As the final hours of Election 2010 wind down in the Rocky Mountains, political junkies find themselves in speculation mode, awaiting the earliest returns of the evening. Colorado’s hotly contested U.S. Senate battle between appointed Democratic senator Michael Bennet and Republican Ken Buck is the most expensive race in the country in terms of independent expenditures. The wacky gubernatorial battle has featured plagiarism that knocked out an establishment frontrunner (Scott McInnis), a Tea Party candidate that rose to win the primary and then cratered just as quickly as questions about work history and campaign judgment arose (Dan Maes), a popular Democratic mayor of the largest city in the state who could never break away (John Hickenlooper), and the darkhorse insurgent campaign of a former Republican and current American Constitution Party candidate who entered the race less than three months ago (Tom Tancredo).
In no particular order, here are the some of the key factors that will determine whether Republicans will rejoice or fall just short, whether Democrats will withstand a wave, and whether or not Colorado will continue to live up to its “battleground” status going into the 2012 election.
1) Gender gap. Poll after poll showed Republican Ken Buck with a small lead since the primary in August. But Sen. Michael Bennet was able to stick around and through a combination of negative ads targeting Buck’s positions on women’s reproductive issues (including abortion) and the alleged failure to prosecute a rape case in 2005 — along with the retread of a primary attack using Buck’s “high heels” comment — the Democrat helped to narrow Buck’s steadily expanding lead by mid-October, banking on the latter’s unpopularity among women. Buck’s own verbal gaffe on the nature of homosexuality also hurt the Republican, turning an expected GOP pickup into a true toss-up.
2) Importance of battleground counties. Eighty-three percent of Colorado’s “likely” voters live in just 11 counties — mostly along the Front Range extending both north and south from Denver. These counties include Democratic strongholds like Adams, Boulder, Denver, and Pueblo counties. Republican strength can be found in Douglas, El Paso, Mesa, and Weld counties. The three hotly contested counties that could determine the outcome in the U.S. Senate race, the gubernatorial race, and the 4th and 7th Congressional Districts — Arapahoe, Jefferson, and Larimer — will likely tilt the balance in favor of Democrats or Republicans, just as they have for the past three cycles. The battleground appellation applies to the other eight Democratic and Republican strongholds because, despite a partisan vote disparity, each contain a rather large contingent of the opposite party. Denver county should see 60,000-80,000 Republicans turn out, critical to any of the statewide GOP candidates. Strong performances in both Republican and Democratic strongholds could lead to a tight Senate race, and possibly a recount.
3) Rival get-out-the-vote efforts and the enthusiasm gap. In the late ’90s and early ’00s, Republicans turned out voters with a vaunted “96 hour” get-out-the-vote campaign each year, yielding sweeping Republican victories from 1998–2002. By 2004, however, millionaire Democratic backers dubbed the “gang of four” had created what would become the “Colorado Model” – designed to beat back the GOP GOTV advantage — and eventually combine digital voter ID techniques with an all-out adblitz and candidate recruitment. Republicans in Colorado were stunned in 2004, when despite national success in the Presidential election, Colorado Democrats picked up a Senate seat (Ken Salazar), CO-3, and flipped the state house and senate. That lead would only expand in 2006 and 2008 as Democratic success at the state and Federal level in Colorado led to possessing both U.S. Senate seats, 5 of 7 House seats, and nearly every Constitutional office in the state. This was a perfect flip of where the state stood in 2002.
The true test of the power of the “Colorado Model” is not necessarily the success it enjoyed either as a novelty (2004) or as part of a concerted effort with strong tailwinds in 2006 or 2008. The true test is how much the GOTV effort and allied expenditures can stave off an expected Republican wave at the national and local level. Democrats likely hope their vaunted system can deliver marginal defenses in a handful races, and prevent a clean Republican sweep, given at least a 3 percent “enthusiasm gap” in early voting returns.
4) Independents in Colorado. The often-cited statistic is true — Colorado is roughly split into equal thirds between Republicans, Democrats, and unaffiliateds, as shown in the image below. When Republicans held a clear partisan registration advantage (150,000-200,000 votes), independents were looked upon to augment their lead. Democrats knew that a significant majority would be required in order to overcome the gap (near 60 percent of independents breaking their way). With the closure of that partisan registration gap — both parties are nearly tied — and the explosion of registered unaffiliated voters, the outcome of almost every single race will depend on how independents break. If the GOP candidate is doing better than expected in Democratic battleground counties, then independents are breaking toward the GOP, and Republican candidates will win fairly handily. If the independents split evenly, then then outcome will depend entirely on partisan GOTV efforts, which appear to favor Republicans as of midday on election day, with a 74,000 vote advantage.
5) The impact of the gubernatorial race. The failure to thrive of the Republican gubernatorial candidate and the insurgent campaign by Tom Tancredo as a third-party, quasi-Republican candidate will likely affect more than just the race for the state’s top office. Republican Dan Maes failed to withdraw from the race, citing his election as the party nominee, and saw support plummet to low single digits. Meanwhile, third-party former Congressman Tancredo surged, reaching low to mid-40s by the middle of October. Democratic nominee and Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper never capitalized on the conservative split, basically parked near 47 percent at the polls. The split on the GOP side, however, drove apart some in the liberty movement, and splintered hard-core Maes supporters from the other campaigns, most notably that of Buck’s in the Senate race (Buck withdrew his support of Maes in early September). Therefore, the GOP could not campaign as a “ticket” as the Democrats could, and whether or not Maes’ paltry 5 to 8 percent on Tuesday amounts to a Hickenlooper victory or ends up being a non-factor to Tancredo eking out a last-minute win remains one of the biggest unknowns of the evening.
6) Which pollster came the closest? In both 2006 and 2008, many races in Colorado appeared to be foregone conclusions in favor of Democratic candidates. Runaway elections do not put pollsters’ methodologies to the test, and the hotly contested U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races this cycle will put a premium on which pollster was able to read Colorado’s political pulse given the nature of the state, the even partisan split, Colorado’s quirky electoral habits over the past decade, a Democratic election model pioneered in the state, and a national mood that may or may not bear electoral fruit in the Rocky Mountains.
7) Impact of the Tea Party movement. Though the gubernatorial race has partly fractured the liberty movement across the state (many of the groups moved to withdraw their endorsements of Maes, an early grassroots favorite), polling outfits like Rasmussen declared Colorado a hotbed of activism, the top “Tea Party state,” and place where insurgent, non-establishment candidates like Buck, Maes (early), and Tancredo (late) have been successful in challenging establishment candidates in the primaries (Buck and Maes) or in potentially launching a highly improbable third-party win (Tancredo). All along the way, grassroots liberty movement groups latched on to and promoted the “underdog” candidates. Buck even incorporated the sentiment in his campaign slogan: “The Grassroots Choice.” The measurement of the Tea Party movement’s success (or failure) will be hotly debated, but a win by Buck and Tancredo will go a long way in burnishing the movement’s electoral “street cred” as something more than angry sign-waving, politically inexperienced, and temporary factor in Colorado’s electoral future.
**8) This is not a serious item, but as a friend reminded me, watching the sobriety of the respective campaign staffers gives a good approximation of how confident (or despairing) they are in the eventual outcome. Sober staffers and a close race late into the night? They’re expecting a long night, or in the case of a couple races this cycle, potential recounts. Should a clear winner not emerge early on, campaigns kick into gear preparing for media questions and at least another day of campaigning. The legal battle may have just begun Tuesday night. We’ll see how long Tuesday lasts.