DENVER – After bucking a national trend toward the political right in the last election with wins in the state Capitol and the congressional delegation, emboldened Colorado Democrats are seeking to expand on their gains.
Democrats are convinced Republicans have lost their way in Colorado, said Chris Gates, who was state Democratic Party chairman during the November election.
"There is definitely a significant shift going on in Colorado, and I think Colorado is a beachhead for the Democratic Party in the Rocky Mountain West," said Gates.
A spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (search) in Washington, Phil Singer, agrees.
"The success we had in Colorado the last cycle offers a roadmap for success in the West," Singer said.
Democrats also see potential for victories in Montana, which elected Brian Schweitzer as the first Democratic governor in 20 years, and Utah, where Salt Lake County voters elected a Democratic mayor. Arizona and New Mexico have Democratic governors.
On Thursday, Colorado Rep. Mark Udall (search), a member of a Western political dynasty, announced he would forego a widely expected gubernatorial bid in favor of a 2008 campaign to oust Republican Sen. Wayne Allard (search).
If Udall wins, he would give Democrats control of both of the state's Senate seats for the first time since 1974.
Allard has refused to say whether he will keep his promise to step down after two terms. If Allard does not run, Republicans may try to persuade Gov. Bill Owens (search) to enter the race after he leaves office in 2006 because of term limits.
In the November election, Democrats picked up the Senate seat vacated by Republican Ben Nighthorse Campbell. Democratic Attorney General Ken Salazar defeated beer magnate Pete Coors to win the seat, and Democrats also captured control of the state Legislature and wrested a congressional seat from the GOP.
Udall's chief of staff, Alan Salazar, who is not related to Ken Salazar, said the November election showed Colorado voters are willing to split the ticket and support candidates instead of parties.
"It's not a red state or a blue state, but a purple state," Salazar said.
Pollster Floyd Ciruli said Colorado has gradually shifted from a staunchly conservative state focused on anti-tax initiatives and conservative values to a more middle-of-the-road stance.
Ciruli said Democrats benefited from unusual circumstances last year that resulted in a huge turnout because of widespread interest in the presidential race, while Republicans focused on re-electing President Bush and defeating a constitutional amendment that would have divided up the state's electoral votes.
"Clearly the Republicans were distracted. The Democrats should not depend on that happening again," Ciruli said.
Colorado Democrats are not entirely unified — because of his support of Ken Salazar, Gates is now out of a job. On Saturday, Gates narrowly lost the party's chairmanship to Pat Waak, a party activist upset because Gates supported Salazar over a more liberal candidate, educator Mike Miles, in the primary. Gates is challenging his loss.
Colorado College political science professor Bob Loevy said he wasn't surprised by Gates' ouster because the state party structure makes it easier for more liberal Democrats to seize control.
Brian Nick, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, maintains that Democrats are now vulnerable because of Salazar's direction in the Senate.
"He jumped head first into the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. It's the Democrats who are misreading Colorado. The president carried Colorado," Nick said.