Democrats’ Rocky Mountain high takes a tumble in Colorado

It was less than 18 months ago that the Democratic Party declared this region its new base.

Barack Obama claimed the party’s presidential nomination at a football stadium here, in a state where Democrats had won the governorship, both houses of the state Legislature, and were about to pick up both U.S. Senate seats.

Now Obama and his party’s approval ratings in the West are lower than elsewhere in the country. Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. abruptly announced last week that he would not seek reelection. The state’s junior senator is, like Ritter, trailing badly in the polls. Analysts think Democrats could even lose their majorities in the Legislature.

“To lose this state at this moment, almost across the board, is a pretty profound statement that that party is in deep trouble,” said Floyd Ciruli, a Denver-based independent pollster.

With the Latino population growing and progressive-minded transplants from coastal states moving in, Democratic strategists had hoped that the interior West -- as distinct from the party’s base on the Pacific Coast -- would eventually become reliably Democratic territory.

There are signs, however, that the independent-minded region is rejecting the party’s agenda.

The party has a 53% disapproval rating in the Western U.S., excluding the longtime Democratic stronghold of California, according to a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.

When asked if they would prefer a Republican or a Democrat on a generic congressional ballot, Western voters are 11% more likely to choose Republican over Democrat, while nationwide Democrats have a 1% edge. Obama’s disapproval rating in the region is 53%, compared with 46% nationally.

And Western Democrats are threatened across the region, from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who trails in the polls in his home state, Nevada, to members of Congress in Idaho, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado.

Western voters “were enticed by leaders in the Democratic Party who promised to deliver something different,” said Nicole McChesney, a Republican pollster based in New Mexico. “But now they’re showing their true, big-government colors, and they don’t wear well in the West.”

In Colorado, Democrats acknowledge that the situation is tough but contend it has nothing to do with their policies.

“This is not unusual in tough economic times. People question everything,” said Terrance Carroll, the speaker of the Colorado House. But, he added, “we’re still in a very strong position.”

As recently as 2004, the state was Republican country. It solidly backed Bush in 2000 and the GOP had the governor’s office, both U.S. Senate seats and both houses of the Legislature.

Then the Democrats took it all back, touting themselves as a can-do, pragmatic party not bound by the GOP’s social conservatism. First, former state Atty. Gen. Ken Salazar won a Senate seat and Democrats captured the Legislature in 2004. In 2006, Ritter, the former district attorney of Denver, won the governor’s race. In 2008, Obama won the state by 9 percentage points and a Democrat captured the other Senate seat.

The party’s troubles began soon thereafter.

Obama picked Salazar to be his Interior secretary. Rather than selecting an experienced politician, Ritter chose the superintendent of Denver schools, Michael Bennet, to fill the open Senate seat. That outraged many party members, including former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, who was passed over and is challenging Bennet in the primary.

Colorado has weathered the economic downturn relatively well, but, like governors everywhere, Ritter has had to cut crucial government services and raise fees to balance the state budget. He instituted furlough days for state workers and a program to allow felons out of prison early. He has lagged in the polls behind his probable Republican challenger, former Rep. Scott McInnis, and has struggled to raise money.

When Ritter announced that he would not run for reelection, Democrats said it was unrelated to his standing in the polls.

“This allows me to focus on the things that should be the most important: taking care of my family and taking care of the state of Colorado,” Ritter said.

Salazar said he was not interested in running in Ritter’s place, but Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, announced Tuesday that he would run. Hickenlooper is popular, but a poll last week showed him 3 points behind McInnis.

Bob Loevy, a political science professor at Colorado College, said Democrats in the state were “victims of their own success. It’s not that they’ve done anything wrong -- this always happens when a party wins a lot and things don’t go well nationally.”

David Wasserman, who tracks congressional races for the Cook Political Report in Washington, D.C., said Democrats could take heart in the long-term demographics of the region: rising number of Latinos and younger, college-educated whites, who are usually reliable votes for the party.

“But what is encouraging for Democrats in the long term is discouraging in 2010,” he said. “We’re going to see a big drop-off in younger voters,” two-thirds of whom backed Obama in 2008, Wasserman said. That will hurt the party’s ability to hold on to its Western seats.

Loevy is skeptical that demographics give Democrats any long-term edge in Colorado. “Colorado mainly follows national trends in its voting behavior,” Loevy said. “The best thing they had going for them was that they had an unpopular Republican administration in Washington.”

Dick Wadhams, chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, contends that the state’s loyalties change constantly. Indeed, even though Democrats were largely shut out here between 1994 and 2004, the party often did well in the 1970s and ‘80s.

“I know that Democrats thought good times would last forever and they had built a permanent situation in Colorado,” Wadhams said. “But no party can build a permanent fortress in this state.”