Colorado Split Decision Sends Message to Washington Politicians

Democrats survey the political landscape in their state after John Hickenlooper is re-elected as governor while Senator Mark Udall is sent packing.

Colorado was the only state to re-elect a Democratic governor and unseat a Democratic senator in last week's election. Governor John Hickenlooper beat Republican Bob Beauprez by 3 points, while Senator Mark Udall lost by 2 points to Representative Cory Gardner.

Why the split result?

The short answer, according to participants in a press conference call organized by a left-leaning Colorado group, is that Hickenlooper benefited from leading a state that was getting things done and Udall was too closely tied to a Washington that wasn't.

"Voters did a protest vote about Washington" while in Colorado, "they saw government work. They saw Governor Hickenlooper work across partisan lines, they saw the legislature work, and so that's why people split their vote," Jill Hanauer, who leads Project New America, the group that arranged the election postmortem call. She's a former aide to Democratic senators, including Colorado's Gary Hart.

"My sense is that it was harder for an incumbent senator to wear the problems and dysfunction in Washington than a sitting governor. It's just very, very challenging, I think, when the election is nationalized. It's easier for governors," said Alan Salazar, Hickenlooper's chief strategy officer and Udall's former chief of staff and campaign chairman.

Voters "can tell the difference between the two, and voted the difference," said Mark Ferrandino, the Democratic state House Speaker. In Colorado, voters wanted to "continue the progress we've made at the state level" while the "national anger toward Washington overtook" Udall's accomplishments, he said.

About 50,000 Colorado voters were Hickenlooper-Gardner ticket-splitters, according to David Winkler, Project New America's vice president and director of research. Hickenlooper won about 10 percent of self-identified Republicans compared with 5 percent for Udall, he said.

Hickenlooper is less ideologically wedded to Democratic politics than Udall. A dozen years ago, Hickenlooper was a brewery owner and restaurateur, not yet elected mayor of Denver, an office with a less partisan image than congressman or senator. Udall a dozen years ago won his third of five terms in the House of Representatives. Hickenlooper was elected mayor in 2003 and re-elected in 2007, then won the state's top job in 2010 after the Democratic incumbent declined to run for re-election. A Republican implosion that year helped Hickenlooper beat two Republicans with 51 percent of the vote.

The governor also cultivated a bipartisan image by reaching out to the business community, including oil and gas companies. The kind of praise Hickenlooper received for helping broker a compromise on fracking "would only uniquely happen for a governor, not a senator," Salazar said.

Another reason governors can inoculate themselves from an unpopular presidential administration more effectively than senato: you can't run ads saying Hickenlooper voted with President Barack Obama 99 percent of the time, as Gardner and Republican allies did over and over again to bludgeon Udall.

Bloomberg Graphics

A governor also has more ownership over a state's economy than a senator and is in a position to claim or receive credit for any recovery. Colorado's unemployment rate was 4.7 percent in September, its lowest level since June 2008 and down from more than 9 percent when Hickenlooper was first elected. "Having a strong economy helped the re-election significantly," Salazar said.

Republican strategists have credited Gardner with running a good campaign, maintaining a disciplined message and optimistic focus that vitiated a Democratic narrative that Republicans were waging a "war on women." Gardner and Republicans also had a better voter identification and turnout operation than the 2010 Republican Senate nominee, Ken Buck, who planned to run again for the Senate before deferring to Gardner. Buck will succeed Gardner in the House. 

Colorado's split verdict underscored its status as one of the states that will be consequential in the 2016 presidential election. Colorado's 51.5 percent to 46.1 percent came close to matching the nationwide popular vote outcome of  51.1 percent to 47.2 percent. "It will be a different electorate in 2016, with new challenges for both parties," Winkler said.

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