Denver - Last January, a "confidential" memo from a
Democratic political consultant outlined an ambitious scheme for spending $11.7
million in Colorado this year to crush Republicans. The money would come from
rich liberal donors in the state and would be spent primarily on defeating
Senate candidate Bob Schaffer ($5.1 million) and Representative Marilyn
Musgrave ($2.6 million), who are loathed by liberals for sponsoring a proposed
constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. The overarching aim: Lock in Democratic
control of Colorado for years to come.
Leaked memos have a way of revealing who's on top and who's not in politics
and which party has energy and momentum. In Colorado, Democrats are third in
registered voters (31.2 percent), behind both Independents (34.19 percent) and
Republicans (34.14 percent). But in the last two election cycles--2004 and
2006--they've routed Republicans, capturing the governorship, both houses of
the state legislature, a U.S. Senate seat, and two U.S. House seats. Democrats are
on a roll, and that's not likely to change this year. Republicans are
demoralized, disorganized, and more focused on averting further losses in 2008
than on staging a comeback.
The Democratic surge in Colorado reflects the national trend, but it
involves a great deal more. There's something unique going on in Colorado that,
if copied in other states, has the potential to produce sweeping Democratic
gains nationwide. That something is the "Colorado Model," and it's
certain to be a major topic of discussion when Democrats convene in Denver in
the last week of August for their national convention.
While the Colorado Model isn't a secret, it hasn't drawn much national
attention either. Democrats, for now anyway, seem wary of touting it. One
reason for their reticence is that it depends partly on wealthy liberals'
spending tons of money not only on "independent expenditures" to
attack Republican office-seekers but also to create a vast infrastructure of
liberal organizations that produces an anti-Republican, anti-conservative echo
chamber in politics and the media.
Colorado is where this model is being tested and refined. And Republicans,
even more than Democrats, say that it's working impressively. (For Republicans,
it offers an excuse for their tailspin.) Jon Caldara, president of the
Independence Institute, a conservative think tank based in Denver, says
Republicans around the country should be alarmed by the success of the Colorado
Model. "Watch out," he says, "it's coming to a state near you."
It probably is. With enough money, its main elements can no doubt be
replicated in other states. But a large measure of political shrewdness and
opportunism is also required, political traits that have eluded Republicans in
Colorado while becoming the hallmark of their opponents. Democrats are wisely
running candidates, statewide and locally, who campaign as centrists, not as
In 2004, in their first offensive against Republicans, the rich liberals
worked surreptitiously. They'd been brought together by Al Yates, the former
president of Colorado State University, and later were dubbed the "Gang of
Four" by the press--or, sarcastically, by Republicans, the "Fab
Four." Two of the four, Tim Gill and Rutt Bridges, made millions in
computer software. Jared Polis, along with his parents, grew rich from building
and selling Internet companies. The fourth, Pat Stryker, is heir to a medical
products fortune and runs her family's foundation.
They quietly targeted a handful of Republican state
legislators (particularly social conservatives opposed to gay rights), polled
to find out what issues might work against them, and promoted their Democratic
opponents. Dan Haley, the editorial page editor of the Denver Post, told
me he realized a clever, new tactic was being pursued when he received a glossy
mailer late in the campaign backing a firefighter who was the little-known
Democratic challenger of a Republican incumbent. The firefighter had obviously
not paid for the expensive piece of campaign literature.
The firefighter lost, but other Democratic challengers won. Republicans were
flummoxed, having been caught totally by surprise. For the first time in 44
years, Democrats gained control of both the state senate and house. The Gang of
Four had spent an estimated $2 million. In 2006, Gill and Stryker escalated
their spending to $7.5 million, and Democrats won the governor's race.
"There's nobody on the Republican side putting in that kind of
money," says Republican consultant Walt Klein.
As for the 2008 race, that confidential memo, dated January 23, fell into
the hands of a Republican activist and was first reported on January 29 by Lynn
Bartels of the Rocky Mountain News. It had been drafted by Democratic
strategist Dominic DelPapa and sent to Al Yates, the guru of the rich liberals.
They downplayed its significance, though it memorably declared the plan would
"define Schaffer/foot on throat." At the very least the memo showed
the magnitude of the effort to drive Republicans deeper into the minority in
And that effort draws powerful support from a liberal infrastructure that
conservatives aren't close to matching. For years, the Independence Institute,
founded in 1985 by John Andrews and headed by Tom Tancredo before he was
elected to the U.S. House, stood alone as an influential intellectual and
political force in Colorado. (Later Andrews was Republican leader of the
Colorado senate.) In 1999, Rutt Bridges started the Bighorn Center for Public
Policy, and a year later the Bell Policy Center was created specifically to
counter the Independence Institute--prompting the institute's Caldara to quip,
the Bell center should be called the Dependence Institute.
That was only the beginning of the buildup. Eric O'Keefe, chairman of the
conservative Sam Adams Alliance in Chicago, says there are seven
"capacities" that are required to drive a successful political
strategy and keep it on offense: the capacity to generate intellectual
ammunition, to pursue investigations, to mobilize for elections, to fight media
bias, to pursue strategic litigation, to train new leaders, and to sustain a
presence in the new media. Colorado liberals have now created institutions that
possess all seven capacities. By working together, they generate political
noise and attract press coverage. Explains Caldara, "Build an echo chamber
and the media laps it up."
First, there are the think tanks such as Bighorn and Bell and supposedly
nonpartisan political advocacy groups like the Colorado clone of MoveOn.org
called ProgressNowAction.org, founded in 2005. Another clone, this one a
local version of Media Matters known as Colorado Media Matters, was created two
years ago to harass journalists and editorial writers who don't push the
There's a "public interest" law firm, Colorado Ethics Watch, established
in 2006, plus an online newspaper, the Colorado Independent, with a team
of reporters to ferret out wrongdoing by Republicans, also begun in 2006. And
there's a school to train new liberal leaders, the Center for Progressive
Leadership Colorado, as well as new media outlets with bloggers and online news
and gossip, including ColoradoPols.com and SquareState.net. That
covers all seven capacities. Count them.
It's unclear exactly who is funding these outfits, since they don't have to
disclose their donors. But the band of rich liberals are assumed to be the
biggest contributors. And that's part of the problem for conservatives and
Republicans. They don't have a cadre of what Caldara calls "super
spenders" to tap for money, and Republicans have lacked the gumption and
foresight to build a comparable conservative infrastructure.
To their distress, Republicans have discovered how skillful the liberal
collective is at bedeviling them. It works quite simply. The investigative arm
uncovers some alleged wrongdoing by a Republican candidate or official or plays
up what someone else has claimed. Then Ethics Watch steps in and demands an
official investigation, and ProgressNowAction.org jumps on the story.
This is synergy at work. It spurs political chatter. Finally, the mainstream
media are forced to report on it.
Republican secretary of state Mike Coffman was hounded for months by Colorado
Confidential, now the Colorado Independent, for allowing a state
employee to run a side business and not reporting a supposed conflict of
interest too microscopic to be worth explaining. The mainstream media
eventually picked up the story, and Colorado Ethics Watch filed a formal
complaint. Later, an official audit found no wrongdoing, but only after Coffman
had been publicly pilloried. The episode didn't help his current campaign for a
U.S. House seat.
Caldara, too, has been targeted by the liberal groups. He used the phrase
"bitch slapped" on his late-night talk radio show. Colorado Media
Matters complained, and Caldara says ProgressNowAction.org sought to get
advertisers to drop his show. "They tried to find a way to Imus me,"
Caldara says. He's still on the air.
Colorado, for the past half-century anyway, has not been a solidly
Republican state. "We're not a very ideological state or a very partisan
state," former Republican senator Bill Armstrong says. Colorado voters
tilt slightly to the right, though you'd never know it from recent elections.
The state was strongly affected by waves of newcomers. Starting in the 1970s,
Colorado elected Democrats Gary Hart, Tim Wirth, and Ben Nighthorse Campbell to
the Senate, Pat Schroeder to the House, and Democrats to the governor's office
for 24 consecutive years. Bill Clinton won the state in the 1992 presidential
race. So the notion the current rise of Democrats is a historic, unprecedented
breakthrough--that's pure myth.
Republicans rallied in the 1990s when a fresh influx of immigrants from
western states arrived. They were more conservative. Highlands Ranch, a town
south of Denver, was nicknamed Orange County East because thousands of
newcomers from conservative Orange County, California, settled there. After
Campbell switched parties in 1995, Republican Wayne Allard won the other Senate
seat in 1996, and Republican Bill Owens was elected governor in 1998, giving
the GOP all the top statewide offices, four of the six House seats, and the
state house and senate.
George W. Bush won Colorado by 9 percentage points in 2000, and Republican
control appeared to be firmly entrenched two years later when Owens was
reelected over a hapless Democrat opponent, 63 to 34 percent. Championed by National
Review as America's best governor, Owens was viewed as a logical Republican
presidential nominee in 2008. But by 2004, the Republican heyday had begun to
unravel. Owens and his wife had a highly public separation and later divorced.
And Republicans made critical mistakes and squabbled among themselves just as
Democrats were uniting.
Two policies helped set the stage for the emergence of the Colorado Model.
Term limits, enacted in 1990, forced experienced Republicans out of state
office, leaving open seats easier for Democrats to win. And a new campaign
finance law limited individual contributions to $400. This allowed independent
TV and radio ads and direct mail financed by the Gang of Four to have a
disproportionate impact on elections.
On many levels, 2004 was a disastrous year for Republicans in Colorado.
Bush's margin of victory was cut in half from 2000. Democrats not only took
over the legislature, but a gregarious rancher named John Salazar, a Democrat,
won the U.S. House seat west of the Rockies, where Republicans have an
overwhelming edge in voter registration. (He was reelected in 2006.) An even
bigger blow to Republicans was the U.S. Senate victory by Salazar's younger
Owens, whose backing was critical, initially endorsed conservative
congressman Bob Schaffer for the Senate seat being vacated by Campbell.
Schaffer is a likable conservative from northern Colorado who retired from Congress
in 2004, honoring his promise to serve only three terms in the House. Then
Owens changed his mind and supported beer company chairman Pete Coors,
insisting he was the only Republican who could beat Ken Salazar, then state
attorney general. Coors defeated Schaffer in the Republican primary, only to
run a poor campaign against Salazar.
The bitterness of the Coors-Schaffer race was in contrast with Salazar's
undisputed claim on the Democratic nomination. Democratic congressman Mark
Udall had announced for the seat the moment Campbell said he would retire. So
had Rutt Bridges. But a day later, after a tumultuous 24 hours of negotiations,
Udall and Bridges appeared at a press conference to endorse Salazar, who ran as
a moderate and an "independent voice" for Colorado. Among Democrats,
unity prevailed, and Ken Salazar won.
In 2005, Republicans split over Referendum C, designed to waive the Taxpayer
Bill of Rights (known as TABOR) for five years. Passed in 1992, TABOR limited
spending hikes to inflation and population growth, required any surplus to be
refunded to taxpayers, and mandated a referendum to raise taxes. Conservatives
fervently opposed suspending TABOR. But Owens and a handful of Republican
leaders joined with Democrats to pass the referendum in order to fund education
and transportation initiatives.
Things got worse for Republicans in 2006 as the Colorado Model began to take
hold. Another bitter primary, this one for governor, pitted congressman Bob
Beauprez against Marc Holtzman, the ex-president of the University of Denver.
Beauprez won the nomination, but the "Both Ways Bob" label slapped on
him by Holtzman stuck, and Democrat Bill Ritter won the governorship in a
landslide. Democrats gained legislative seats as well.
Like Salazar, Ritter had gotten the Democratic nomination without a
struggle. This was all the more amazing because he ran as a pro-life,
pro-business Democrat. Feminists tried to find a pro-choice Democrat to oppose
him but failed. Again, unity behind one candidate prevailed.
In 2008, Republicans are still reeling from the string of setbacks and show
few signs of recovery. One bit of progress: Schaffer faces no serious
opposition for the Republican nomination to hold the Senate seat of Allard, who
kept his promise to retire after two terms. Schaffer is already being trashed
in TV ads by an environmental group, the League of Conservation Voters, as
"Big Oil Bob." Schaffer worked for an energy company after he left
"The bitterness of Coors-Schaffer in '04 still exists," says John
Andrews. "The bitterness of Referendum C persists. And the bitterness of
Marc Holtzman versus Bob Beauprez in 2006 persists." Moreover, Andrews
says, "I'm not sure our party has learned the lessons it needed to learn.
Republicans and conservatives missed our moment to be the next wave of the
Reagan revolution at the state level. We didn't seize the center, and we didn't
seize the imagination of Colorado voters."
That's a remarkable indictment of Republicans by a leading Republican. But
it strikes me as a fair assessment. Gill and Stryker, the wealthier half of the
Gang of Four, remain determined to drive Marilyn Musgrave out of office after
she narrowly won reelection in 2006. Gill, who is gay, is also active in
opposing foes of gay rights in other states.
How much they're actually willing to spend against Musgrave and Schaffer is
unclear. The leaked memo said a budget of $11.7 million was "little more
than our own thinking about what a successful [independent] operation for the
presidential, U.S. Senate and [Musgrave] elections might look like."
Republicans often trail during the summer before the election, and Schaffer is
no exception, running behind Mark Udall in public polls. Barack Obama is a
slight favorite to win Colorado in the presidential election. If he does and
also wins New Mexico, Democratic consultant Mike Stratton points out,
"Obama doesn't need to win Ohio."
Republicans desperately need Schaffer to hold Allard's seat to avert a
filibuster-proof Senate in Washington, a Senate in which Republicans can't
block or even modify liberal legislation. Schaffer and his campaign manager,
Dick Wadhams, insist Udall is vulnerable as a "Boulder liberal" who
can't credibly pose as a moderate as Salazar and Ritter did. Neither of them
had a voting record. Salazar was state attorney general, Ritter the Denver
district attorney. "Udall doesn't have that advantage," Schaffer
says. Udall, by the way, lists his residence as Eldorado Springs, not Boulder.
Colorado voters tend to view Boulder as a haven for hippies and out of the
Undeterred, Udall is running to the center, saying he plays a bipartisan
role in the House. That will be news to House Republicans. "Udall will get
to where he needs to be," says Eric Sonderman, a public relations executive
in Denver. The question is whether he can effectively respond to Schaffer's
call for exploiting Colorado's vast oil shale reserves. Schaffer's position is
increasingly popular, and he intends to dwell on it relentlessly. To propose
drilling, Udall might have to defy his wife, Maggie Fox, the state director of
the Sierra Club, the ardent environmental group. According to a former aide of
Bill Armstrong, she has the distinction of being the only person Armstrong ever
ordered to leave his Senate office. (Armstrong doesn't recall the incident.)
Absent the Democratic headwind, Schaffer would have a reasonable chance of
winning. But his prospects could be further hampered by an antiabortion
referendum on the ballot this November declaring that life begins at conception.
If abortion becomes a major issue, Schaffer, who is pro-life, might lose the
votes of suburban Republican women. "We don't need this," Wadhams
says. In recent years, Republican female voters have tended to stray.
Republican hopes of a renaissance rest largely on winning the governor's
race in 2010. That won't be easy. For one thing, they lack a candidate. The
Republican bench of attractive candidates with statewide recognition is bare.
The most prominent ones--Armstrong, Owens, former senator Hank Brown--have
retired. Armstrong is president of Colorado Christian University. Aides of
Allard have hinted he could be talked into running, but that's a long shot.
In 18 months as governor, Ritter has managed to anger business, labor, and
the Denver Post, which had promoted him as a candidate. After promising
labor leaders he would sign legislation gutting the Labor Peace Act, he bowed
to business pressure and vetoed it. The act makes it difficult for unions to
organize new workers.
Labor leaders were apoplectic. At the Gridiron Club dinner in Washington a
few weeks later, Ritter was confronted aggressively by Teamsters president
James Hoffa Jr., who told him "all of labor is upset." Hoffa warned
the Democratic convention might "blow up" if other issues were not
resolved in a way favorable to labor.
Then, late on a Friday afternoon last November, Ritter issued an executive
order permitting state workers to join a union. Organized labor was pleased,
but Denver Post publisher William Dean Singleton wasn't. He ordered a
front-page editorial that criticized Ritter harshly. "This may be the
beginning of the end of Ritter as governor," the editorial said. It
certainly was the end of Ritter's warm relationship with the newspaper.
For the fall ballot, Ritter is pushing a referendum to impose a $300 million
increase in the severance tax on the mining industry, further alienating the
business community. He personally called leaders of the Metro Denver Chamber of
Commerce in the faint hope he could persuade them to back the referendum. The
For all his problems, Ritter will have what Republicans do not have, if he
seeks reelection: the full force of the Colorado Model engaged on his behalf.
At the same time, his Republican rival is bound to be tormented by the phalanx
of liberal groups and targeted by the rich liberals, who are free to spend an
unlimited amount of money.
"Colorado is being used as a test bed for a swarm
offense by Democrats and liberals to put conservatives and Republicans on
defense as much as possible," says Andrews. The initial results of that
test are favorable. "The wind's at our back here," says Andrew
Romanoff, the Democratic House speaker. The Colorado Model, by nearly all
accounts, is working in 2008. And it should continue to be a powerful political
force in Colorado (and other states) for many years--that is, until
conservatives and Republicans come up with a way to counteract it.