What a difference eight years makes – or even four, for that matter. Bill Ritter’s inauguration as governor on Jan. 9 marks a milestone in a political transformation that seemed unlikely, if not virtually impossible, just a few years ago.
Hand it to Colorado Democrats: they’ve done a remarkable job turning our state’s political landscape upside down, despite trailing Republicans in voter registration by some 170,000.
Now, activists and analysts are studying this transformation to see if the Colorado model can be exported to other states, particularly those in the West.
Most post-election analyses credit the mega-million-dollar expenditures driven by billionaires Tim Gill and Pat Stryker, who led a cadre of leftist ideologues that spent upwards of $20 million over the past two election cycles.
That’s bad news for Democrats elsewhere who know they can’t necessarily find like-minded billionaires in every state. But that analysis is myopic and incomplete.
Colorado Democrats turned the tables with a patient, meticulous strategy — one that could be exported to many other states.
Even without their wealthy benefactors, Colorado Democrats would be in a far better position today than eight years ago when I was first elected to the Colorado senate. Then, Republicans had just elected Bill Owens, the first GOP governor in 24 years, controlled the Senate 20-15, ruled the House 40-25, and held both U.S. Senate seats and four of six congressional chairs.
Today, those halcyon days seem like a tale from a galaxy far, far away. As of Jan. 9, Democrats will control both the executive and legislative branches – with considerable majorities – for the first time since 1962. Meanwhile, the Republican delegation to Washington has attenuated to Sen. Wayne Allard and just three representatives out of seven.
Three factors largely contributed to this change: shrewd remapping of legislative and congressional districts, dramatic changes in the way campaigns are funded, and the failure of Republicans to unify behind a comprehensive budget solution.
In 2001, Democrats captured majority control of the state senate for the first time in 40 years and used that leverage to stymie the process for congressional redistricting. Meanwhile, Democrat plaintiffs and their attorneys filed a lawsuit asking Judge John Coughlin to select a congressional map instead.
Coughlin selected a map drawn by Democrats, and the Colorado Supreme Court backed him up. Under these crafty boundaries, three districts favored Republicans, two favored Democrats, and two were toss-ups. Republicans won five of those seats in 2002, but Democrats picked up the Western Slope seat in 2004 and suburban 7th District in 2006 to gain a 4-3 edge.
Meanwhile, Democrats used their majority on the legislative reapportionment commission to draw state house and senate boundaries to their liking. Although the supreme court tossed out their egregious gerrymander of the state senate, Democrats shrewdly studied demographic growth patterns to ensure that competitive districts would trend in their favor as years passed.
In 2004, Democrats swept both the Colorado House and Senate. Ironically, Republican House candidates received 60,000 more votes than their Democrat counterparts but were nonetheless outnumbered 35-30.
Campaign funding changed dramatically after 2002 when voters, besieged by another season of campaign attack ads, were enticed by the siren song of the “nonpartisan” League of Women Voters and Common Cause to approve limits on campaign contributions.
Proponents cynically complained that “large contributions continue to play a major role in who wins” elections and that spending by labor unions and corporations “influences the political process.”
It’s no wonder that most voters didn’t want to wade through the 4,500 words that Amendment 27 etched into the state constitution, but if they had, they would not be surprised by the results:
— Corporations are prohibited from donating to candidates, but labor unions are allowed to donate 10 times more than ordinary citizens.
— Wealthy ideologues hire attorneys so they can spend millions on attack ads while regular people abide by the law’s strict limits.
— Candidates must spend more time raising money than talking to voters, yet still find themselves outspent 2-to-1 by unaccountable special interests.
By muzzling business and empowering labor unions, Democrats gained a tremendous advantage. The emergence of Gill, Stryker and their deep-pocketed allies turned that advantage into a landslide — particularly as those legendary “rich Republicans” recoiled from a contest with multi-million-dollar table stakes.
Making matters worse, Republicans shot ourselves in the foot by fumbling the state’s fiscal problems in the wake of the 2001-02 recession.
The problem wasn’t being for or against Referendum C in 2005. The problem was that Republicans allowed Ref C to happen by failing to unite behind a more balanced solution in 2004 when we still held the reins of power.
Had Republicans acted decisively and unanimously, a modest change to the limits of the Taxpayers Bill of Rights could have been balanced with a modest change to spending mandates of Amendment 23. Without that option on the 2004 ballot, many of the forces that were prepared to back such a compromise instead directed their resources to help Democrats take over the legislature.
Empowered Democrats then shrewdly advanced wholesale changes to TABOR, which required just a simple majority, and left Amendment 23 untouched because changing it would have required a two-thirds vote and given Republicans leverage.
Republicans were divided — and doomed — not just in 2005 but in 2006, as well. After Ref C passed, Republicans on both sides of the issue indulged in recriminations. Had Ref C failed, Republicans would have been blamed for every unpalatable budget cut that followed and perhaps even more politically vulnerable.
Democrats have demonstrated that elections aren’t a game played every two years. To Democrats, elections are a biennial report card that gauges the progress of their long-term political strategy. Patience, perseverance and teamwork are their strengths. If they squabble amongst themselves, they have the good sense to keep it amongst themselves.
Republicans can disparage Democrat policies, but ignoring their strategic successes is a game plan doomed to fail.
Mark Hillman is a wheat farmer from Burlington who served in the Colorado Senate from 1999 to 2005.