Democrats Want Rocky Mountain High, Colorado

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If you're following the election maps, you might have noticed that Colorado changed recently from a "tossup" state to "leaning Democratic." Barack Obama is polling anywhere from 4 to 9 percentage points ahead of John McCain in Colorado.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

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

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

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.

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Obama Courts Voters In Colorado's 'Red' Counties

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In its effort to win Colorado in November, the Obama campaign is trying to pick up Democratic voters wherever they can find them, even in the reddest parts of the state.

As a result, Colorado's rural Democrats are getting more attention than they have in many years. Barack Obama's visit to Grand Junction earlier this week was the first by a Democratic presidential candidate since Harry Truman in 1948.

Delta County in western Colorado has long been a Republican stronghold. Democratic organizers there meet in a 9-foot by 20-foot concrete building off Main Street in the city of Delta. When 75 people showed up for the headquarters' ribbon-cutting party, the organizers were overwhelmed.

"They were out in the street, lined up in the street, because we couldn't hold everybody in here — you know, on the sidewalk, on the side," said Mary Jane Plaice, a local organizer. "For us, it was fantastic."

"When I got home, I still had people calling to say, 'I just saw something I thought I'd never see in Delta: Democrats spilled out in the street.' It was great!" said Carol Phelps, another organizer.

What may seem like a modest turnout in many other places was considered a success in Delta, and those 75 people may be evidence that things are improving for Democrats in western Colorado. Gretchen Nikolaeff, a Democratic organizer who moved to the county in the early 1970s, said she remembers a time when her party was essentially defunct.

"You would have a caucus, and you might be the only person there, which would mean you were the precinct committee person, you were the president of the caucus, and the secretary of the caucus ... and the election judge," she said.

The old labor Democrats were lost when the coal mines went nonunion, as well as those members of the party who were attracted to Ronald Reagan. According to Nikolaeff, the pool of reliable volunteers and organizers shrank to a small handful of people.

Still, to say Democrats are doing better in Delta County is really to say they are doing less poorly than in the past. Republicans still dominate local races, and they outnumber Democrats by more than two to one here. But close to one-third of voters are unaffiliated. In 2006, when centrist Democrat John Salazar won a seat in Congress, he even squeaked by in Delta by a few hundred votes.

"Which means that not only did [Salazar] carry the unaffiliateds, he must have taken 20, 25 percent of the Republicans because otherwise, you know, he couldn't have won," Nikolaeff said.

In the same year, unaffiliated voters helped push Democrat Bill Ritter into the Colorado governor's office. Although Ritter did not win Delta County, his loss was limited to only 10 percentage points.

"But that was a victory to us because previously, we might have lost by 20 or 30 or, you know, more than that, even," Nikolaeff said.

That is the Democrats' strategy for this November in Delta County: to help Obama secure about 45 percent of the vote by attracting unaffiliated voters and moderate Republicans. Even if they are unable to win, they hope to minimize the margin of defeat.

"I would faint dead away if we actually carried Delta County for Obama," Nikolaeff said. "I would — I don't know. I might have to hang up my spurs, you know, because I don't think we could top that."

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