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.

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