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The Colorado GOP’s Long-Term Dilemma: They Lose by Winning

The Republican base (increasingly to scale).

The Republican base (increasingly to scale).

Colorado's recent political history is a prime example of what Politico's Todd Purdum described in a great analytical piece this weekend:

It’s the predominant paradox of contemporary American politics: If Republicans prevail in this year’s midterm congressional elections, it will be because of their party’s sharp-edged stances on topics like abortion and Benghazi, Obamacare and immigration, gay marriage and the minimum wage — issues that energize the GOP’s core base of support.

But if Republicans lose the race for the White House in 2016, it will be because of their party’s polarizing, out-of-step stances on those very same issues, which alienate much of the broader electorate the GOP needs to win a national contest in a country whose demographics and political realities are shifting under its feet…

“The Republican Party has essentially now two wings: a congressional wing and the national wing,” the veteran GOP pollster Bill McInturff said at a recent Pew Research Center forum on so-called millennial voters, those from 18 to 29 years of age. The congressional wing is thriving, especially in the South, in districts that are 75 percent, or even 80 percent, white, and where every incumbent’s worst fear is a challenge from the right.

…On questions like climate change and gay marriage, pollster McInturff said, younger voters no longer believe there is anything to argue about. He summed up their views as: “‘We wouldn’t fight about that. That’s just presumed to be true.’” [Pols emphasis]

Thomas Mann, the veteran political scientist and Congress-watcher at the Brookings Institution, said that, at the moment, the Republicans are “simply not a presidential party.”

In Colorado, the 2010 "GOP wave" is generally understood to have been a "modest" defeat for the Republican Party. Democrats easily won a gubernatorial race in which the Republican frontrunner self-destructed, and a narrow victory was achieved in a top-tier U.S. Senate race against a candidate whose backward views on social issues rendered him unpalatable to independent and women voters. The state didn't completely escape the effects of historic Republican victories across the nation in 2010 -- the GOP picked up two congressional seats, won the statewide races for Attorney General, Treasurer, and Secretary of State, and the Colorado House flipped -- but the overall result was well short of what Republicans had expected the summer before.

In 2012, Democrats in Colorado ran the table on election night, sweeping GOP House Speaker Frank McNulty from power in the statehouse and delivering Barack Obama by a comfortable margin. Going into the 2014 midterms, we are feeling the same pressure that was evident in the midterm elections of 2010: Colorado Democrats must turn out their base and swing independents.  The question is, can Colorado Democrats minimize the impact of the midterm "wave" as they did in the last midterm election?

The answer is very logically "yes," and as the story above explains, it's because the overarching demographics driving this whole midterm/presidential year dichotomy inexorably favor Democrats. One of the biggest reasons the Republican Party has lurched so far to the right since the election of Barack Obama is that, as the changing American electorate begins to decide elections, the biggest constituency Republicans now have to appeal to is the fringe right wing. Republicans were fully willing to embrace the "Tea Party" to win in 2010. There was a powerful short-term advantage in appealing to this segment of the electorate, in that they are extremely reliable and passionate voters. There is a tremendous enthusiasm gap between such voters, who vote in greater numbers in every kind of election, and the much larger body of voters who turn out once every four years. We're certainly not the only ones who have said this, but we've been saying it for years: 2010 wasn't about who voted, it was about who didn't vote.

And we could say the same thing about John Morse's recall. Or the Jefferson County school board.

The markedly different electorates who decide midterm and off-year vs. presidential elections can result in head-snapping results from one election to the next. Just as one example, the Jefferson County voters who turned out to re-elect Barack Obama in 2012 would never have voted in the radical conservative school board majority (now causing street protests) the following year. If this seems obvious that's great, but most voters simply don't understand these differences. As a result, fringe minority electorates are assumed to be representative.

In 2010, Colorado Democrats used what appeals to these ardent conservative voters against Republicans. By effectively driving home the message of GOP extremism, incompetence, and moral turpitude, they turned out just enough of the 2008 electorate to break the "GOP wave." Colorado Democrats have the same challenge in 2014, but they also have the same opportunity: A rich body of material to use against Republican candidates at every level, from Cory Gardner to Victor Head.

And each year, as the changing electorate chips away at the GOP's narrowing coalition, it gets easier.

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