But the opportunities are staring them right in the face. Obama hit a new low in job approval in Colorado in this month's Quinnipiac survey, at a miserable 37 percent. Gallup found the president's yearlong approval rating below the national average, at 42 percent, 4 points worse than his showing in the Old Dominion and 9 points below what he won in 2012. Sen. Mark Udall, despite having a famous last name, is struggling to pass 45 percent support against a bunch of second-tier opponents. He has awkwardly dodged questions about whether he'd welcome an Obama campaign appearance. Even Hillary Clinton would lose to Paul Ryan in a (very) hypothetical 2016 matchup, according to Quinnipiac.
Within the state, the Democratic problems stem from an ambitious liberal agenda pushed through by an ascendant legislative majority. Colorado was one of the rare swing states where the Legislature passed universal background checks for gun purchases and ammunition magazine limitations in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre. The backlash has been severe, particularly outside the state's urban centers, leading to successful recalls of two Democratic state senators and the resignation of another. Gov. John Hickenlooper signed bills allowing for driver's licenses and in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants and dropped in the polls — proof positive that liberalizing immigration policies isn't a win-win issue, even for a Democrat.
Environmentalists were pleased when the governor signed legislation that raised the state's renewable-energy standards for rural cooperatives. But the action prompted deep opposition in the rural parts of Colorado, with residents angry over increased utility costs. Control of the state Senate is up for grabs in 2014, with Democrats holding onto a tenuous one-seat advantage.
All of this should give Democrats pause that Obama's poll-tested second term agenda — gun control, new environmental regulations, immigration reform — has its political limitations, even in states with the types of voters who have trended to the Democratic Party. Without sustained economic growth and with the baggage of Obamacare looming large, the base is becoming disenchanted, and enthusiasm is on the side of the opposition. The results of those discontents already happened in Colorado.
In Virginia, where growth in the Washington suburbs has been fueled by government and its contractors, criticism against the administration has been muted. But in Colorado, a libertarian-minded Mountain West state where more people work in the private sector, voters are expressing dissatisfaction with an activist government. (Colorado's proportion of federal employees is half of Virginia's, at just 2.3 percent.)
Colorado is also demonstrating, however, that the GOP opposition's missteps are still keeping Democrats in the game. The party's front-running gubernatorial candidate is still Tom Tancredo, an immigration hard-liner, and Udall's leading challenger is Ken Buck, who fumbled away a golden opportunity as a Senate nominee in 2010 after comparing homosexuality to alchoholism. Rep. Cory Gardner, one of the Republican Party's top prospects, has shown no interest in running for statewide office. Without credible candidates, the most-promising political environment won't help much. That's a clear-cut lesson for Republicans heading into the next presidential election.