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A Colorado GOP Split?

Party Division in ’05 Has ’06 Implications

Two volatile voter initiatives on November’s statewide Colorado ballot might accomplish what Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, couldn’t: the division and conquering of Centennial State Republicans and their decade-long dominance of the state.

Already living in one of the nation’s few truly politically competitive states, Colorado voters are now locking horns over Referenda C and D, measures on government spending that have united Democrats but pitted Republicans against each other in a campaign whose aftershock could be felt in 2006.

“It could create a lot of Democratic enthusiasm, and among Republicans, finger-pointing and back-biting,” said Floyd Ciruli, an independent pollster based in Denver.

A C and D victory could create an exceptional political environment for Democrats in 2006 “and benefit them up and down the ticket,” Ciruli explained. “If 2006 is a regular year,” Republicans will probably benefit from the fact that they have a 150,000 voter-registration advantage over Democrats.

Republicans acknowledge the current infighting, with Gov. Bill Owens (R) and the GOP-leaning business community in support of C and D, and GOP gubernatorial candidates Rep. Bob Beauprez and University of Denver President Marc Holtzman joining some grass-roots Republicans and groups such as Americans for Tax Reform and the Club For Growth in opposition.

But they dismiss the notion that the dispute will help Democrats in 2006, saying it has yet to trickle down to the level of precinct captains and state party delegates who gin up voter turnout. And they note if C and D pass, the same voters who approved the referenda will give Republicans credit for supporting them.

“Having been around when we did the gun-show loophole [referendum] post-Columbine, that was far more divisive among Republicans,” said Sean Tonner, a Denver-based Republican consultant who has worked on statewide candidate and initiative races since 1995.

Referendum C would adjust for five years Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, making it easier for the state to spend taxpayer dollars by amending a component of current law that under certain circumstances forces the state to refund money to taxpayers as a means of limiting spending growth.

Referendum D would allow the state to sell $2.1 billion in bonds to build roads and schools and fund the pensions of police officers and firefighters.

When TABOR was passed by voters in 1992, it ushered in a period of Republican dominance. A few years later, incumbent Democratic Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell switched parties, while in 1998 Owens became the state’s first GOP chief executive in 24 years.

Now, voters — including Republicans — are having second thoughts, showing concern that TABOR is preventing the state from properly funding education, health care and infrastructure expansion.

Some say this sentiment is depriving the GOP of the signature issues — limiting government spending and keeping taxes low — that fueled its many electoral victories in the past decade, and note Sen. Ken Salazar’s (D-Colo.) victory last year and the 2004 takeover of the state Legislature as proof of a resurgent Democratic Party in Colorado.

“I don’t think you can say the tax issue is going away for Republicans,” said Mike Stratton, a Democratic consultant based in suburban Denver. “But people, particularly in the middle, are starting to believe there is a legitimate purpose to government, and that it needs to be funded to appropriate levels to deliver things for the public good.”

Republicans familiar with Colorado are not surprised the Democratic Party has made some gains — and that it has the opportunity to make more.

Coloradans tend to select candidates based on personality, likeability and whether he or she is someone “like me,” rather than on policy. And before the recent GOP dominance materialized, Republicans had won just three elections combined out of the previous 14 held for U.S. Senate and governor.

“We have had parity for a long time,” said one Republican operative who is a veteran of Colorado races, adding it is a misconception to think of the state as solidly Republican.

That analysis is reflected in the current division of House and Senate seats. Senate representation is split between Salazar and Sen. Wayne Allard (R), while the state’s seven House seats feature four Republicans and three Democrats — with three districts seen as competitive heading into 2006.

By comparison, just two of California’s 53 House seats have the potential to be competitive next year.

Colorado’s biggest battle is likely to occur in the 7th district as the incumbent, Beauprez, is vacating his seat to run for governor.

Beauprez won re-election last year with 55 percent of the vote after an extremely narrow victory in 2002, but the district’s demographics and leading Democratic candidate, former state Sen. Ed Perlmutter, have Democrats believing they can steal this seat from the Republicans.

Democrats also are targeting Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R), who won re-election to her 4th district seat with 51 percent of the vote in 2004. She is facing two potential primary challengers, but Republicans feel confident that this seat will remain in GOP hands even if Musgrave were to lose in the primary.

National democrats are excited about state Rep. Angie Paccione’s (D) pending announcement that she will run for this seat as she is their candidate of choice to challenge Musgrave.

Republicans, meanwhile, are targeting Rep. John Salazar (D) — Sen. Salazar’s older brother — who won his first election to Colorado’s 3rd district in 2004 with 51 percent of the vote.

“He’s on our radar screen as being one of their top vulnerable incumbents,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Carl Forti said.

Observers of Colorado politics say the Nov. 1 contest for passage of C and D is likely to be close — Ciruli, for one, expects them to pass by a razor-thin margin — but say the next round of polling, due out later this month, will be a good indicator of the referenda’s chances.

One consequence of the campaign thus far has been that Democrats have found themselves on the same side as the Republican-friendly business community, various chambers of commerce, and key newspapers.

If these bonds carry over into 2006 and beyond, it could benefit Democrats when it comes to fundraising and more favorable press coverage, though Republicans don’t expect any significant fallout from the unusual political dynamic created by this campaign.

“The Democrats could exploit this,” Ciruli said.