Colo. Dems Eye Window of Opportunity in 2004

The year was 1987, a very good time for Colorado Democrats. Former Sen. Gary Hart (search) was a presidential contender, former Rep. Pat Schroeder (search) was weighing her own White House bid, and the party held three of the four statewide elective offices and made up half the state's congressional delegation.

Jump ahead nearly two decades and the political landscape is almost unrecognizable. The Republicans are still in charge of the Legislature, as they were in 1987, and they also hold three of the four statewide offices and seven of the state's nine congressional seats.

"The Democrats are a minority party," said Bob Loevy, a political science professor at Colorado College in Colorado Springs.

Nevertheless, the Democrats see opportunity this year, particularly with GOP Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell's (search) abrupt decision last week to retire.

His announcement and Republican Gov. Bill Owens' (search) decision not to run have boosted Democrats' hopes of making up lost ground in Colorado as they try to retake control of the U.S. Senate, where Republicans hold a 51-48 majority with one Democrat-leaning independent.

Along with Alaska, Illinois and Oklahoma, Colorado is considered one of the Democrats' best hopes for taking away a Senate seat from the GOP. With no announced Republican candidate, Democrats have been jockeying for position all week. Rep. Mark Udall (search) was in and then out when Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar (search) announced his campaign. Four other Democrats also are in the race.

The race is now "a pure toss-up," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

Schroeder, who retired in 1996 after 24 years in Congress, said voters' worries about the economy, the deficit and Iraq could swing the country the Democrats' way, possibly carrying along the party's Senate candidate in Colorado.

"First of all, Coloradans are not big spenders; this deficit stuff is going to make a difference. Environmental issues are worrying people," Schroeder said. "Coloradans have always been big boosters of education, and they've been watching that get hammered by the Republicans."

The state has a long history of sending bipartisan delegations to Congress. That has not been the case, however, since Campbell switched from Democrat to Republican in 1995. The state's other senator, Wayne Allard, is a Republican.

So what happened? Using a baseball analogy, Loevy and others said the Democrats lack a "farm system" for cultivating candidates, while the Republicans have the edge in fund-raising, numbers and, some say, organization.

The GOP holds the edge in statewide voter registration, 1 million to 855,542.

"I've not seen a gap like that since I've been in politics," said Dick Lamm, a former Colorado governor and executive director of the University of Denver's Center for Public Policy and Contemporary Issues. "The Republicans always had a lead in money. Now I think they have out-organized the Democrats."

The face of Colorado also has changed with the influx of mostly conservative voters from Southern California and elsewhere, boosting GOP registration.

The changes were evident throughout the 1990s: Colorado voters approved term limits, sweeping limits on taxes and spending, and a law prohibiting the recognition of homosexuals as a protected group (later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court). Owens narrowly won the 1998 governor's race, but charged to victory in 2002 with 65 percent of the vote.

The Democrats, meanwhile, had lost their star power: Former Sen. Tim Wirth, Hart and Lamm were all "celebrity candidates" who had built their campaigns around themselves rather than party issues, independent political consultant Floyd Ciruli of Denver said.

"They weren't grooming additional officeholders," he said.

Schroeder shrugged off the party's loss in stature, saying politics is cyclical. She said the Watergate scandal propelled her, Lamm, Hart, Wirth and others to Congress, and then the pendulum swung back.

"We've gone through these kinds of sea changes before," said Schroeder, who now lives in Florida and heads the Association of American Publishers in Washington.