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The bellwether state


Like a lot of Kerry supporters, I had to eat some serious crow last Wednesday. As readers may recall, I get together most weekday mornings at a downtown coffee shop with my geezer homies, whom I tease because they're old, rich and Republican (except for Jim and Gary). They, in turn, tease me for being older, poorer and -- foolish me! -- a lib'rul.

So a couple of months ago, when things were lookin' good, I bet Ralph Hibbard 20 bucks that Kerry would win. And a couple of weeks ago, I doubled the bet. And Wednesday, I paid up. Ralph was a gracious winner, and the rest of the geezers were too delighted with the election results to gloat, so we all went out to lunch and, as manly men are wont to do, talked about women and sports.

OK, Kerry lost. Does that mean that the vast Republican tide is rising inexorably, that the country is turning permanently to the right, that this is just one of many "Red Novembers" to come?

I don't think so. In fact, I think that this is the high water mark of the American right, and that George W. may be the last conservative Republican ever to occupy the White House. Sounds like foolish, empty bravado doesn't it? (Those were my geezer homies shouting Yes! in unison.) Scoff if you must, but I can back it up with a single, magical word: Colorado.

Like it or not, every major national political trend of the last four decades has first appeared in Colorado. Ours was the first state to loosen restrictions on abortion, well before Roe v. Wade. Coloradans were environmentalists, were committed to participatory sports, were into organic food and were flocking to brewpubs long before most Americans.

Our progressive politicians -- Dick Lamm, Pat Schroeder, Gary Hart -- were national superstars. Indeed, Hart might have been president had he stayed away from Donna Rice. And just when we'd come into focus as a laid-back, countercultural, Rocky Mountain High kinda place, we turned sharply to the right.

Urban sprawl? No one does it better. And long before gay rights had become a hot-button national issue, we passed an anti-gay constitutional amendment. The sleepy, amiable traditional conservatives who had governed the state for so long were swept away by fiery-eyed young radicals, disciples of Doug Bruce, James Dobson or both. Bill McCartney won a national championship at C.U. and quit to found Promise Keepers. Focus on the Family relocated to Colorado Springs and made an already-conservative city even more so. Ted Haggard started the New Life Church with a handful of parishioners; today, it's one of the country's biggest mega-churches.

Political rhetoric became angry, strident and uncompromising. Big media, timid and fearful, obediently followed the perceived biases of their readers/listeners/viewers, and moved sharply to the right. Denver's irreverent lefty talk show host, Alan Berg, was murdered by a right-wing loony and replaced by the smarmily conservative Mike Rosen. Republicans controlled the governorship, both houses of the state Legislature, and, except for a couple of lonely urban Democrats (Diana DeGette and Mark Udall), the entire congressional delegation.

And as we became more conservative, so, too, did the rest of the country, obediently falling in line behind us. Newt Gingrich may have thought he started the Republican revolution, but he was just taking his cues from the likes of Doug Bruce, Steve Durham, and former Sen. Bill Armstrong.

Just as George W. is cackling over his new mandate, Colorado -- The Bellwether State -- has changed direction. Start with the Salazar brothers, newly elected to the House and Senate. Look at the legislature, now controlled by the Dems for the first time in 40 years. Look at the newly enacted tobacco tax, at Fastracks in Denver, and at the passage of Amendment 37 that mandates renewable energy. And look at Michael Merrifield, overwhelmingly re-elected to a second term.

This may look like a Democratic renewal. Is it? We're still a conservative state, but the hot-button social issues seem to have lost their potency. And today's successful Democrats -- the Salazars, Merrifield, House Majority Leader-elect Alice Madden -- are thoughtful, decent, non-ideological moderates. There's a de facto statewide coalition of "conservative progressives," who want sensible, activist government. It's a coalition that cuts across party lines -- of necessity, since registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by 180,000 voters.

Think that this is a transient phenomenon? Listen to the words of House Minority Leader Joe Stengel, noting that Colorado Republicans have gone from 41 seats in the House to 31 since 1998:

"Something's desperately wrong with our party."

George W., do you feel a cold breeze coming in from the mountains?

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