Magazine | March 23, 2009, Issue

Rocky Ride

(Darren Gygi)
The Republicans’ fall from power in Colorado -- and how the Democrats hope to replicate it

The day before Barack Obama accepted the Democratic nomination at Invesco Field in Denver, a group of progressive activists gathered nearby to discuss what Democrats call the “Colorado miracle.” The story is by now well known. Through a network of wealthy donors called the Colorado Democracy Alliance, Democrats turned Colorado — until recently, a reliably Republican state — a deep shade of blue.

Soon the conversation turned to something less well known: a quiet little project called the Committee on States, through which Democrats plan to export their Colorado success across the country over the next 20 months. “As we know, 2010 is redistricting, there are 35 governors’ races, so it’s going to be a critically important year,” said Rob Stein, founder of the Democracy Alliance, a national Democratic fundraising group. To prepare for 2010, Stein said last summer, architects of the “Colorado miracle” and a lawyer named Frank Smith would be working hard to get progressives in 18 other states “up to Colorado’s level of sophistication and organizational development.”

It wasn’t empty talk. In the past 30 months, the Democracy Alliance’s donors have put over $110 million into 30 state-level groups. “There are a bunch of states,” Stein continued, “where over the next couple of years a lot of development is going to happen.” Later in the presentation, Smith named a few: Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Utah, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

For Republicans in these states, understanding what happened in Colorado isn’t just a matter of curiosity — it’s a matter of political survival.

Consider the following. In October 2004, the GOP dominated politics at every level in Colorado. Republicans held both U.S. Senate seats, five of seven congressional seats, the governor’s mansion, the secretary of state’s and treasurer’s offices, and both houses of the state legislature. Four years later, the opposite is true: Replace the word “Republicans” with “Democrats” in the previous sentence, and you have one of the most stunning reversals of fortune in American political history.

How did it happen? The Colorado story isn’t just about changing demographics or an unpopular Bush presidency. Those factors played a part, but they cannot explain why Democrats dominate a state in which Republicans still outnumber them by 9,000 registered voters. Democratic success in Colorado is in large part the result of what Stein calls a “more strategic, more focused, more disciplined, better financed” progressive movement.

In hindsight, what Colorado Democrats did was as simple as it was effective. First, they built a robust network of nonprofit entities to replace the Colorado Democratic party, which had been rendered obsolete by campaign-finance reform. Second, they raised historic amounts of money from large donors to fund these entities. Third, they developed a consistent, topical message. Fourth, and most important, they put aside their policy differences to focus on the common goal of winning elections. As former Democratic house majority leader Alice Madden later said, “It’s not rocket science.”

In a larger sense, this is also a story about the unintended consequences of campaign-finance reform. In 2002, Congress passed McCain-Feingold. That same year, Colorado citizens enacted Amendment 27, a constitutional amendment that capped state-legislative contributions at $400 per donor. By lowering the amounts candidates could raise and spend, these laws effectively took message control out of the hands of candidates and handed it to outsiders.

Campaign spending in large quantities can now be accomplished only through the “independent sector” — a collection of nonprofit organizations that has stepped into the role once occupied by political parties.

Speaking to a group of lawyers in Denver last year, Democratic attorney Mark Grueskin summed up the new reality of political giving: “With the increased imposition of contribution limits, political money finds a way to the political system — always does, always has. . . . And those of you in this room are simply among the blessed, because you get to help people give politically. They’re going to give. And now they do it through nonprofit entities.”

The cost of participation in elections through the independent sector is high, especially at the state level. Political nonprofits are subject to byzantine tax, corporate, and accounting rules, and require constant guidance from lawyers and accountants. That guidance is expensive, which is why there’s no such thing as a “mom and pop” 527. Small and medium donors need not apply.

Colorado Democrats knew they needed a large infusion of seed capital to get their fledgling independent sector off the ground. At the same time, and quite serendipitously, a new breed of business-savvy multimillionaires (and one billionaire) emerged — and they were willing to write big checks. Unlike the traditional moneyed-liberal elites who try to change the world through charities, foundations, and think tanks, these donors just wanted results on Election Day. For Democrats, that wasn’t a problem; they wanted the same thing.

By leveraging big dollars against traditionally sleepy local races, Colorado Democrats raised the ante to a level once seen only in federal campaigns. The influx of congressional-level cash has turned state-legislative races inside out. What used to be a local affair of meet-and-greet coffees and door-to-door campaigning now consists of paid staff, television and radio ads, glossy mailers, and platoons of hired door walkers.

The shift of political discourse away from candidates and towards outside groups has created a tangible change in Colorado’s political culture. Campaigns tend to be more negative than before, since the entities bearing the message won’t be on the ballot and can’t be held accountable by voters. The issues driving campaigns are statewide, as opposed to local. And state legislators no longer think merely about keeping their constituents happy; nowadays they keep a wary eye on the 527s in Denver, too.

Democratic success in Colorado can be traced to a few donors, advisers, and elected officials who in 2004 shared the belief that by uniting in purpose, they could overcome the 177,000-voter registration edge Republicans then enjoyed.

At the time, the GOP hold on the senate was a tenuous 18–17. Nobody denied Democrats had a shot there. The real test would be in the state house, where Republicans held a solid 37–28 majority.

One of the first donors at the table was Tim Gill, the openly gay founder of software giant Quark, Inc. His interest in politics began in 1992, when 53.4 percent of Colorado’s voters approved Amendment 2, a ballot measure excluding gays and lesbians from being protected by state anti-discrimination laws. “Nothing can compare to the psychological trauma of realizing that more than half the people in your state believe that you don’t deserve equal rights,” he said in a 2000 interview with the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Gill was upset — and he had the financial means to do something about it (Forbes recently estimated his net worth at more than $425 million). In the mid-1990s, he endowed two foundations to increase awareness of gay-rights issues. Organized under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, they were (and are) prohibited by law from participating in partisan political activities.

Although he was heavily involved in philanthropic work, Gill’s political contributions were relatively modest. Then something happened in the Colorado state house that would add a partisan component to Gill’s activism — as well as a zero to his level of financial commitment. It also set into motion a chain of events that would change the course of Colorado political history.

In the spring of 2004, a state representative from the northern suburbs of Denver named Shawn Mitchell sponsored House Bill 1375. As introduced, the bill would have prohibited public schools from teaching about homosexuality “except in the context of instruction concerning the risk and prevention of sexually transmitted disease.” By the time the bill was signed into law, it had been watered down considerably. Nevertheless, Gill was infuriated. Telling a Democratic leader that “somebody’s got to go,” he jumped into the political game with both feet.

Seeking political counsel, Gill enlisted Ted Trimpa, an openly gay lawyer with widely respected political skills. Trimpa brought an innate pragmatism that reflected his western-Kansas roots. He also understood Republicans: With a résumé including a stint on the staff of former U.S. senator Nancy Kassebaum (R., Kans.), Trimpa had a good read on the art of the possible in Colorado’s conservative-leaning political environment.

Called “Colorado’s answer to Karl Rove” by The Atlantic magazine, Trimpa believes that to win, you must project strength. “You have to create an environment of fear and respect,” he told the Bay Area Reporter. “The only way to do that is to get aggressive and go out and actually beat them up [politically]. Sitting there crying and whining about being victims isn’t going to get us equality. What is going to get us equality is fighting for it.”

Gill connected with Al Yates, the recently retired president of Colorado State University and a prominent member of the black community. Yates was a trusted adviser to Pat Stryker, a billionaire heiress from Fort Collins whose grandfather started a medical-products company called the Stryker Corporation. Like Gill, Stryker had been a supporter of progressive causes.

Yates and Stryker took Stryker’s private jet to meet with Gill at his Aspen home, where they discussed transforming Colorado politics. Gill and Stryker then reached out to Jared Polis, a 29-year-old who had sold his family’s online greeting-card company for $780 million in 1999, and Rutt Bridges, a former geophysicist who had made more than $30 million selling software to oil and gas companies. Together with Gill and Stryker, they formed the “Gang of Four” — and became the first example of what progressives now call a structured donor alliance.

Trimpa reached out to traditional pro-Democratic groups such as the Colorado Education Association, the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association, the AFL-CIO, the Colorado chapter of NARAL, and the Colorado Conservation Voters. Although these organizations (especially the unions) were capable of bringing significant resources to bear on legislative races, they had never coordinated their efforts in a meaningful way.

Working with Trimpa and house majority leader Alice Madden, they met regularly at a roundtable where they identified vulnerable Republican legislative seats — and then designed strategies to pick them off. The group understood they could accomplish more if they agreed on a common goal: winning elections. Discussion of policy, or anything else that could divide the coalition or distract from its objective, was strictly verboten.

They also understood that campaign-finance reform had for all practical purposes killed political parties, leaving a vacuum that could be filled only by nonprofit entities. While national political groups understood this, in 2004 it was unusual for state-based organizations to grasp its significance. The group capitalized on a key provision of post-campaign-finance-reform election law: While nonprofits were no longer allowed to coordinate their activities with candidates or political parties, they were perfectly free to coordinate amongst themselves.

And coordinate they did.

In August 2004, targeted Republican candidates began to feel the first breezes of what soon became a hurricane. Large, coordinated donations showed up in their opponents’ coffers, and word began to trickle out about massive door-to-door walking campaigns.

And then the mail hit. “Who do I see about my prescription drug costs?!” shouts an angry woman wielding a rolling pin. The object of her anger was Rep. Bob Briggs, accused of voting against lowering the costs of 20 well-known brands of prescription medications. Pieces hit voters’ mailboxes not just once or twice, but almost every single day for several weeks before the election. The relentless wave of mail focused like a laser on poll-tested issues that mattered to unaffiliated voters: health care, education, and the environment.

In 2002, it was unusual for more than $100,000 to be spent even on a targeted legislative race. In 2004, that number more than doubled, with the vast majority of the difference being spent on the Democratic side of the ledger. The Republican house 527 raised about $496,000. The Gang of Four’s house 527 raised almost $1.07 million — with over half coming just from Gill and Stryker.

Republicans were caught completely off guard. On Election Day, the GOP lost both houses of the state legislature for the first time in 44 years. The Gang of Four targeted eight of the house races, and won seven. (Of those victories, six were in districts won by President Bush.) Democrats now controlled the house 35–30 and the senate 18–17.

After 2004, the Gang of Four morphed into the Colorado Democracy Alliance (CoDA). While Polis dialed back his involvement to focus on his congressional ambitions (he was elected from Boulder in 2008), CoDA more than replaced him with several other financial backers, including retired oil-and-gas executive Tom Congdon, vacuum-cleaner heir Bruce Oreck, progressive activist Linda Shoemaker, and several others. Internal documents revealed that in 2006, the group had a $16.5 million budget. That year, CoDA increased Democratic majorities in the state house (adding four seats) and senate (adding two), and played a key role in electing Democrat Bill Ritter Jr. as governor.

With a new Democratic trifecta in place, progressive donors and organizations cheered the passage of long-sought policy victories. New bills added sexual orientation to the state’s anti-discrimination laws and expanded adoption rights for gay parents. Environmental activists rewrote Colorado’s oil and gas regulations. Labor received an executive order from Governor Ritter effectively unionizing state employees. And trial lawyers won legislation making it easier to sue homebuilders for construction defects.

Colorado Republicans have had plenty of time to reflect on the stunning events of the last four years. They still haven’t found any major donors to offset the likes of Tim Gill and Pat Stryker. But money is only part of the story: In many ways, Colorado Republicans lost their majority as much as Democrats won it.

“The Democrats did several things really well,” says Colorado GOP chairman Dick Wadhams. “They recruited pretty good candidates. They honed in on some of the excesses of the Republican majorities, [on] issues that didn’t appear to be what people cared about.” Alice Madden agrees: “[We won] because we were talking about what people cared about. . . . It really comes back to the message.”

Legislators remember one incident in particular. In 2005, when the state was in the throes of a budget crisis, several Republican state representatives announced plans to pursue a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. At a press conference, Rep. Jim Welker asked, “Where do you draw the line? A year ago in India, a woman married her dog.” House Speaker Andrew Romanoff fired back: “We’re talking about the budget and they’re talking about bestiality.”

Republicans didn’t just lack a compelling message; they lacked unity. While Democratic donors and organizations set aside their differences and gathered around a table, Republicans were busy tearing one another apart in acrimonious primaries. Wadhams recalls: “Starting in the early 1990s, a civil war started within our party between moderates and conservatives that over time resulted in Democrats’ winning state legislative seats that historically had been Republican.” In 2004, Democrats picked off two Republican house seats where bitter primaries spilled over into the general election. In another race, a Republican group sent a mail piece ten days before the election attacking the Republican incumbent for her moderate positions on education reform. She lost to a liberal Democrat by 48 votes. Had those three seats — all of which George W. Bush carried that year — stayed Republican, the GOP would have held on to a one-seat majority in the house.

Two years later, the campaign of Republican gubernatorial candidate Marc Holtzman labeled his primary opponent, U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez, “Both Ways Bob.” Beauprez went on to win the nomination, but Democratic 527s gleefully highlighted the nickname in a seemingly endless series of 30-second television spots. The image helped sink Beauprez’s campaign. “Primaries can stir interest in a party and make candidates and campaigns sharper and more effective,” says Wadhams. “But the scorched-earth primaries of the 1990s and early 2000s were deadly to our party.”

Republicans have nonetheless found some reasons for optimism. Being in the minority has minimized differences and united conservatives and moderates against a common foe. And where Republicans once saw the Democratic surge in Colorado as a fluke, they now recognize it for the game-changer it was — something to be emulated, not feared. Sweeping Democratic victories have also created opportunities for a new generation of Republican leaders. Led by 33-year-old state senate minority leader Josh Penry, some GOP legislators have become more nimble and message-driven than their predecessors who served in the majority. Taking a cue from British Conservative leader David Cameron, Penry has positioned himself as the head of Colorado’s shadow government, sparring with Democratic governor Bill Ritter on key issues like education, transportation, energy, and taxes.

To Penry, who has served only in the minority, the path ahead is clear: “Either we can sit around and whine about the fact that a couple of hyper-rich, super-smart people have been throwing us around like the political equivalent of a rag doll, or we can dust ourselves off, raise the level of our game, and get back in the fight.”

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