Colorado Blues… and How to Get the State Back
As of Nov 8, 2022, the Colorado GOP is effectively dead or at least on life support. What was once a solid red state became purple, post-Watergate. Today, Colorado is solid blue after the 2022 mid-terms and is the second consecutive election where Democrats control all state-wide offices.
In 2004, a group of four mega-donors decided to ignore the state Democratic establishment and start from scratch with a brand new, privatized political infrastructure. Aided by the new campaign finance reform laws, the “Gang of Four” (Rutt Bridges, Tim Gill, Jared Polis, and Pat Stryker) funded the new political infrastructure which created the capacity to generate intellectual points-of-views, pursue investigations, mobilize for elections, fight the media, pursue strategic litigation, train new leaders, and sustain a presence in the new digital media. Essentially, build an echo chamber that the compliant media laps up and regurgitates.
Authors Adam Schrager and Rob Witwer detail and explain in their 2010 book, The Blueprint: How Democrats Won Colorado (and why Republicans Everywhere should care), how the Gang of Four funded interconnected and coordinated grassroots organizations, used sophisticated data and technology to target vulnerable Republicans, with smear campaigns of questionable honesty, and used the existing Democrat apparatus as a tool subservient to their progressive agenda.
We have seen this replicated today at the state and national level as progressively Left billionaires use their wealth to “buy” the governments they want. We used to think that politics was downstream from culture, but now, the veil is off as we observe how politics is downstream from moneyed Leftists: Zuckerberg spends over $400 million in 2020 to “get out the vote” in Democrat-heavy districts; George Soros spends $128 million on the 2022 mid-terms for Democrats and between 2015-2019, he spent $17 million on local DA races.
In addition to the progressive blueprint, Colorado significantly expanded its population with younger and more urban voters who lean Democratic. Colorado grew significantly in the 2010s and peaked in 2015 with 100,000 person-gain in 2015 leveling off by 2020. The median age in Colorado is 36 versus a national average of 38 while Denver’s median age is 34. Denver has the largest concentration of 30-44 years-old in the state.
Colorado’s lurch left has not improved the lives of the average Coloradoan: Colorado is ranked first in motor vehicle theft and second in property crimes. From 2019-2022, robbery is up 15%, murder is up 30%, vandalism up 36%, arson up 56%, and auto theft up 111%. Drug overdoses have doubled over the same period. Colorado student proficiency test scores have been in steady decline for math and reading at the 4th and 8th grade since 2010. Legalization of marijuana in 2012 didn’t help either. Colorado has one of the worst mental health rankings among states.
As Democrats have consolidated power, we are seeing the Californication of Colorado with new laws that allow for unrestricted abortions, expanded illegal immigration and taxpayer funded benefits, weak enforcement of gun laws, no cash bail, and significant restrictions on fracking and energy production.
How to Get it Back?
Past conservative legislative achievements will continue to forestall and hold against the more excessive Democratic overreach on taxation and education spending. Colorado has a history of voter initiatives which severely restricted the power of state government. Some of these initiatives include term limits on legislators (1990), Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR-1992), and Amendment 23, passed in 2000, which set a fixed percentage of the budget for K-12 education. Looking ahead, conservatives working with the GOP should focus their efforts in five strategic areas:
- School Boards
The road to revival will be at the grassroots level on issues that are meaningful to local Colorado voters such as parental control of their children’s education where conservatives picked up control in Douglas County, Colorado’s largest school district, and flipped from 7-0 to 4-3 conservative control.
Colorado’s charter schools offer an alternative to public education and saw growth post-pandemic whereas public schools saw a decline. Just as federalism allows for experimentation and a contrast to government monopoly, charter school student performance will create a model against the status quo. A 2019 report from the National Alliance for Public School Charters ranked Colorado’s charter schools are ranked second in the country two years in a row. Conservative parents of school-aged children can vote with their feet.
- Voter Initiatives
Republicans can use the ballot initiative process to put forth a conservative agenda that reflects the will of the people, but which have been ignored by the blue state’s progressive representatives as noted with extreme laws recently signed by Polis regarding abortion and energy. Several bipartisan items are percolating to relevancy that has the potential to achieve bipartisan support:
- Banning Critical Race Theory in Schools, Transgender in sports and K-12 curricula, and ESG
- Enacting moderate abortion regulation
- Ending Sanctuary status and illegal alien benefits
- Increased GOP Funding in Lower-level Races
Unless there is significant overreach by Democrats, Republicans have limited options to win the upper ticket races. Political funding should focus on winnable state house races and school boards (unless there is a highly vulnerable Democrat candidate). Funding should also be targeted at winnable ballot initiatives (see above). Heidi Ganahl, who just lost the governorship to Polis, was previously elected to the Board of Regents, was outspent by Polis $12.7 million to $2.3 million.
- Rebuilding the Bench
The last Republican to win a state-wide office was Heidi Ganahl in 2016 to the Board of Regents. In 2022, across the board nationally, 93% of incumbents re-won their offices. Republicans need to pick their battles and then over invest.
- Message and Candidates
The Colorado GOP made a “wholesale” endorsement of the America First agenda. I call it intellectual lazy and an easy target for Democrats to pin the Trump brand on Colorado Republicans. The GOP needs to tailor its message to the reality of Colorado voters and adjust accordingly. Take a page from William F. Buckley’s playbook, who said it best in 1967 when asked by interviewer Bill Barry how to pick among candidates in a Republican primary: “I’d be for the most right, viable candidate who could win.” It worked for Democrats when John Hickenlooper was elected as the Denver mayor and to the governorship twice. Hickenlooper was pro-business, pro-energy, and he did not support marijuana legalization. In addition to those covered in voter initiatives, I would add:
- Energy production (which addresses inflation)
- Mental health and homelessness
- Election integrity (Colorado moved to auto-registration, auto-mailing and no restrictions on ballot harvesting)
Colorado has tradition of strong conservative values with roots in environmentalism (not politically Left climate change), strong support for the Second Amendment (Democrats held supermajority in 2013 but lost the State Senate when overly progressive gun control was pushed), and low taxes. Colorado is a state that held the first rodeo in 1869 and invented the root beer float in 1893, Christmas lights in 1914, and the cheeseburger in 1935. Denver is described as a “City in a Park” which maintains the largest city park system in the country with over 200 parks. Unaffiliated voters are the largest voting bloc in Colorado and are allowed to vote in primaries. With a focused effort, Colorado can be a model for a return to a conservative state with a vibrant conservative agenda woven into the fabric of public policy. It will start with getting us back to purple first.