The Democrats' Colorado Conundrum

In a crucial battleground state, liberalism has suffered a major setback. Can Republicans take advantage?

President Barack Obama addresses gun control issues during a speech at the Denver Police Academy on April 3, 2013 in Denver, Colorado. (National Journal)

Colorado and Virginia are often grouped as emerging Democratic-trending battlegrounds, full of the young, diverse, affluent voters whom Republicans have been losing ground with. President Obama won both states twice, after they'd both been Republican strongholds for many decades.

Something happened on the way to an emerging liberal majority. Virginia has continued its trend leftward, electing an entire statewide slate of Democrats, including Gov. Terry McAuliffe in last year's governor's race. But despite embracing marijuana legalization, Colorado has been the scene of a fierce backlash against the national Democratic leadership on a host of issues that should make it a natural base for a Republican comeback. It also serves as a warning sign of the limitations that President Obama's coalition faces heading into the next presidential election.

Indeed, if Republicans had foresight, they'd hold their 2016 presidential convention in Denver — not Sin City — and their nominee would trumpet the blowback against government activism (and incompetence) that has turned off so many voters to Democrats lately. And party leaders should be doing a much better job of recruiting fresh talent into the state's competitive Senate and gubernatorial races, a gaping void in the otherwise-solid Republican recruiting efforts.

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.

"If we even win one of those offices, Colorado could go Republican in 2016," said Colorado's former Republican Party chairman, Dick Wadhams. "But if we put up candidates that alienate Hispanics and women, there will be a hangover that goes into that 2016 presidential election and that would bode ill for Republicans. So much is riding on this election [in Colorado] for the future of this party."

The Rocky Mountain State is a microcosm of the state of national politics, circa 2014. Democrats hold the demographic momentum in Colorado, but it's being threatened by ideological overreach. All Republicans need are a few good candidates and a party willing to show a pragmatic side on social issues like gay marriage. Whichever party wises up first will have an important advantage heading into the next presidential election.