Rocky Mountain High: GOP Hopes to Bring Colorado Back in the Fold

If there were a theme song for recent Republican history in Colorado, it would have to be, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.”

Once a reliable Republican stronghold, the state went red in 10 of 12 presidential elections from 1960 through 2004, with brief anomalies when Coloradans voted for LBJ in 1960 and Bill Clinton in 1992. By the 2004 presidential elections, Republicans owned the governor’s mansion, both Senate seats and five out of the seven members of the U.S. House.

Within the space of two election cycles, however, the tide had turned completely. As of election night 2008, Democrats held the governor’s mansion, both U.S. Senate seats and the House delegation had flipped, with five of the seven congressional seats going to Democrats.

Democrats were further strengthened by shifting population demographics that brought a significant number of progressive voters to Republican strongholds like Fort Collins and the Denver Suburbs. Colorado now boasts one of the youngest populations in the country, with nearly two-thirds of the population having been born out of state.

Recent history has shown that such a fundamental shift in population and demographics would present a big challenge to Republicans. Yet, the recent announcement of two top-tier GOP candidates for statewide office has spawned a new optimism about the Centennial state.

While far from sure things, Rep. Cory Gardner, who announced his candidacy for Senate, and former Rep. Bob Beauprez, who has announced his candidacy for governor, represent the best set of candidates Colorado has had since the Republican heyday in the early 2000s.

After a relatively easy election in 2008, Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, a Democrat, had ascended to the place seemingly meant for him from birth. After all, the Udalls were the “Kennedys of the West.” A multigenerational dynasty secured, it seemed, by the election of both Mark and his cousin Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico.

During his first six years in the Senate, the newly minted Colorado senator seemed content to play the low-key role traditionally expected of freshmen senators. Mark Udall spoke out over concerns on the NSA and was named the best golfer in Congress, but otherwise proved to be a reliable vote for the White House. The logic seemed sound. After all, President Obama had won Colorado in both 2008 and 2012, despite the state’s being hotly contested in both elections.

As Sen. Udall looks toward re-election, however, it appears that Colorado’s special brand of cowboy independence may be reasserting itself. In recent months, Udall watched a comfortable lead deteriorate into a dead heat, even against a field of candidates that has failed to garner any real excitement in the state. Even two weeks ago, conversations with Colorado Democrats yielded an acknowledgement that while Udall was certainly feeling the pain over the Affordable Care Act, he would likely pull off a victory – in a close race.

But the surprise entrance of Gardner into the race may have the same strategists thinking twice about the prediction. Granted, Udall is still a very tough incumbent who will be fighting for his political life.

Yet Congressman Gardner knows his calling card, and referred to it often in a recent interview: Obamacare. “Coloradans let Mark Udall promise them things that simply weren’t true. Mark Udall and Barack Obama both said if you liked your health care, you can keep it. If you liked your doctor, you can keep your doctor. The voters I talk to back home are expressing remorse over their vote” Gardner said.

Meanwhile, Democratic strategists aren’t so quick to hand the race to Gardner just yet. “Colorado has voted Democrat in the last two presidential elections (giving Obama 9- and 5-point margins), and in the past two gubernatorial elections and in the past three U.S. Senate elections. “This is a state moving from red to blue,” longtime Democratic hand John Ashford of the Hawthorn Group said.

Yet the Colorado Senate race wasn’t the only place where a new entrant would shake up both Republicans and Democrats.

If Gardner is the face of the new Republican Party in Colorado, Bob Beauprez represents the thoughtful, solutions-oriented politician long favored by voters in the state. After a great deal of speculation, the former congressman-turned bison rancher threw his hat into the ring last week, joining a crowded field.

A recent conversation with this column found him circumspect about his 2006 effort for the governor’s race and ready to take on Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. When asked about his reasons for taking another shot, he pulled no punches: “Hickenlooper has to be challenged. He’s failed to lead, whether you look at the dysfunction on the state agencies, or the state economy," he said.

"Colorado’s labor participation rate [the percentage of the labor force that is actually working or seeking work] is declining at a rate faster than the national average. When two-thirds of people say the state is on the wrong track, it’s time to change direction," Beauprez added.

Like Gardner, Beauprez will face a tough incumbent with a unique set of problems. Gov. Hickenlooper's support for controversial gun legislation, which later led to a recall election in the state legislature, coupled with mismanagement of state agencies, has the incumbent governor in trouble.

Thankfully for Hickenlooper, Beauprez faces a tougher challenge in the primary election. Six other candidates, including former congressman and presidential candidate Tom Tancredo have already declared their candidacy. When asked whether he expected the race to turn negative, Beauprez pointed out that he considered all current candidates in the race friends and likened the primary process to a football team “where every year people try out for the starting job, but in the end we’re all wearing the same jersey.”

Interestingly enough, when asked what policies of the current governor he would support, Beauprez pointed to implementation of the state’s vote to legalize marijuana: “The people have spoken on this and right now all of our government is struggling with how to keep our arms around it, away from our kids and schools. It’s wrought with challenges, but I would take a pretty close look at what he’s done so far and see if there’s a way I could agree with him.”

Bolstering his case, Beauprez has already won the support of Erick Erickson, the widely influential conservative writer and commentator. “I think Bob Beauprez has shown an ability to unite the Colorado GOP in a way other candidates cannot,” Erickson said. “The existing candidates have already failed to get traction. Bob also has existing high name identification and this year already bodes well for Republicans.”

Regardless of how either of these races turns out, it’s clear that Colorado will remain center stage for another election cycle. What’s interesting to watch is the larger trend. As one strategist mentioned, Colorado voters are typically ticket-splitters; they inherently appreciate representation from both sides.

But a new generation of Coloradans, native or transplanted, will make their mark on the state, and in this election year, both sides have a lot on the line.

Joe Brettell is a Republican public relations consultant and a former Capitol Hill aide. On Twitter: @joebrettell.

Opinions expressed in this column do not reflect the views of ABC News.