Colorado has been at the epicenter of major political controversy pretty much since the national election, and has recently witnessed a string of progressive victories. But does that mean the centennial state is permanently in the bag for Democrats? That’s the argument that Salon columnist David Sirota makes today, claiming that Colorado is a case study in “How to Turn a State Liberal,” with nine reasons why. We decided to take a look at each of his arguments individually and see how much reason conservatives have to be worried.
#1. Colorado embraced gun control!
Sirota: Colorado’s decision to implement “serious gun control” is evidence that gun rights are on the retreat everywhere. If it can be done in Colorado, it can be done anywhere.
His evidence: Colorado’s governor, John Hickenlooper, had to devote political capital to the issue of gun control after public outcry forced him out of his previous cautious stance. Moreover, a Republican state legislator told the Wall Street Journal, “This is ground zero on this issue … If these bills pass — and the Democrats survive the next election cycle — we’ll see gun-control groups spreading to other parts of the country, saying, ‘We did it in Colorado, we can do it here.'”
Does it matter? Colorado’s gun control law certainly is a landmark in terms of Colorado politics (the state is deeply pro-gun, as the New York Times noted in a piece on the fight over gun control). On the other hand, it is also the home of last year’s infamous Aurora shooting, as well as the Columbine massacre, and the political moment favors anti-gun laws nationwide, and in Colorado, especially. Perhaps no other state except Connecticut, home of the Newtown shooting, faces the same degree of homegrown political pressure over the issue. Moreover, gun restrictions were passed in Colorado after Columbine as well, but were relaxed the following year. In other words, this is an issue which has local advantages that don’t exist in other states, or nationwide, and may cease to exist shortly even in Colorado. Finally, while polls show majority support for gun regulations, those who feel most strongly about the issue still oppose gun control.
#2. Colorado legalized civil unions for gays!
Sirota: Colorado is the “home of Focus on the Family,” yet it legalized civil unions, and is on the path to repealing the state’s ban on gay marriage.
His evidence: Last year’s bill to legalize civil unions passed “on a voice vote,” whereas before it had been scuttled by Republican lawmakers, and social conservatives in Colorado had waged a “scorched earth campaign” on the issue, but those responses have ceased occurring. Also, a paper posted an editorial calling for a repeal of the state’s ban on gay marriage.
Does it matter? Firstly, saying “the home of Focus on the Family” allowed civil unions says about as much as saying that Washington, DC, “the home of Americans for Tax Reform,” has high tax rates. Just because an organization is headquartered somewhere doesn’t mean that place is a hotbed of that organization’s politics. Secondly, support for civil unions is by no means an exclusively liberal position. Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck have endorsed the idea, and many libertarian Republicans want to go further and make gay marriage legal everywhere. To that end, it’s worth noting that according to a 2009 study by the libertarian Mercatus Institute, Colorado ranked as the second most libertarian state in the union. Socially liberal issues of personal freedom are of a piece with this mindset, and Colorado acting on them is arguably not evidence of a cultural shift, but of Colorado retaining its culturally Western (IE libertarian) atmosphere. Also, one editorial board calling for repeal of a bill is hardly evidence of a massive push for that cause.
#3. Undocumented immigrants can pay in-state tuition rates!
Sirota: Colorado has rejected “Tancredo-style” politics, and is now allowing children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates, thus promoting an influx of Latino voters.
His evidence: Colorado is already over 20 percent Latino, which is well ahead of demographic trends everywhere else. Eventually, it will be impossible to win in Colorado without support from Latinos. This is in contrast with seven years ago, when Democrats backed bills that cut off benefits for illegal immigrants.
Does it matter? Yes, Colorado’s demographics are shifting such that it is no longer friendly territory for immigration hawks. On the other hand, backing immigrant-friendly policy is not necessarily evidence of a Leftward shift. Texas Governor Rick Perry, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio have all recently defied immigration hawks, with Perry having pushed this very issue (some say to his detriment) all the way back at the start of the 2012 Presidential primary. None of these men could be considered squishy moderates. On the other hand, there is cause for concern about increased illegal immigrant populations, given that Latinos currently skew Democratic.
#4. Coloradans are opposing fracking!
Sirota: Citizens are resisting fracking even in the “ultra-conservative” parts of the state, and environmental concerns are finally having purchase in Colorado.
His evidence: “Local uprisings” everywhere from Colorado Springs to Boulder are showing citizens don’t want anything to do with fracking. Also, the oil and gas industry is becoming economically irrelevant in Colorado because as of 2008, it employed a paltry number of people in the region, whereas huge numbers of retirees and other people looking for “open spaces” are flooding Colorado and demanding an end to the practice.
Does it matter? While it is true that environmentally minded voters are moving to states like Colorado because of their relatively untarnished natural beauty, Sirota might be overstating his case about “local uprisings.” Yes, bills have been drafted by concerned citizens, but the “ultra-conservative” Colorado springs case actually ended with the local city council deciding to study the issue for a longer period of time before passing any regulations. The fact that environmental alarmism produced a bill says very little in that case. Moreover, Governor Hickenlooper himself is fighting for fracking, to the point of actively drinking fracking fluid to prove it’s safe, which Sirota acknowledges, but dismisses, even though it’s evidence of an emergent rift in Colorado’s supposedly bulletproof Democratic coalition. Finally, Sirota seems to ignore the fact that, if people really are entering Colorado looking for “open spaces,” that might mean Colorado will go liberal, but it doesn’t exactly bode well for the places they left, which will lose environmentally-minded liberal voters. That’s a trade many conservatives might be willing to make, especially in energy rich states like West Virginia, Alaska or Pennsylvania. In other words, the economic shift that is producing this particular policy preference is not a nationwide issue for Republicans, and states have pursued environmental policy without damaging the GOP before.
#5. Marijuana was legalized!
Sirota: Colorado did something unprecedented and legalized pot. This is a sign that the drug war is on the retreat.
His evidence: California tried and failed to pass a similar law, but Colorado has succeeded. Therefore, the issue is a loser.
Does it matter? This fits in with the above point about how Colorado is a libertarian state. Libertarians tend to support drug legalization. In fact, so does National Review, one of the premiere conservative publications. Once more, this might be an issue for established Republican policy-makers, but it’s not de facto evidence of progressive influence.
#6. Colorado is less tough on crime!
Sirota: Colorado no longer endorses the “hang ’em high” approach common in Western states.
His evidence: Colorado has passed laws reforming drug sentencing, and weakening the ability of prosecutors to charge juveniles as adults.
Does it matter? See above regarding drug sentencing. Moreover, reforming the criminal justice system is not a solely liberal issue. Virginia attorney general, Tea Party favorite and gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli argued for prison reform at CPAC, and reforming the prison system has been a longstanding cause of antitax libertarian activist Grover Norquist. This is, again, evidence of a more libertarian attitude in Colorado, though not necessarily a more liberal one.
#7. Public funding for education and health care has increased!
Sirota: Colorado has moved away from its fiscally conservative mindset as evidenced by the Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights (TABOR), and has instead opted to fund education and health care with more revenue.
His evidence: Two bills that have recently been introduced in the Colorado legislature — one increasing funding to preschool and kindergarten programs, and one allowing Obamacare’s Medicaid expansions to go into effect — and that’s a sign of Coloradans rejecting TABOR.
Does it matter? The education funding bill is in its infancy, and it’s too early to tell whether it will engender opposition with time. It’s also a relatively technical bill, and hasn’t been portrayed as a giant progressive power grab by anyone but Sirota, suggesting that he may be over-optimistic. As to the Medicaid expansion, while many conservatives look on this as a betrayal, similar initiatives have been embraced by Republican governors around the country, citing funding and business concerns. With that said, the absence of any public resistance to one of the flagship initiatives of Obamacare is arguably concerning.
#8. Coloradans don’t like Citizens United!
Sirota: Colorado overwhelmingly passed a bill asking Congress and the Colorado state legislature to overturn the (among liberals) infamous Citizens United case via constitutional amendment.
His evidence: 74 percent of Coloradans voted for the initiative, and it passed with almost no funding, in almost every Colorado county.
Does it matter? For conservatives worried about free speech, this one is definitely cause for concern. It is, however, understandable that this reaction would exist, given Colorado’s status as one of the most swinging swing states. As such, ad fatigue may have played into the result as much as ideological hostility to money in politics. Moreover, one thing conservatives can console themselves with is that free speech is not up for debate, and any constitutional amendment of the type described would die before it even got out of Congress.
#9. Republicans are dead in Colorado!
Sirota: Democrats have not suffered any political penalties for advancing a progressive agenda in Colorado. In fact, the GOP has only marginalized itself by opposing them.
His evidence: In a radio interview, major Colorado Republican and Denver Post publisher Dean Singleton said the following:
I think [the GOP] is dead in Colorado … It really doesn’t matter whom the Republicans put up. Republicans, in my view, won’t win another presidency in our lifetime … Republicans have [three] elected state-wide office holders, the Treasurer and the Attorney General [and Secretary of State]. The Attorney General is not running for re-election, so that will go Democratic … The party has shifted so far right that that’s the kind candidates they pick. And they pick candidates that aren’t in the mainstream … I think Colorado is probably a Democratic state from now on. It is a Democratic state today, and I don’t think it’s going back.
Does it matter? First of all, Republicans everywhere are beginning to wonder about their relevance after the last election, and the problem is especially acute in Colorado, given its demographic trends and recent policy changes, which have either been liberal, or libertarian in ways that make many Republicans uncomfortable. However, it’s worth noting one passage that Sirota left out of his quotation of Singleton that add a little nuance:
The Republican Party is not dead. The Republican Party controls 30 State Houses. Because of redistricting and gerrymandering, Republicans have the chance to hold the House from now on, because most their congressional members come from safe seats.
Now, granted, Singleton did say he thought Republicans were shut out of the Presidency for the foreseeable future, and did say the party was dead in Colorado, and in its present form, Sirota is arguably right to be optimistic. However, one of the most reliable means by which parties regain power in hostile areas is when the opposing party overreaches, as Sirota’s fellow Salon writer Steve Kornacki acknowledged in a different context in 2011. As such, arguably the quickest way for the GOP to get its groove back would be for it to react to Colorado’s Democrats becoming too progressive for the state’s electorate, say, by lionizing Hugo Chavez, or turning on the party’s leaders for being “Wall Street co-conspirators.”
In other words, the GOP should pray that the Colorado Democratic Party decides to act…like David Sirota!