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Colorado a Microcosm for American Politics

A Commentary by Michael Barone

Friday, November 15, 2013

Colorado, writes National Journal's always insightful Ronald Brownstein, is "America, writ small." "A microcosm," he goes on, "of the forces destabilizing American politics."

Of course, Colorado is not entirely typical of the nation. It has America's lowest rates of obesity, for example -- because of a young population and because most Coloradans live a mile or more above sea level. You burn more calories there just getting out of the car and walking to the mall.

Colorado has also been a success story for the Democratic Party. It voted twice for Barack Obama after years of voting Republican for president. It has a Democratic governor and legislature, and two Democratic U.S. senators-- a complete reversal from 10 years ago.

Much of that Democratic success can be ascribed to a few high-tech millionaires and trust-funders who banded together and shrewdly spent big bucks to advance Democratic and liberal causes, a process described definitively by Fred Barnes in the Weekly Standard.

But in the second Obama term, as things go sour for the president, they're also going sour for Colorado's liberal Democrats.

Like Obama after 2008, Colorado Democrats may have over-interpreted their victories. Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, despite many advantages -- the congenial personality of a brew-pub proprietor, a popular record as mayor of Denver -- won in 2010 with only 51 percent of the vote. And he was helped when the Republican nominee's campaign imploded and firebrand former Rep.

Tom Tancredo ran as an independent.

Democrats have had only narrow majorities in the Colorado legislature.

Nevertheless, they went ahead with a liberal agenda, passing civil unions for same-sex couples, in-state college tuition for children of illegal immigrants and renewable energy requirements.

After the movie theater massacre in Aurora, they passed a gun-control law with universal background checks and limits on gun magazines.

Like Obama Democrats in Congress, they were heavy handed. On gun control, they didn't allow citizens against the law to testify, contrary to Colorado custom. In response, gun control opponents got the necessary signatures to force recall elections of two Democrats.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other gun control advocates spent thousands against the recall. And both Democrats held seats where Barack Obama won about 60 percent of the vote in 2012. But both were soundly defeated last September.

In the meantime, Hickenlooper's job rating plunged below 50 percent when, though theoretically a supporter of capital punishment, he granted a reprieve to a murderer convicted of killing four people at a Chuck E. Cheese in 1993.

Worse was to come. Hickenlooper has some credibility as an education reformer, from his appointment of Michael Bennet, now U.S. senator, to run Denver's schools, to his support of state Sen. Mike Johnston's teacher tenure reform bill.

In 2013, the legislature passed an education bill promising new reforms and a new school finance formula that would take effect once voters approved

$967 million in additional funding. Amendment 66 included raising the state income tax from 4.63 percent to 5 percent for incomes under $75,000 and 5.9 percent for those over.

Amendment 66 supporters -- including Bill and Melinda Gates, Michael Bloomberg and Colorado teacher unions -- spent some $12 million in support of the amendment.

Last week, Colorado voters rejected Amendment 66 by a 65 percent to 35 percent margin. It carried only in Denver and Boulder counties. Voters in the other 62 counties turned it down.

This was a much more smashing defeat than political insiders expected.

Coming as it did during the rocky Obamacare rollout, it looks like a rejection of big government generally and of the proposition that more government spending will produce better results.

It was an especially stinging defeat for teacher unions, which also failed to oust a reform-minded school board in exurban Douglas County, south of Denver, and saw a pro-union school board thrown out in Jefferson County, the mixed suburbs west of the city.

This does not necessarily spell defeat for Hickenlooper or the Democratic legislative majorities. As Brownstein points out, Colorado Republicans have been fielding stunningly weak candidates for major office in recent years.

Weak candidates and the ultimately unsuccessful vote by 11 counties to secede from the state "have attached a whiff of extremism" to the state's Republican Party, Brownstein writes.

But like voters nationally on Obamacare, Colorado voters seem to be rejecting liberal policies Democrats assumed would be widely popular. An interesting lesson from "America, writ small."

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