Recently on Political Wire's podcast, we brought on Lynn Bartels, a longtime political reporter for the Denver Post, for a fascinating discussion about Colorado politics and the state's all-important Senate and gubernatorial races.
Here are four takeaways.
1. Democrats are scared about Cory Gardner's Senate candidacy, but not just because he could win the race. This Colorado Republican, who previously said he would stay in the House, shocked the political world when he decided to run for the Senate against incumbent Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) after all. Bartels said that Gardner is seen as a likable, charismatic, family-oriented man with appeal to both staunch conservatives and establishment Republicans. In that sense, Gardner could pose a legitimate threat to Udall, even though the latter is still seen as the slight favorite for now. Gardner also boosts his party's hopes of recapturing the Senate in November.
But a key reason that Democrats are worried about Gardner's entry — besides his potential to beat Udall — is that Gardner could drive Republican voters to the polls, impacting other races. "That's why [Democrats] have gone on such the attack, because Cory Gardner makes a difference in all these down-ticket races — for attorney general, for secretary of state, for state treasurer." Democrats are also in danger of losing their one-seat state Senate majority.
2. Social issues matter a lot in Colorado, and they may hurt Gardner. It's often said that "it's the economy, stupid." But in Colorado, it's not just the economy — social issues swing elections, too. Bartels points to 2010, which was a wave year for Republicans but which featured an election in Colorado where social issues helped cost the GOP the state's Senate race. Republican candidate Ken Buck (R) was hammered by critics who said he was insensitive on women's issues.
Now, in 2014, Gardner may not make the same kinds of mistakes that Buck made in 2010, but he will come under scrutiny for his stance on one social issue in particular. When he was first elected in 2010, Gardner backed an eventually unsuccessful ballot measure that would have defined personhood as beginning at conception, effectively outlawing abortions, Bartels said. Gardner has since said he regrets taking that position and now opposes such a measure. Gardner's change of position underscores an important point: "Quite frankly, social issues will play here," Bartels said.
3. Sorry, but marijuana isn't as important of a political issue here as you might think. It may be the one that garners the most national attention, given that Colorado has legalized recreational marijuana use. Far more important, however, are issues like gun control and energy, which is "a huge issue" here in the state, Bartels said. Colorado is known for its vast oil and gas reserves, which energy companies have sought to tap with modern drilling and extraction techniques, namely hydraulic fracturing. Also important, particularly in the 2014 elections, will be ObamaCare. The state-operated ObamaCare insurance exchange has performed reasonably well, especially compared with the federal one, which suffered major problems in its rollout. But Republicans and outside groups are trying to hammer Udall on the health care law, not only because he voted for it, but also because of what they call attempts by his staff to bully state officials into softening a report on ObamaCare-related insurance cancelations.
4. Despite hitting bumps in the road, Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) still has an edge to win another term. Hickenlooper has generally remained popular throughout his first term, but he hit tough waters with his support of gun-control measures. Hickenlooper received a lot of criticism for backing gun control measures following the Newtown shooting, because he previously had said that gun control might not have prevented the Aurora movie theater shooting in his own state, Bartels said. Another controversy that dragged down Hickenlooper involved his statements and actions on the death penalty that critics said made it look like he wanted to have it both ways on the issue. But Hickenlooper has bounced back in the wake of his administration's response to devastating floods in 2013, Bartels said. Having Gardner on the ballot certainly could help the GOP gubernatorial candidate narrow the gap. "But most people feel that Hickenlooper has an advantage," Bartels said.
Listen to the whole conversation here: