DENVER—In 2013, Democrats in Colorado's state legislature enacted the closest thing this country has to a progressive voting utopia. Every registered voter in the state now gets a ballot in the mail automatically; every unregistered but eligible adult can sign up and cast a vote up until the last minute on Election Day. A year before a midterm election that has long had Democrats fretting about turnout, the suite of new measures in Colorado looked set to increase voter participation there all by itself.
A year and a half later, there's trouble in the Democrats' paradise. Democratic Sen. Mark Udall has been slipping in the polls—the rosiest estimates for him still show a very close race. Meanwhile, Rep. Cory Gardner may be the best Republican Senate candidate in the country. Gardner is the GOP's favorable political climate personified: After announcing last year that he wouldn't run for Senate, the opportunity proved too enticing for the two-term congressman to pass up in 2014 as President Obama's and Democrats' stock crumbled.
And to top it all off, no one is quite sure how Colorado's first midterm election under the new rules will affect the race. Even when things aren't going their way, Colorado Democrats have arguably been the best, most consistent campaign technicians in the country over the last decade, moving money and churning out just enough votes to win many high-profile races in that time. A Republican hasn't been elected governor or senator in Colorado since 2002. Boosting turnout should help Democrats, the thinking goes, in a state where they've already proven their ability to do that well, but most everyone in state politics seems pretty nervous about their new experiment in democracy.
"This election law and the ballot chase—it's scary as hell," says Colorado Democratic Party chairman Rick Palacio. "I call it the X-factor. And, well, it's impossible to measure what an X-factor means for the rest of the campaign."
"In a year like this, when intensity is much greater on the Republican side, it could end up benefitting them," said Rob Witwer, a former GOP state legislator who coauthored a book, The Blueprint, about last decade's Democratic takeover of Colorado politics. Previously, only "active" voters who had cast ballots in the last election still received ballots in the mail; others who had signed up for "permanent absentee" voting but had skipped the most recent election were dropped from the list.
"That said, for 10 years the Democratic get-out-the-vote effort has been state-of-the-art and light-years ahead of the Republican effort," Witwer said. "Until the Democrats lose a major statewide race, they've owned this."
"We know that the more people who vote, the higher the likelihood is that we're going to be successful," Guy Cecil, the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Tuesday as Hillary Clinton rallied a hotel ballroom full of Denver-area Democrats.
Cecil would know. He was DSCC Chairman Michael Bennet's chief of staff in 2010 when the new senator squeezed out a 30,000-vote victory (out of nearly 1.8 million) over Republican Ken Buck after nearly every public poll showed Bennet trailing and his own internals basically showed a tie. As Democrat after Democrat is repeating in Colorado this October, that margin works out to just a few votes per precinct. And now, Bennet and Cecil have named Democrats' national drive to get their voters to the polls the "Bannock Street Project," after one of their 2010 field offices.
The new voting system "requires us to be more organized earlier," Cecil said, "because essentially we've got three weeks of voting, three weeks of Election Days where every phone call is no longer just convincing somebody to vote.
"It's like being in the voting booth with the voter making your case."
A few hours after Cecil spoke those words, Louis Dixon was walking between those metaphorical voting booths in Lakewood, a leafy suburb west of Denver. Dixon has been knocking on about 100 doors per day for the League of Conservation Voters, an environmental group backing Udall, almost every day for about two weeks, and he'll keep doing it for two more weeks until Election Day. He has experience going door-to-door as a salesman, "but this is a lot different. More fun," Dixon says. The voters Dixon visits have been specifically chosen to get a door-knock from him, and every interaction he makes is logged on a smartphone.
Dixon has hit a snag on his latest doorstep, though. Have you received your ballot in the mail yet, he asks? "I think so," a young woman says through her screen door. Are you planning to vote? "I don't think so," she says. She is a registered Democrat, someone LCV has identified as a likely Udall supporter—if she votes. "I just haven't paid attention."
Hearing this, Dixon launches into a practiced spiel about the Democratic incumbent. "Well, Mark Udall voted for clean-energy jobs. He's an environmentalist. And he believes in a woman's right to have an abortion if she wants to." After a minute, Dixon returns to the subject of voting. Would the woman be interested in filling out a pledge to vote in the election? "Sure," she says. She fills out the pledge card and returns it to Dixon, who wishes her a pleasant evening and moves on to the next house on his walk list.
That night, when Dixon returns to LCV's local headquarters in the basement of a strip mall a few miles down the road, the real chase for the woman's vote will begin. The new data in his smartphone, including a notation of the woman's pledge, will be downloaded into a central database. She'll get the pledge mailed back to her as a reminder to vote sometime soon, and her potential interest in supporting Udall means that she also probably has a phone call and another door-knock from LCV in her future—until, that is, public records show that she has cast her ballot and Democrats call off the chase. In the meantime, other outside groups or the Udall campaign itself may show up on her doorstep, too.
That interaction is why Democratic groups and candidates are spending millions of dollars on field organizing for this year's election. Overlapping, strongly Democratic-friendly groups like young people, single women, and minorities are significantly less likely to vote in midterm elections than presidential ones, and Democrats' best hope for keeping the Senate majority in a tough environment is that their field organizers can cajole enough of them to vote this year to make a difference. In Colorado, the fact that every voter is getting a ballot in the mail for the first time should make that easier, as Cecil said.
LCV is just a part of the broader push. Many houses Dixon visited had evidence—from door-hangers to Post-It notes—of other political visits. At a recent campaign rally, Udall rattled off the stats on his campaign's efforts with the Democratic Party: 25 field offices, over 100 field staff, over 3,000 active volunteers—all many more than Bennet had at his disposal four years ago. "Just compared to the efforts we put together in 2010, it pales in comparison," Cecil said. "We're tripling and quadrupling the results of 2010."
A NEW HOPE
Democrats have a dirty not-quite-secret, though, about why their ground game is getting so much attention right now. In Colorado (and elsewhere, too), party officials acknowledge implicitly and explicitly that it might represent their only hope of winning. For that, Cory Gardner can take a lot of credit.
Gardner has a Republican wind at his back. That wasn't enough to put Ken Buck over the top in 2010, but Gardner has proven to be a more reliable, relatable nominee than Republicans have recently put forward in Colorado, and Democrats and Republicans alike acknowledge that the race moved in his favor in September.
"His sunny, positive disposition is just—he's an optimistic, happy conservative," said Ryan Call, the state GOP chairman, who compared Gardner to another happy Republican warrior from the West, Ronald Reagan. "And I think in many ways, that is what we as a party have often lacked."
While Gardner is plenty conservative, something different has happened this year. Gardner hasn't stirred sheer outrage and offense the way Buck or other prominent Colorado Republicans have with their past comments.
The congressman is a past supporter of state "personhood" laws that would have banned abortion and some forms of contraception, like many Republicans there. But attacks on the issue haven't hurt Gardner as much as someone like Buck (who also made inflammatory statements about rape), even though he remains a cosponsor of a federal bill with similar goals. Gardner has been pressed repeatedly by local media on why that bill doesn't indicate continued support for "personhood"—his disciplined, rote answer about it being just "a statement that he supports life" continues to frustrate Democrats who say he's hoodwinking voters.
The perpetually smiling Gardner has actually managed to turn those attacks around on Udall, with allies and even The Denver Post castigating the senator for running a "one-issue campaign" and voters in recent polls calling the Democrat the more negative candidate. Democrats have been running abortion- and contraception-based campaigns in Colorado for ages, but the GOP says they've passed their sell-by date. The state Republican Party pointed out that Betsy Markey, a Democrat running for state treasurer, has run Facebook ads calling for support because she is pro-choice—an issue her prospective office doesn't handle.
Gardner and his fellow Republicans have also ramped up their own field effort, though it's difficult to judge before the vote against Democrats' track record. (For that reason, Republicans aren't all that interested in talking about it right now.) Yet a feeling of uneasiness pervades the confidence in the Colorado GOP, post-traumatic stress from years past when they frittered away winnable elections.
"At this time in 2010, Ken Buck was sitting right where Cory Gardner is now," Witwer said. "Republicans have been here before, and we need to close the deal."
Monday in downtown Denver, the signs went up. "Ballot drop-off lane," an orange sign blared in the middle of the road next to City Hall. The second of three lanes on that stretch of Bannock Street is blocked off because several poll workers are sitting under a tent in the middle of it. Drivers and a couple of cyclists pass through and drop off the ballots they received in the mail in under 10 seconds each. On the corner to the south, pedestrians can drop their ballots in a new 24-hour drop box. If people are having an issue or want to register to vote, they can go inside to the voter-service center in the building.
There are a bunch of smaller measures making it easier to maintain registration and thus get a valid ballot in the mail, too. If someone moves but stays within the same county, their voter registration is automatically transferred—something outgoing state House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, who helped shepherd the bill last year, said happened to him this year.
There are more, easier ways to vote in Colorado now than anywhere else in the country. Under the new law, voters aren't tied to a single precinct—they can drop off or pick up a ballot at any voting location in their counties, which now have "electronic pollbooks" to keep track of the activity and make sure no one votes twice in different locations or by different methods.
That real-time information on who's voting is a boon for the increasingly organized campaigns, which can then focus all of their energy on potential supporters who haven't yet voted.
And all of the new measures add up to a major change in access and ease in a state that already had some of the country's highest voter-participation rates. Nervous Democrats have watched early Republican ballot returns outstrip previous years' rates, but it's too early to say if Democrats' typically later efforts will also intensify under the new law.
"We're flying, maybe not blind, but in a dense, dense cloud bank, and anyone who thinks otherwise is crazy," said Ben Davis, a Democratic strategist on the general consulting team for Gov. John Hickenlooper and congressional candidate Andrew Romanoff. "But we were good before all-mail, so we feel like we can do even better now."
But if Gardner stretches his momentum into a big margin in the last weeks, that acumen—and that hunch—may not matter. Indeed, the Democratic success in Colorado, or lack thereof, will speak volumes about the political direction of the country long after Election Day is over.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misidentified Rob Witwer's former office.