Sixty miles north of Denver, where the gleam and energy of downtown yields to the short grass of the Eastern Plains, Sean Conway sits at the intersection of Colorado past and present.
Conway, a commissioner in Weld County, is pushing the idea that his and 10 other rural counties secede from Colorado to form a 51st state.
His bill of particulars: new gun-ownership restrictions, energy policies that increase costs to farmers, and public approval of a measure allowing recreational use of marijuana. All are representative of what he says is urban arrogance at the expense of rural values.
Yet his is likely a losing fight.
The shifting U.S. populations that are changing political outcomes have converged in Colorado. Just as in Virginia, young professionals who support gay rights are flooding into the state; like Texas and Arizona, Colorado’s surge in Hispanic population gives Democrats a shot at reversing statewide election results. And suburban women who support abortion rights and gun restrictions are turning away from a party advancing legislation hostile to both views.
“Colorado is a perfect example of demographic change leading to political change,” said Seth Masket, a professor of political science at the University of Denver.
A wave of young professionals who now live in Denver and its suburbs, drawn by jobs in technology, health care and energy, coupled with a 40 percent increase in the Hispanic population since 2000, has brought almost 2 million new residents to the state since 1990, transforming alliances and reversing political course.
Conway has watched the transformation and it has left him feeling like a man without a home.
“The state I love, as a third-generation Coloradan, has really left me,” Conway said from his office in Greeley, named for New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, who in 1865 popularized the phrase “Go West, Young Man.”
Republicans in Colorado and elsewhere are feeling the brunt of the change. President Barack Obama in his 2012 re-election won almost 60 percent of the vote among 18 to 39 year olds, exit polls showed, and 55 percent of women. Nationally, young voters, who by 7 in 10 support same-sex marriage, have caused politicians of both parties to reconsider their positions.
Even as Republican Party leaders outlined those and other shortcomings in a report after the election last November, there are few signs that its activists took heed. The U.S. House, which the party controls, is refusing to take up the Senate’s bipartisan revision of immigration laws that would provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers.
The stakes are great, particularly in national and statewide elections where standing against such strong demographic headwinds holds the potential to consign their party to minority status.
Obama, lifted by an almost 140,000-vote advantage in Denver, carried Colorado for the second time in 2012, the first Democrat to win the state in consecutive races since Franklin Roosevelt in 1936. Democrats also control the governor’s mansion, both houses of the legislature and the two U.S. Senate seats.
That concentration of power, Conway said, has led to Democrats overplaying their hand, citing the fact that two Democratic state legislators, including state Senate President John Morse, were ousted in a recall election Sept. 10 largely because of the gun issue, a first in state history.
Conway’s angst reflects the tension between those in the state who hold to a way of life only to be buffeted by changes not of their making.
And if Republicans continue to maintain positions seen as anti-immigrant or opposing gay rights and emphasize them over fiscal ones, they are doomed to repeat their pattern of losses, said Dick Wadhams, a former chairman of the state party and consultant known as the “Karl Rove of Colorado,” a reference to President George W. Bush’s political adviser.
With its libertarian strain, western roots and agricultural heritage, Colorado would seem an unlikely place for Democratic ascent.
Yet signs of it can be seen in the restaurants and shops along Denver’s 16th Street Mall or the lower downtown district - - both of which thrive on weekday nights in October.
Nearby Jefferson County has gone from a place where Republicans racked up large margins to one that strategists in the White House now see as predictive in presidential elections because of its swing-vote character.
“We have different trends than other places,” said Governor John Hickenlooper. “There’s been a large influx of young, generally well-educated people that drives not just political change but also cultural change. Metropolitan Denver now has more live music venues than Nashville or Austin. That’s the kind of thing that is changing the energy.”
The youth vanguard, Hickenlooper said, also makes the state a “great magnet to attract entrepreneurs and business headquarters.”
He should know. After failing in the 1980s as a geologist, Hickenlooper started the Wynkoop Brewing Co. in Lower downtown in 1988 -- in space he said he leased for a mere $1 a square foot - - and became a multimillionaire.
Alteration of Colorado’s population tracks directly with the remaking of its economic base from one rooted in agriculture, mining, fossil fuels and tourism. A report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City in the second quarter of 2012 said that “Colorado appears to have entered a new cycle of growth, again enjoying a familiar boost in total job growth from the construction industry.”
In the 1990s, the Fed report said, Colorado was the third fastest-growing state in the country, adding 1 million new residents with jobs in technology, energy and health care. That slowed after the tech bubble burst in 2001, and has ignited again in recent years.
Colorado has the second largest space-aviation economy in the U.S., trailing California, and ranks third for high-tech workers per capita, according to Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation. The metropolitan Denver area has the sixth highest concentration of broadcasting and telecommunications and the seventh in so-called green energy and technology employment.
Colorado state and local debt outperformed the $3.7 trillion U.S. municipal-bond market in October even with the worst flooding in almost 50 years causing $135 million in damage to roads and bridges in September.
Bonds issued by Colorado and localities gained 0.75 percent for the month through Oct. 24, including price change and coupon payments, exceeding the 0.64 percent gain for the entire muni market, according to Standard & Poor’s index data.
Hickenlooper and U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, also a Democrat, have won statewide office with centrist economic policies, while Republicans have a growing subset aligned with the limited-government Tea Party movement, Wadhams said. It isn’t a recipe for his party’s revival.
Wadhams, whose family arrived in the state in 1890, said Republicans are on the wrong side of the demographic divide, and its potential nominees for high office, former Representative Tom Tancredo, who briefly sought the Republican nomination for president in 2012, and Ken Buck, who lost to Bennet, aren’t likely to help.
“Here we stand in 2013 and this party is on the verge of nominating Tom Tancredo for governor and Ken Buck as U.S. senator. Tancredo has made a career out of alienating Hispanics, and my friend Ken Buck, he had a lead going into 2010 over Michael Bennet and he squandered it talking about being gay being like being an alcoholic.”
“In this state, you have all these clashing views that on the surface don’t make sense but from a Colorado point of view, do,” Wadhams said. “People are fiscally conservative and socially liberal. If Republicans can get the topic back on fiscal conservatism, we can win. It’s hard to do that when you are alienating Hispanics and alienating suburban women.”
In the 1980s, Colorado was a part of a Republican bulwark in presidential politics, and sustained that through much of the 1990s. That was largely because many of those migrating to the state came from Orange County in California and brought with them a religious conservatism that helped fuel growth in the Colorado Springs area that is home to Focus on the Family, a group that opposes abortion and gay marriage among other issues and, according to its website, “promotes socially conservative views on public policy.”
President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, won the state in 1992 with only 41 percent of the vote as independent candidate Ross Perot drew 23 percent and former Republican President George H.W. Bush got 35 percent. Clinton lost the state to Republican nominee and former Kansas Senator Bob Dole in 1996 as Colorado aligned with southern and other mountain west states.
Republicans started to overreach in the late 1990s, said Floyd Ciruli, who has been polling in the state for 30 years. The Denver area, his data show, received 62 percent of new voters in the state, an increase of 263,000 in the metro area, and those voters tend to vote Democratic. He said Republicans spent too much time talking about “gays and God and guns.”
That message was out of sync with the new arrivals.
“The significant population growth has reset the state’s political baseline,” said Rob Witwer, a former Republican state legislator from Jefferson County and co-author of “The Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado (and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care).”
For all the shifts under way, though, there may be limits. “If folks in Weld County or Morgan County feel their voices have been ignored, that was never our intention and we need to spend more time and effort into soliciting their feedback,” Hickenlooper said.
Conway said he met with Hickenlooper and his staff and so far has seen more talk than action. He’s been involved in state politics for 30 years, as evidenced by his office wall lined with dozens of frames encasing presidential campaign buttons that start with William McKinley in 1896 and end with Obama.
His limited-government ethos plays well in Weld County, even as it and surrounding areas were devastated by recent flooding. Members of Congress from Colorado who voted against aid for Superstorm Sandy victims in New Jersey found themselves asking for federal relief to rebuild their own roads and bridges. Conway said Weld County’s surplus funds were more effective than federal aid.
Colorado voters in the 11 rural counties have a non-binding referendum on secession on Nov. 5. Even if it succeeds, the Colorado legislature and Congress would have to approve. There are more doubters than believers in its prospects; no state has broken away since West Virginia in 1863.
“Now I don’t think this is ever going to happen and I question whether they should have started the secession movement but tapping into the frustration of rural Colorado, that is very real,” Wadhams said.
When asked if his effort is more symbolic than substantive, Conway rises from his chair and picks up a framed photograph of the scoreboard that shows the U.S. Air Force defeating the University of Notre Dame 41-24 in college football in 2007.
“When people tell me it can’t be done, the harder I work,” he said.
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