Tracing the Line in Colorado, a State Split Left and Right

By JACK HEALY

Two Democrats, Gov. John W. Hickenlooper and Senator Mark Udall, are in fierce re-election races, and both parties are spending millions in a state not quite red or blue.

ERIE, Colo. — To trace the border between the liberal and conservative corners of the American West, head down East County Line Road, a two-lane asphalt stripe parting the plains here in Northern Colorado.

To the east lies Weld County, a conservative stronghold where 20,000 oil and gas wells pump day and night, and Republicans are so dominant that they are running unchallenged for county assessor, clerk and a commissioner’s seat. Fifteen miles to the west is Boulder, where a Buddhist-inspired university offers classes in yoga and the Tibetan language, and nature activists are working to carve out legal rights for ecosystems and wild species.

Straddling those divisions is Erie, a town of 21,500 whose perch along County Line Road embodies the shifting politics and demographics of a Western swing state where Republicans are waging a spirited battle to reclaim power after recent years of Democratic gains. Two prominent Democrats, Gov. John W. Hickenlooper and Senator Mark Udall, are in fierce re-election fights, and both parties are spending millions to claim a bellwether win.

“Colorado is subjected to extremes,” said Roy Romer, a former governor. “It’s not just blue and red. It’s also urban and rural. We have a history to this.”

To some, the social and demographic changes that have shaded Colorado blue in recent elections are welcome. But Colorado’s political leanings have tilted back and forth in surprising ways since it became a state in 1876, sometimes marching in lock step with Republican ranching and mining magnates, and other times bolting to support populists or so-called Silver Republicans who detested the once-dominant gold standard.

“This is not a blue state,” said Ted Trimpa, a lawyer and political strategist who helped to craft the Democratic rise to power in the statehouse over the past decade. “This is very much an independent state, and more and more reflects where people in the rest of the country are.”

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The contest between Mr. Udall and his Republican challenger, Representative Cory Gardner, a second-term congressman from far eastern Colorado, has become one of the most competitive and expensive Senate races in the country. It is a must-hold seat if Democrats have a shred of hope of retaining their Senate majority. For Republicans, it offers a long-sought chance to reclaim a marquee statewide office and show that they can once again win in a Western state that is growing more urban, Hispanic and socially liberal.

The campaign has touched on energy drilling and the economy, President Obama’s health care law and the size and role of government, but at its core has been a battle for the votes of women and Latinos. In 2010, Democrat Michael Bennet defied a nationwide Republican surge to win a Senate race here, in large part because Democrats hammered his Republican opponent on abortion and contraception. As for Latinos, they now represent 14 percent of Colorado’s electorate and 21 percent of its population, and while many are reliably Democratic, Republicans have been going door to door to try to sway them.

Democrats are pressing their advantages with both groups in campaigning against Mr. Gardner, casting him as an anti-immigrant conservative who wants to broadly outlaw abortion. Mr. Gardner does oppose abortion, but he has tried hard to soften his conservatism and appeal to the center, saying he wants to make birth control available over the counter and no longer supports a “personhood” referendum that would grant legal rights to embryos.

This will also be the first major election to test Colorado’s new all-mail voting system, in which ballots were sent to all registered voters three weeks before Election Day, ideally — in the eyes of those who proposed the change — increasing turnout. The new law, which will also allow people to register to vote up through Election Day, was approved by the Democratic-controlled legislature over loud Republican objections.

A Cliffhanger

Analysts say this may be the closest Senate race in the country, and so candidates are fanning out across the heavily Democratic neighborhoods of Denver, the deeply Republican suburbs of Douglas County and growing bedroom communities like Erie.

Here, new homes (“From the $300s!" declare billboards) are cropping up on old pastureland, gazing out at new oil-and-gas well pads. Construction and a drilling boom have helped to pull Colorado out of the recession, pushing unemployment down to 4.7 percent and reviving tax revenue. But economists say that job growth has not kept up with the state’s explosive population growth.

One of Erie’s largest employers, a gun-magazine manufacturer named Magpul, is leaving town out of disgust with new gun-control laws passed last year by Democrats. As many as 200 jobs are leaving for Texas and Wyoming. Joe Wilson, a former mayor and National Rifle Association member, said he was not upset with Magpul for leaving, but with politicians for tightening gun laws.

“It was nuts in a down economy to have an industry ejected from the state,” he said. “It shocked people.”

Erie’s partisan hues mirror the rest of the state. About 30 percent of voters here are Democrats and 32 percent are Republicans, but each party is outnumbered by independent voters. Residents say the town’s politics and demographics are changing fast with the arrival of more people priced out of the Boulder area.

“Everybody’s a transplant at this point,” said Shawne Beeson, who moved here in September from the northern Denver suburb of Westminster, beckoned by good schools and affordable homes. He opened a computer-repair shop in a shopping plaza.

“I’m just part of what’s happening,” he said. “I think this place is going to become a lot more Boulder. As prices shift, they’re all going to come here.”

As a die-hard Democrat, Mr. Beeson said, living in a politically diverse town has required some concessions to civility. He said he listened politely when he disagreed with a customer, but admitted that he once snapped at a man who was fuming about this summer’s influx of young Central American refugees.

“I sort of went off the rails,” he said.

Growth and Diversity

The last two decades brought growth and diversity in Denver and the towns that spill eastward from the Front Range of the Rockies and cluster along Colorado’s two major interstates. The area is now a polyglot quilt of immigrants from East Africa, Central America and Southeast Asia. Vietnamese noodle houses line Federal Boulevard in Denver. Somali and Burmese refugees slaughter cows at the meatpacking plants outside Fort Morgan.

Twenty-five years ago, Colorado’s population was about two-thirds the size it is today, and much whiter and more conservative. In 1991, Focus on the Family moved its headquarters to Colorado Springs, becoming a clarion voice of Christian conservatism in the national and local culture wars.

On the northeastern plains, near the Nebraska border, Mr. Gardner’s hometown, Yuma, embodies a white, rural conservatism that is changing fast. It is a solidly Republican agricultural and ranching city where hunters arrive every autumn for pheasant season, and Mr. Gardner’s family still runs a farm-equipment business.

In the last 30 years, though, waves of once-migrant workers from Mexico’s Chihuahua State have settled here, drawn by jobs picking beets and pumpkins and working in the dairies and hog-feed lots. Latinos now make up about 40 percent of Yuma’s population, compared with 4 percent in 1990. Half the preschoolers and nearly half the elementary-school students in Yuma come from Spanish-speaking families, said Margo Ebersole, with the Rural Communities Resource Center.

“The Latino community has been growing faster by threefold than any other community in Colorado,” said Jessie Ulibarri, a Democrat and one of a dozen Hispanic legislators in the state house. But cultural acceptance has not always matched demographics. “People look at us and still perceive us to be perpetual foreigners,” he said. “I don’t know how many times I’ve been told by people that if I stand up for immigrants, I should go back home.”

Over the summer, when the push for immigration reform stalled in Washington, Hispanic activists flocked to Mr. Gardner’s district offices in northeastern Colorado to pressure him to vote for a comprehensive package that passed the Democrat-controlled Senate, supported by Mr. Udall. But Mr. Gardner says that granting citizenship or its benefits to millions of undocumented immigrants “will only encourage more illegal immigration.”

Toward the southern border of the state, where the county names change from Lincoln and Custer to Huerfano and Costilla, a Republican state representative named Clarice Navarro-Ratzlaff said she believed conservative messages about small government, low taxes and family values could resonate with the state’s Hispanic population.

As she drives across her district, Ms. Navarro-Ratzlaff said she sometimes stopped at homes with “Latinos for Obama” signs in the yard. She tells her story, of being a fifth-generation Coloradan who was raised by a single mother. Of how she worked nights in a pickle plant and is still paying off her college loans. She talks about how she registered as a Democrat because her mother told her to, but found a home in the Republican Party. And in a state where borders and state lines were drawn up around Hispanic families who had lived here for centuries, Ms. Navarro said the Republican message on immigration has the potential to resonate.

“Our Hispanic culture believes in securing our borders,” she said. “We want to honor the law-abiding citizens that have followed the appropriate steps to becoming an American. Democrats have used this against us, but the fact remains that illegal is illegal.”

‘Rugged Collaboration’

The tourists are back in Estes Park, a summertime Brigadoon at the foot of Rocky Mountain National Park. Last September, all of this was water, mud and devastation.

As the worst floods in a generation carved a $2.9 billion trail of devastation through the state, they washed out roads in Estes Park, swept homes off their foundations and wrecked the floors of Julie Pieper’s main-street restaurant, Mama Rose’s.

On this diamond-clear summer day, Ms. Pieper was serving up turkey-bacon wraps and homemade potato chips to about 100 supporters who had come to see Mr. Udall. A passionate mountain climber who lives in the mountain town of Eldorado Springs, Mr. Udall completed a quest this summer to scale Colorado’s 100 highest peaks. He looked at home weaving through the sun-bronzed crowd, which included hikers, kayakers and Dr. Thomas F. Hornbein, a climber whose ascent up the West Ridge of Mount Everest remains one of the greatest feats of mountaineering.

Mr. Udall’s pitch to the crowd was “rugged collaboration.” He said the phrase exemplified how government agencies and nonprofits, residents and businesses worked together after the floods. People took in neighbors who had been washed out. They set up zip lines to cross torrential rivers. In a year, much of the devastation has been repaired or is well on the way.

“The response was spectacular,” Ms. Pieper said. “I’ve got friends who are Republicans who support this crew because of the response.”

Mr. Udall has attacked Mr. Gardner for his votes during last year’s government shutdown, which came as flood-stricken towns remained cut off from the world and scores of families were still homeless. In Estes Park, he called it irresponsible and “disqualifying, in my view, to being a United States senator.”

Mr. Gardner said he had pushed to find a solution to the shutdown as it dragged on for two weeks last October, and said he and Mr. Udall had worked together to get federal money for recovery here. “We were in helicopters together overseeing the efforts in the days following the flood,” Mr. Gardner said in an interview. “It is below the office of the United States Senate to attack a member of the delegation he knows was a partner.”

The Udall campaign and other groups have also attacked Mr. Gardner for co-sponsoring the Life at Conception Act, a bill that would grant full legal rights to people from “the moment of fertilization.” It would potentially outlaw abortion at any stage and — critics contend — some forms of birth control. While Mr. Gardner said he no longer supported a similar “personhood” measure on the ballot this November in Colorado, he has been forced in debates and interviews to explain why he is still backing the federal bill.

For Democrats, the focus on abortion is part of a strategy aimed at making Mr. Gardner appear as anti-woman as possible to voters like Ann Cerny, a pathologist’s assistant in Erie. She said her views on spending and government made her a Republican at her core, but that working with fetal tissue samples every day in her lab had put women’s health issues front and center this election.

“As a woman, I want to make sure women’s health care is O.K.,” she said. “Personhood, anything with abortion — that’s my job. I have to have freedom of choice.” Her conclusion: “I cannot vote Republican.”

But to Debbie Brown, a former Republican campaign manager who now leads a statewide women’s group, the attention to reproductive issues is maddening. In 2010, Ms. Brown watched Democrats win 56 percent of the women’s vote in the 2010 Senate race, in part by portraying Republicans as dogmatic enemies of abortion and birth control. She organized the Colorado Women’s Alliance as a conservative counterweight to liberals whom she says are obsessed with reproductive politics.

“What else you got?” she asked over coffee one rainy morning. “I could care less about birth control. It’s widely available, and I think that’s awesome. There’s not a crisis.”

While Mr. Gardner’s campaign argues that his positions are being distorted by the Udall camp, Ms. Brown and her group are trying to change the definition of what constitutes an election-year “women’s issue.” What about energy? she asked. What about jobs, wages and health care? In panels she has assembled, Ms. Brown said women felt that the laserlike focus on reproductive issues was a ploy for their votes.

When money is so tight that your family disconnects the phone line and cable and wears sweaters to save on heating, worrying about abortion laws seems like an unaffordable luxury, said Margo Branscomb, a single mother in the southern Denver suburb of Centennial.

“Everybody needs to stay out of the bedroom,” she said. “It should be an individual’s choice in all respects, whether it’s a wedding or all these social issues.”

In Erie, from behind the counter of his gold and silver shop, Levi Hatgi is watching the changes rippling through Colorado. He works with a Smith & Wesson handgun strapped to his hip, but says guns need to be kept out of certain people’s hands. He says politicians have tilted tax policies to favor big corporations over small businesses, and he knows small-business owners who have been hurt by the Affordable Health Care Act. But he says he feels alienated from Republicans because of their tight embrace of religion.

It has been a year since he and his fiancée, Megan Huckaby, moved to Erie, and Ms. Huckaby has drawn one firm conclusion about its place here in this battleground: “It’s right on the line.”