By Dick Wadhams
This article originally appeared with the tittle “Why only four Republicans won high office in Colorado in 40 years” on the Denver Post.
I’ll never forget what a good friend said in 1974 when Democrats routed Republicans in Colorado in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. I was a college Republican volunteer and my friend was just as committed to Democrats.
As he reveled in a new generation of Democrats like Gov. Dick Lamm and Sens. Floyd Haskell and Gary Hart, he explained with great empathy that Colorado had become “too advanced” to ever elect a Republican to statewide office again.
Indeed, Colorado had changed after Republicans won all seven elections for governor and U.S. senator from 1960 to 1970. Colorado’s growing population, especially along the Front Range, had exploded with politically independent voters — a trend that continues today — who had no ties to those Republican giants of the 1960s, such as Govs. John Love and John Vanderhoof and Sens. Gordon Allott and Peter Dominick.
But I suspected those same voters who had defeated an entire generation of Republicans in 1972 and 1974 were not permanently Democratic and could support talented, articulate, substantive Republican candidates in the future. And I was right.
A dynamic young congressman named Bill Armstrong unseated incumbent Democratic Sen. Haskell in 1978. Sen. Armstrong helped build a new Republican Party that largely dominated state legislative and presidential races in Colorado for the next 25 years.
But Democrats won 11 of 14 races for governor and senator between 1972 and 1994, including six consecutive elections for governor. Only Armstrong (1978 and 1984) and Sen. Hank Brown (1990) won during that time.
A brief period of Republican dominance began when Democratic Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell switched parties in 1995 and was re-elected in 1998 as a Republican. The underestimated underdog, Sen. Wayne Allard, won a U.S. Senate seat in 1996 and was re-elected in 2002. Bill Owens became the first Republican governor in 28 years in 1998 and was overwhelmingly re-elected in 2002.
But Democrats have won five consecutive elections since 2004 with Sen. Ken Salazar, Gov. Bill Ritter, Sen. Mark Udall, Sen. Michael Bennet and Gov. John Hickenlooper.
The brutal truth is that only four Republicans — Armstrong, Brown, Allard, and Owens (Campbell ran as a Democrat and Republican) — have won major statewide office over the past 40 years, while 15 other Republican candidates lost during that time.
Democrats have won 16 elections for governor and U.S. senator since 1972, while Republicans won only eight.
Colorado Republicans need to understand why Armstrong, Brown, Allard and Owens won while so many others lost. Was it because they were “moderate” Republicans while the others were too conservative? No, all four were unapologetic fiscal and economic conservatives. Armstrong, Allard and Owens were also pro-life in a state that is pro-choice with limited restrictions. Brown’s pro-choice position gave the aura of a “moderate” Republican, but his record reveals a fierce fiscal conservatism. And Democrats attacked all four as being too “extreme” for Colorado, just as they did the unsuccessful candidates.
So what set these four conservative Republicans apart from those who lost? Armstrong, Brown, Allard and Owens had individual strengths but common threads run through their winning campaigns:
• They were positive, upbeat leaders who did not convey hostility to any voters. They were, in a word, likeable, and a majority of voters could personally relate to them.
• They each ran on substantive, conservative agendas that appealed to unaffiliated voters as well as Republicans.
Armstrong was the “guy who wants to cut my taxes” and he indexed taxes against inflation to protect the middle class. Brown incessantly fought to balance the budget and eliminate government waste.
Allard campaigned to balance the budget, reduce taxes and regulations on families and small businesses, and return power to state government. Owens had a substantive agenda to cut taxes, reform education and improve transportation when he became the only Republican governor to be elected in the past 40 years.
• They went beyond their traditional Republican agendas and were unafraid to embrace issues Democrats think they own such as the environment and education. Armstrong and Brown authored legislation to expand wilderness areas while protecting Colorado’s water rights. Allard doggedly pursued the cleanup of the old Rocky Flats nuclear weapons site and sponsored the Spanish Peaks Wilderness Area and Great Sand Dunes National Park. Owens fought for education reform and constantly cited Hispanic kids as being failed by a mediocre education system.
• Elections are about choices, and each of the four built a strong campaign team that aggressively defined contrasts with their Democratic opponents and effectively counter-attacked Democratic distortions.
• They were disciplined candidates who were not pulled into extraneous debates that were not consistent with their fiscal agendas.
Hickenlooper and Udall offer clear opportunities for Colorado Republicans to win their first elections for those offices since 2002. But if candidates are nominated who previously failed in statewide elections or who cannot grasp the realities of a very dynamic Colorado electorate, the losing streak will continue.
It was not inevitable for Armstrong, Brown, Allard and Owens to win their seven elections. But they had mainstream, substantive, conservative agendas and were personally ready for the challenge.
While my Democratic friend was clearly wrong back in 1974 about Colorado being “too advanced” to ever elect another Republican to major statewide office, there is no doubt only the very best of Republican candidates and campaigns have won and will win in this terribly competitive state of Colorado.
And Colorado Republicans need to give this reality some very serious thought during the 2014 nominating process if they hope to win.