Award–winning journalist Andrea Bernstein is the Metro Editor for WNYC News. She has previously served as Political Director, Director of Transportation Nation, and Senior Reporter.
Here, where the prairie begins, Democratic hopes are wilting. This is the land of big trucks, cattle farms, natural gas drills – and a few universities. It’s also where an increasingly educated population is settling, coming for the tech industry and access to the Rocky Mountains. This was supposed to change the entire political landscape. Back in 2008, an excellent New Yorker article described what it called Colorado’s “political transformation,” – from red-state Republican to libertarian Democrat. The state had voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004, and Bob Dole in 1996.
But in 2008 then-Senator Barack Obama gave his speech accepting the Democratic nomination from the mile-high stadium, the late-summer sun glowing late into the evening over the Rockies. With the help of all those young, professional independents, Democrats from Denver, and an energized Latino population, he won the state 51 to 47. In the fourth CD, Betsy Markey, an appealing businesswoman, trounced her Republican opponent by a 12-point margin, 56 to 44.
“I don’t need to spend $2000 to support every illegal f*****g Mexican in this country. Nor do I need to keep busting my ass for this government. You know, my son can’t ride the bus to school anymore. He’s got to walk two miles to school, explain that to me! You know, why does education have to go, but yet we can support illegals, we can piss money away on stuff doesn’t’ matter, a health care plan that will never work
Health care was a big reason for the rage, and understandably so. No one has seen a benefit, but they’ve seen their premiums go up, and been told by their insurance companies it’s because of the reform bill. They’ve heard that insurance companies will no longer be offering stand-alone insurance to children. “Insurance companies are already dropping them so they don’t have to be included,” unemployed trucker Richard Koester told me in the parking lot a Safeway in Greeley. "I think this whole game they are playing is wrong for the country.”
Change nothing, voters kept telling me. Don’t mess with what we have. In 2008, this would have been unfathomable, where Republicans and Democrats alike were so desperate to change health care that any reform would do. Just change it.
But now -- over and over I heard it. We’re screwed.
I’m not sure there are any circumstances under which Tom or Koester would have voted for Markey, now, or in 2008. But their passion was a whole lot stronger than Ashley Brewer’s, who said of the health care bill: we need to give it time. And of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. “Well. It was a good try.”
Republicans do have their own problems. Tea Party-backed candidates won both the nominations for U.S. Senate and Governor, and that’s not to the liking of some independents, like Paul, who works in broadcasting. “I’m an independent who leans Republican, but not tea-party Republican,” he told me outside the Red Rooster. “I’m a registered Republican and I think the Republicans have done a terrible job of picking candidates this year,” echoed retired geologist John Conner, over beer and pizza in downtown Golden a western Denver suburb in the Rocky foothills. In the Governor’s race, it seems the Republicans have eaten their young, with Tea Party-backed Don Maes (who warned that Denver’s bike-share program would lead to a U.N. takeover. “This is bigger than it looks like on the surface, and it could threaten our personal freedoms,” he said) not conservative enough for former presidential candidate Tom Tancredo, who is also running.
In Jefferson County, a swing county just west of Denver that has attracted a lot of highly-educated, professional Republicans and Independents, it’s the Democrat, John Hickenlooper, who’s in the lead. A former brewer who has marketed Denver as a world-class city, Hickenlooper in 2004 passed a sales tax to support a 150-mile transit expansion, now underway. Even in today’s anti-tax environment, Republicans like Randal Hudspeth told me they thought that tax was a fair way to pay for infrastructure. Unlike President Obama’s proposed $50 billion transportation plan, which almost everyone said is unaffordable just now.
That’s the position of Senator Michael Bennet, the Democrat who won the primary with lots of Obama support and promptly repudiated his labor day infrastructure plan. Bennet was appointed to the job after Ken Salazar became Interior Secretary, and his support is lukewarm. The Republican Ken Buck is relatively mainstream for a Tea Party candidate, having served as Weld County DA (where he was part of a large, national crackdown on immigrants working at meat packing plants). But Buck is hobbled among independents by supporting the “personhood” ballot measure, which would define life as beginning when an egg is fertilized. And the Democrats are using that support to define Buck as “extreme” in every way.
That seems to be sinking in. “There are things I’ve heard in regards to abortion and women’s rights that I don’t like,” Republican Alissa Cahill told me in Greeley. “But I’m not sold on the Democrats, either.” Over and over I heard this, among men and women alike. Still, Buck is leading in the polls, and Bennet’s votes for healthcare reform and the economic stimulus aren’t winning him huge applause, either.