didn't have to tilt too far right to do it, giving him independent-voter appeal and a lead in the polls.

Colorado is a true swing state: Official voter registration is divided almost evenly between Republicans, Democrats and non-affiliated, and the state apparently has more Tea Party voters than any other -- a fact that's stirred up some statewide races, too.

When Gov. Bill Ritter chose not to seek re-election early this year, he opened the door for what promised to be a fierce gubernatorial race between Democratic Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper and West Slope Republican/former Congressman Scott McInnis. Then McInnis got busted for plagiarism -- he lifted entire pages of text for a fellowship -- and Tea Party darling and political novice Dan Maes won the Republican primary. Meanwhile, former Republican congressman, current American Constitution Party-member and anti-immigration rabble-rouser Tom Tancredo jumped into the governor's race. With notorious Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio and tattoo-covered cable TV star Dog the Bounty Hunter campaigning for Tancredo, this race promises to be more spectacle than political drama. And Hickenlooper is almost sure to win.

Last year, Ritter appointed a political neophyte, then-Superintendent of Denver Schools Michael Bennet, to the Senate seat vacated by Ken Salazar (John Salazar's brother, now Interior secretary). Republicans licked their chops. Even though their establishment candidate -- former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton -- lost in the primary to Tea Partier Ken Buck, their chances are still good: Buck, the charismatic district attorney for Weld County, has managed to scurry away from some of his most extreme primary-era positions.

Also watch Freshman Democratic Congresswoman Betsy Markey, who represents a usually conservative-leaning district on the Eastern Plains, might lose her seat to Republican legislator Cory Gardner. But a wild card -- American Constitution Party candidate Doug Aden -- could save her by pulling Tea Party votes away from Gardner.

Green factors All the Democrats have conservationist cred. Salazar and Bennet supported wilderness bills, and Hickenlooper implemented water conservation, greenhouse gas reduction and green building and transportation initiatives in Denver. Meanwhile, Maes denounced Hickenlooper's bike-sharing program, the biggest in the nation, as a U.N. plot. Colorado Conservation Voters say Tipton voted for environmental positions only 18 percent of the time and Gardner only 33 percent.

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