Monday, March 23, 2009

It Can Happen Here

One of the most important political stories of recent years that probably has not gotten quite the attention and discussion it deserves is how Colorado has been flipped from a red to a blue state in a most dramatic fashion. Rarely do you see such sweeping changes in the political make up of a state in such a short period of time. Rob Witwer has the details in the March 23rd edition of National Review (sub req):

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.

While the Minnesota GOP has been reeling lately from a series of election defeats, the losses here are nothing compared with what's occurred in Colorado. We went from being a state that seemed to turning purple back to pretty solidly blue. Colorado went from red to blue in what in political terms is a blink of an eye.

Witwer details how the Democrats were able to engineer this amazing turnaround:

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."

No, it's not. And yet Republicans more often than not seem unable to grasp and employ these concepts, especially the fourth one. Instead, we'd rather waste vast amounts of time and energy tearing ourselves apart in internecine battles over issues that in the big picture aren't particularly important in determining election outcomes.

Witwer's piece also contains a warning message to Republicans across the country that what happened it Colorado can happen to them:

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.

The Democrats have a tried and true game plan for success that they're ready to roll out across the country. Will Republicans be able to come together and develop an effective strategy to counter? The answer to that question may well determine if Colorado was the first GOP domino to fall or the last.

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