In Colorado, All Eyes On Unaffiliated Voters

Tess Gossage, an unaffiliated voter from Boulder, Colo. i

Tess Gossage, an unaffiliated voter from Boulder, Colo.: "I'm pretty much satisfied with the way things are going. I've never second-guessed my voting to date. ... I still think that the Democratic star is rising." hide caption

itoggle caption
Tess Gossage, an unaffiliated voter from Boulder, Colo.

Tess Gossage, an unaffiliated voter from Boulder, Colo.: "I'm pretty much satisfied with the way things are going. I've never second-guessed my voting to date. ... I still think that the Democratic star is rising."

For decades, Colorado was one of those square states in a sea of red on political maps. But in 2004, that started to change when voters abandoned a long history of electing Republicans and began picking Democrats.

Now, Colorado looks positively blue.

In five years, Democrats have taken from Republicans both U.S. Senate seats, three U.S. House seats, the governorship and both houses of the state Assembly.

Those victories are especially impressive when you consider that registered Republicans still outnumber Democrats in Colorado, though neither party has a majority. The only way anyone wins here is by appealing to the nearly one-third of Colorado voters who don't belong to a party.

For those unaffiliated voters who supported President Obama in the 2008 presidential election, the luster may be wearing off, according to pollster Floyd Ciruli. He says the poor economy is partly to blame.

But Ciruli says a lot of these voters weren't picking Democrats as much as they were rejecting Republicans.

"While they joined the general sweep of the last election, they did it without any real enthusiasm for the agenda that Obama was offering," Ciruli says.

That could mean trouble for freshman Democrats trying to hold onto their seats in Colorado. Ciruli says it's too early to say exactly how unaffiliated voters will cast their ballots in the midterm congressional elections next year.

"At the moment, they appear to be trending neutral to Republican," Ciruli says.

But that doesn't automatically mean Colorado Republicans will score big victories in 2010, according to John Straayer, who teaches political science at Colorado State University. That's because successful Democrats in Colorado tend to be relatively conservative to start with.

Eric Trout, a Democrat from Denver, Colo. i

Eric Trout, a Democrat from Denver, Colo.: "The rural parts of Colorado are still strongly Republican, and I would bet that in some close races in Colorado — without Obama being on the ballot — that things might go back Republican." Jeff Brady/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jeff Brady/NPR
Eric Trout, a Democrat from Denver, Colo.

Eric Trout, a Democrat from Denver, Colo.: "The rural parts of Colorado are still strongly Republican, and I would bet that in some close races in Colorado — without Obama being on the ballot — that things might go back Republican."

Jeff Brady/NPR

"These are not New England, East Coast or West Coast Democrats," says Straayer. "They're more Mountain West, cowboy Democrats."

Colorado Democrats are likely to show up at public events in boots, and every once in a while, they'll even talk about the importance of gun rights for hunters.

Still, Dick Wadhams, who heads the Colorado Republican Party, senses opportunity. He's already crafted a message focused on fiscal responsibility that is designed to appeal to unaffiliated voters.

"They seem to be very concerned about the massive spending proposals of the Obama administration," says Wadhams. "They're very concerned about the deficits."

There are two congressional seats in Colorado that just about everyone agrees Republicans have a chance of regaining in 2010: the 4th Congressional District seat held by first-term Rep. Betsy Markey; and the Senate seat held by freshman Sen. Michael Bennet. Both incumbents already are on track to raise record amounts of money to fend off their challengers.

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