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Democrats Want Rocky Mountain High, Colorado


It's Morning Edition from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. In this part of the program, we're going to visit two states where the Democrats hope to score victories in Republican strongholds. We'll head to Kentucky where a longtime Republican senator is fighting to keep his seat. First, we go to Colorado. And if you're following those election maps, you may have noticed Colorado changed recently from a tossup state to leaning Democratic. Barack Obama is polling anywhere from four to nine percentage points ahead of John McCain in Colorado. NPR's Jeff Brady reports.

JEFF BRADY: Up until a few years ago, predicting which way Colorado would go in presidential elections was pretty easy.

Dr. KEN BICKERS (Professor of Political Science, University of Colorado, Boulder): Oh, it's been a red state for a very long time.

BRADY: Ken Bickers is a political science professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Dr. BICKERS: Actually, from its founding as a state back in 1876, it's been a Republican state for most of that period. The only exception really was during the Great Depression period.

BRADY: And since the 1950s, Colorado has voted for Democrats only twice, in 1964 for Lyndon Johnson after the Kennedy assassination and then in 1992 when third-party candidate Ross Perot split the Republican vote and helped Bill Clinton win. So why the change now? In Denver, the consensus on the street is best summed up by Bruce Solomon(ph), a Republican from the suburb of Thornton.

Mr. BRUCE SOLOMON: I think everybody's tired of Washington and the Republicans, to be honest with you.

BRADY: He still plans to vote for John McCain, but he's in the minority. Unaffiliated voter Chuck Pearson(ph) typically votes Republican but is considering Obama this time.

Mr. CHUCK PEARSON: More than anything it's just because we need such a radical change from the policies of the current administration. I'm not real sure if the McCain camp would be able to separate themselves from some of the policies that are currently in place.

BRADY: Almost none of the dozen or so voters interviewed for this story mentioned Barack Obama's qualifications as the reason they're considering voting for him. Instead, they said they're upset over an economy that's flirting with disaster and the unpopular war in Iraq.

Dr. JOHN STRAAYER (Professor of Political Science, Colorado State University): How can you briefly describe the success of the Democratic Party? One word: Republicans.

BRADY: John Straayer is a political scientist at Colorado State University.

Dr. STRAAYER: So I think you have in Colorado what you have pretty much nationally, and that is the Republican label, the Republican brand, doesn't look all that good right now.

BRADY: And, Straayer says, in Colorado that problem is compounded by a local backlash against the GOP. In the 1990s, the state party took a hard turn to the right and started focusing on social issues like abortion and gay marriage and on limiting the size of government.

Dr. STRAAYER: I sometimes characterize it as a meld between Grover Norquist and James Dobson.

BRADY: Norquiest, the anti-tax crusader, and Dobson you may already know heads the evangelical group Focus on the Family. Straayer says this change caused a split in the party between social conservatives and the traditional business and chamber of commerce crowd. There was some nasty infighting. And before party leaders could reunite the factions, Democrats swooped in taking over the state legislature, the governor's office, two congressional seats, and a U.S. Senate seat. As if that weren't enough, Republicans in Colorado have been hit by changing demographics, too. Back out on the street, Bill Nieberg(ph) of Denver says the state is becoming more urban.

Mr. BILL NIEBERG: I've been here almost 20 years, and Colorado has changed. I know the Denver/Boulder area has grown. It's not so country as it used to be.

BRADY: Census figures show the state's Latino population is increasing too, which helps Democrats. At the same time, the number of registered Republicans is on the decline. But Ken Bickers with the University of Colorado says it's too soon to say if the state is permanently turning into a blue one.

Dr. BICKERS: Or if it just kind of dipped a toe into a little bit of blue paint and has decided that that's enough for it, and it'll move back and be red again in the future.

BRADY: Bickers says that will become clear after a few more election cycles. Jeff Brady, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Brady
Jeff Brady is the Climate and Energy Correspondent on NPR's Climate Desk. He reports on the intersection of climate change and politics to reveal whether and how the U.S. is meeting its obligations to address the breakdown of the climate. And his reporting examines who's reshaping the energy system and who are the winners and losers. A key element of Brady's reporting is holding accountable those who block or stall efforts to address climate change in an effort to preserve their business.