Bolder in Boulder

Last week's Colorado primary determined the contenders in the race to fill the seat of retiring Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell: state Attorney General Ken Salazar, a polished, moderate Democrat who twice won statewide elections in very inhospitable political terrain, and Pete Coors, a political neophyte whose family just happens to be the legendary founding benefactor of the modern American right.

While everyone expects a dead heat up to election day, state Democrats haven't been as bullish about a candidate in a long time as they are about Salazar -- and national party leaders feel the same way. They'd better: At stake is not only control of the U.S. Senate but also the potential to revive the Democratic Party in the state that has been perhaps the most transformed in the last decade by the political right.

After long enjoying a reputation for sturdy, western independence and moderate conservatism, the Centennial State underwent a startling transformation in the 1990s. A hard-right state GOP methodically took control of both houses of the Legislature, all top statewide offices, and, perhaps most importantly, the landscape of political debate and grass-roots activism.

State Republicans did it the old-fashioned way. Twin political shocks in 1992 -- the passage of a “Tax Payers' Bill of Rights” and the victory by referendum of a state constitutional amendment prohibiting local gay-rights ordinances -- mobilized a dense array of social-conservative and tax-revolt organizations in the state with names like Focus on the Family, Colorado for Family Values, and the Independence Institute. Their growth coincided with certain demographic shifts in the state that benefited the GOP. That combination of demographics and activism helped turn a place that had only recently produced figures like Gary Hart and Pat Schroeder into a hard-edged conservative and Christian-right stronghold, with a Republican voter-registration advantage of 187,000 and a roster of fierce, ideologically committed state party leaders.

Given the GOP's grip, Colorado's emergence as a political battleground this year seemed to occur without warning. Senator Campbell surprised both parties when he made his retirement announcement in March (citing health concerns), and a scramble ensued. The Democrats quickly coalesced around Salazar, who had been preparing to run for governor in 2006. (He did face an energetic but totally underfunded primary challenge from liberal Mike Miles.)

The Republicans were far clumsier. They stumbled into a nasty primary battle that pitted Campbell, Governor Bill Owens, and the national GOP leadership -- all backing the affable brewery chairman Coors -- against the state's major conservative warriors (including Senator Wayne Allard and Representatives Marilyn Musgrave and Tom Tancredo) and much of its right-wing organizational machinery, which mobilized behind the rock-ribbed conservative candidate Bob Schaffer.

Schaffer's campaign seemed to take on the air of an unstoppable grass-roots insurgency, but Coors crushed him 61 points to 39 points in last week's primary. It now seems clear that the “base conservative versus establishment moderate” frame in which observers placed the intraparty fight was misleading. Colorado's conservative voters had no problem identifying Pete Coors as one of their own. His policy stances differed hardly at all from Schaffer's, and, perhaps more to the point, to try to impugn the right-wing credentials of a scion of the Coors family -- founding patrons of The Heritage Foundation, the “moral majority,” the Free Congress Foundation, and so much more -- turned out to be a foolish endeavor. At any rate, state Republicans and most of the state's right-wing activists have already licked their wounds and united behind Coors. The primary strengthened the first-time candidate's political chops and positioned him for the statewide election as, in the words of Colorado pollster Floyd Ciruli, a “mellow moderate” who took on an extremist and won.

With that strange episode now concluded, the general race should prove every bit as bruising -- and compelling. As of mid-July, the Coors and Salazar campaigns had nearly $3 million each, though Pete Coors blew through about $1 million in his primary fight. But neither one of them will be suffering for funds in a race of such national import. Ciruli estimated that the campaigns' combined spending could reach between $15 million and $20 million by November, a state record. In pre-primary polls from June, Salazar consistently beat Coors in head-to-head matchups, but Katy Atkinson, a longtime GOP consultant in the state, voiced the consensus opinion that this race is going to tighten quickly. “It'll be close,” she said. “They both have incredible operations.”

Social issues like gay marriage and abortion, which were central to Schaffer's right-flank attacks on Coors, are likely to fade. Salazar has a Kerry-esque health-care plan and independent bona fides; Coors is taking a page from the national GOP's tort-reform efforts and running a campaign full of fervent lawyer-bashing. On issues like the Iraq War (support for which has dropped dramatically in Colorado), it falls to Salazar to move beyond the studied vagueness of his position in the primary race and define a stance that resonates with voters without leaving him vulnerable to GOP pigeonholing.

As Atkinson stressed, he'll have to walk that tightrope on issue after issue to win in such a Republican-dominated state: “What's made Salazar appealing in the past is that he's come across as a different kind of Democrat,” she says. “If they succeed in painting him as Hillary Clinton in a cowboy hat, he could have some problems.”

So what makes the Democrats feel they have a chance? Several short- and long-term trends are encouraging. For one, a recession that hit the state three years ago helped spark a major budget crisis, and the anti-tax strictures that had so galvanized conservatives in 1992 have only served to exacerbate the fiscal crunch. Governor Owens' popularity has suffered for it, and so has the appeal of the right's anti-tax zealotry. “The cutting edge of the Republican juggernaut that started in 1992 is definitely being tested at this point,” says Ciruli. “The issues aren't necessarily working for them.”

Moreover, Colorado's swing-state status in the presidential race (John Kerry trailed George W. Bush by just 5 points in the last statewide poll) means that national resources will be pouring in. Ciruli sees the confluence of races working in the Dems' favor this year, offering them “a star at the top to pull things up. I think the Democrats have got to be in heaven having this much attention for Kerry and having a good, solid Senate candidate.”

Indeed, the Senate candidate is good and solid enough that he just might turn out to be the star that pulls everyone else up -- including Kerry. Salazar is the only Democrat to win statewide office in Colorado since 1994; he did it twice. Decked out in blue jeans and a cowboy hat, he has a mellow, dusty charm that nicely channels the populist appeal of his upbringing. (The Colorado press loves to recount how he grew up without electricity or running water, on a San Luis ranch where his family had worked for more than 150 years.) Salazar's policy stances are moderate but hardly heterodox for a Democrat, yet his persona conveys something of the independence and bipartisan appeal that the popular Democrat-turned-Republican Campbell boasts.

And then there's this: Since 1990, Colorado's Hispanic population has grown by 70 percent; it now comprises more than 17 percent of the state's total. Democrats are seizing on this election and Salazar's candidacy (not to mention that of his brother John, who's running for Congress in the state's competitive 3rd District) as a chance to achieve a breakthrough in Hispanic mobilization. When asked what encourages him about the long-term prospects for Democrats in the state, the Kerry campaign's Colorado communications director, Steve Haro, has a simple answer. “Demographics,” he says.

Get-out-the-vote efforts by groups like the Southwest Voter Registration Project and the Latina Initiative are aiming to register tens of thousands of Hispanics, while both the Salazar campaign and outside groups like the New Democrat Network have run Spanish-language ads.

For the long-suffering Rocky Mountain Dems -- eyeing pickups in two congressional races, basking in the attention and beneficence of the national party and presidential campaign, and gearing up for a knockdown Senate race -- these are giddy times. Of course, resuscitating the state party for the long term is a major endeavor, and it won't all get accomplished in one election season. (They have a long way to go in areas like candidate recruitment, for example.) But after a long winter, Colorado Democrats feel they have a right to be optimistic.

Says Haro, “We have a very real, tangible opportunity here.”

Sam Rosenfeld is a writer for the online edition of The American Prospect.