Colorado’s deepening regional divide may change elections permanently

By Bart Taylor | Oct 28, 2014

Regardless the outcome of next week’s individual statewide races, a more enduring electoral shift is underway. Colorado’s regional divide is widening, reflecting new alliances, interests, and economic realities.

In recent years, candidates running for statewide office have managed Colorado’s split electoral personality in a fairly straightforward way: Denver/Boulder and the liberal mountain redoubts were predictably Democratic; Colorado Springs, Grand Junction, Douglas County, and the conservative suburban bastions, Republican, and cities like Ft. Collins and the rest of the state fair game. Elections often hinged on turnout. Incumbency mattered.

As has the economy, always. In Colorado, as elsewhere, jobs and economic growth mattered most.

But something happened on the way to this year’s election. Governor John Hickenlooper has presided over a broad-sector economic recovery, and while Senator Mark Udall seems challenged to step out of an incumbent President’s shadow, the economy’s coattails appeared especially long this year. Yet both incumbents are vulnerable next Tuesday.

What gives?

Every election is unique and this cycle has featured its share of candidate missteps. On balance, GOP signature candidates have avoided pratfalls and the Dems haven’t. Presidential lift this election has disappeared. 2014 may be tough for incumbent Democrats all around.

Colorado’s regional divisions are becoming a factor. An urban/rural divide and simmering Front Range/Western Slope competition undoubtedly impact state elections today. Issues like water and the uncertain future of agriculture, gun control, and the management of public lands increasingly swing voters west of the divide and east of Denver away from their more urban counterparts.

At the same time local economies are recovering unevenly, highlighting contrasts in opportunity that vex industry and developers. Denver-metro’s recovery hasn't benefitted voters in other parts of the state. Oil and gas, natural foods, spending on healthcare, and the metro area's real estate boom are driving growth, but not everywhere. It’s inspiring residents to question past affiliations and look for new leadership.

Business is certainly rethinking alliances and economic partnerships. A new industry axis may be forming on the Western Slope around lifestyle, in Steamboat and Grand Junction, Telluride and Durango. It’s driven by economic self-interest and opportunity, like-minded economic development strategies and improved access to things transportation infrastructure and tourists. Some of Colorado’s Western Slope businesses feel a pull to Salt Lake City today as much as Denver.

A shift is also underway along Colorado’s Front Range. Ft. Collins and Northern Colorado are quietly building a compelling economic and political identify separate from Denver/Boulder. To the south, in conservative Colorado Springs, most everything is changing. Civic and business leaders are taking the city back from a dysfunctional city government, evaluating anew the alliances and partnerships that will define the community in the near future. One thing seems certain: the divide with Denver-metro has grown. Colorado Springs’ new leaders want a fresh, independent, unencumbered identity.

Who does this changing economic and political landscape favor? It's worked to obviate the benefits of incumbency in 2014. The issues at the forefront of this election for Colorado's statewide offices - indecision or ad hoc policy making around economic and social issues, Obamacare and energy regulation – now appear to be widening the divide that increasingly separates Colorado voters. They deepen cracks in old foundations.

Mastering the dynamics of a new regionalism to unify a divided state is the way forward – the winning way.