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Laura Chapin Headshot

As Goes VA, So Goes CO? Not So Fast, My Friend

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In 2008, Virginia and Colorado were the Obama campaign's top two targets to flip from red to blue for a simple reason: they were the two youngest, best-educated states in the nation that voted for Bush in '04. Both Colorado and Virginia are among the top five nationally in terms of residents with a college education, and among the bottom five in age - the median age in Colorado is under 35.

So what, if anything, does the Republican red swing in Virginia mean for Colorado? Not as much as the Republicans would like to think.

For one thing, the Virginia results reflect an economic trough Colorado may well be out of by next summer. Unemployment in Colorado just dropped to 7%, nearly three points below the national average, and the national economy is showing signs of life for the third quarter of 2009. As has been noted, Virginia traditionally swaps out its executive after a presidential election. Colorado, on the other hand, has a long history of retaining its governors for both terms. Add to that the fact that Latinos, who broke heavily for Obama in '08, comprise 20% of the electorate and Republicans have made zero attempts to court them.

Still, pollster Floyd Ciruli confirms that Colorado is "back to being a battleground" for 2010. He says, "There is a sense that Obama's aggressiveness may be too much - he has done too much, too fast, and it's too expensive. That is giving Republicans some traction."

Former Republican State Representative Rob Witwer from Jefferson County agrees. "The historic growth of government spending lit a bonfire under Republicans and fiscally conservative independents," he states. "There are signs of life at the grassroots level for the first time since 2002. Attendance is up at local GOP events, and Republican candidates and elected officials are starting to feel the wind at their backs."

But, cautions Democratic Congressman Ed Perlmutter from CO-7 (Jefferson County), irrational exuberance on the part of the Republicans might be premature. "What I'm hearing from my constituents around the district and at Government in the Grocery is they aren't buying the Republican mantra of 'just say no, we like the status quo."

For you inside-the-Beltway types, Jefferson County is the Fairfax County of Colorado - a geographically huge (775 square miles) slice of the state swing-voting population. It occupies most of the western suburbs and foothills between Denver proper and the mountains, from Red Rocks almost to Boulder. It also has a large number of federal employees, thanks to the Federal Center in Lakewood.

And although the state and federal delegation is almost entirely Democratic, both Unaffiliateds and Republicans actually outnumber Democrats in registration in Jefferson County (municipal offices and county commissioners remain mostly Republican). The raw numbers are: 119,405 Democrats; 126,045 Unaffiliateds; 126,732 Republican which translates to 32% Dem, 34% Unaffiliated, and 34% GOP.

If there is going to be a seismic shift in Colorado in 2010, its epicenter will be Jefferson County. So far, Congressman Perlmutter - a former bankruptcy attorney who serves on the House Financial Services Committee - isn't feeling it. "Jefferson County and the 7th Congressional District elected people they know are working to change the way this country does business," he says. "They know we have tough work to do on a variety of fronts like reining in Wall Street and helping small businesses and families rebuild after this economic crunch. We also have to reform health insurance and find new ways to power our nation and end our dependence on foreign oil. These are all things the President and I and my Democratic colleagues in the House are tackling, and they appreciate it."

So if the Obama Administration has a health care victory and some other legislative milestones under its belt, and Colorado incumbents have an improved economy to point to next summer, the other half of Obama's 2008 swing state strategy will likely stay blue.