The GOP Takes Heart From Colorado, But Still Faces 2016 Hurdles

Nov 8, 2014
Originally published on November 8, 2014 12:33 pm

Colorado is one of the battleground states where Republicans made big gains this week. Republicans in the state believe they now have momentum going into the 2016 presidential election.

But the GOP has suffered some punishing losses there lately, owing in part to the state's changing demographics. That trend may still be a big factor in 2016.

The last time Republicans won a U.S. Senate seat here was when Wayne Allard was re-elected in 2002. Back then, Congressman and now Senator-elect Cory Gardner was a young staffer working behind the scenes for Allard.

Tuesday night, Gardner got to take the podium.

"As Republicans in Colorado, we've gotten used to the saying, 'Wait until the next election,' " Gardner told his supporters. "Well, I've got news for you, that next election, it finally happened."

Gardner's victory Tuesday over Democratic Sen. Mark Udall rested in part on his ability to energize the base and still appeal to moderates in the party, and, according to exit polls from Tuesday, even unaffiliated voters. That's key, because those voters tend to outnumber registered Democrats or Republicans in Colorado.

"I think that what it tells us more than anything is that candidates really matter," says Ryan Call, chairman of the Colorado GOP. "That's really where, I think, as we look at the lessons learned in this election cycle, we were able to avoid some of those problems or challenges that our party has faced in the past."

One of those past problems was the internal sparring between social conservatives and moderates, which started around 2002. Some of the party's candidates were also seen as weak. But this year, the energetic Gardner made inroads among libertarian-leaning independents.

Call says the GOP is rebranding itself and trying to expand the tent.

"The invitation that we made, to perhaps communities that in the past the party has not always done a good job connecting with, this year we made tremendous efforts to invite people to join us in this campaign," he says.

But the post-game pundits are also quick to lay blame on Udall's campaign.

Democrats "went all in, all chips on the table, with regard to that one narrative: the war on women," says Eric Sondermann, a longtime political strategist in Colorado. "I think it left a lot of voters sort of saying to themselves, 'What else do you have?' "

In the end, though, Gardner only won by 2.5 percentage points. Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper also held on to his seat.

"Republicans should not take anything for granted," Sondermann says. "Demographics are still tough; they're particularly tough in a presidential year. The next two Senate races in Colorado will both be in presidential years."

Turnout in presidential years is higher, especially among young voters and minorities. Colorado is becoming a more urban and diverse state — trends that are expected to work against this newfound Republican momentum.

In this week's midterm, only half of Colorado's Latino electorate voted.

Latinos rallying at a Denver church say they stayed home Tuesday due to frustrations over the lack of action on immigration. Carla Castedo, director of the Colorado chapter of Mi Familia Vota, says Udall missed an opportunity to focus his campaign on immigration.

In the campaign's closing months, Gardner began softening his tone on immigration. Castedo says Latinos will watch this new Republican Congress closely.

"If they want the Latino vote in 2016, that is something they'll definitely have to think about," she says. "We see this as an issue that will not go away."

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Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Colorado is one of the battleground states where Republicans made big gains this week. The GOP there had suffered some punishing losses in the past, owed in part to the state's changing demographics, but as NPR's Kirk Siegler reports, demographics may still be a big factor in 2016.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: The last time Republicans won a U.S. Senate seat here was when Wayne Allard was re-elected in 2002. Back then, Congressman and now Senator-elect Cory Gardner was a young staffer working behind the scenes for Allard. Tuesday night he got to take the podium.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SENATOR-ELECT CORY GARDNER: As Republicans in Colorado, we've gotten used to the saying wait until the next election.

Well, I've got news for you. That next election? It finally happened.

SIEGLER: Gardner's success rests on his ability to energize the base and still appeal to moderates in the party and according to exit polls from Tuesday, even unaffiliated voters. That's key because they tend to outnumber registered Democrats or Republicans in Colorado.

CHAIRMAN RYAN CALL: I think that what it tells us more than anything is that candidates really matter.

SIEGLER: Ryan Call is chairman of the Colorado GOP.

CALL: That's really where I think, as we look at the lessons learned in this election cycle, we were able to avoid some of those problems or challenges that our party has faced in the past.

SIEGLER: One big problem in the past was the internal fights between social conservatives and moderates starting around 2002. Some of the party's candidates were also seen as weak, but this year the energetic Cory Gardner made inroads among Libertarian-leaning independents. Chairman Call says the GOP is rebranding itself and trying to expand the tent.

CALL: The invitation that we made to, perhaps, communities that in the past the party has not always done a good job of connecting with, this year we made tremendous efforts to invite people to join us in this campaign.

SIEGLER: But the post-game pundits are also quick to lay blame on Democratic Senator Mark Udall's campaign. Eric Sondermann is a long-time political strategist here.

ERIC SONDERMANN: They went all in, all chips on the table, with regard to that one narrative - the war on women. I think it left a lot of voters sort of saying to themselves, what else do you have?

SIEGLER: In the end though, Cory Gardner only won by two-and-a-half percentage points and Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper also held onto his seat.

SONDERMANN: Republicans should not take anything for granted. Demographics are still tough. They're particularly tough at a presidential year. The next two Senate races in Colorado will both be in presidential years.

SIEGLER: Turnout in presidential years is higher, especially among young voters and minorities. Colorado is becoming a more urban and diverse state, trends that are expected to work against this newfound Republican momentum. In this week's midterm, only half of Colorado's Latino electorate voted.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (In raised voice) What do we want?

CROWD: (In raised voices) Action.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (In raised voice) When do we want it?

CROWD: (In raised voices) Now.

SIEGLER: Some Latinos rallying at this Denver church say they stayed home Tuesday due to frustrations over the lack of action on immigration. Carla Castedo of the Colorado chapter of Mi Familia Vota says Udall missed an opportunity to focus his campaign more on immigration. She says Latinos will watch this new Republican Congress closely.

CARLA CASTEDO: If they want the Latino vote in 2016, that is something that they'll definitely have to think about. We see that this is an issue that will not go away.

SIEGLER: In the campaign's closing months, Republican Cory Gardner began softening his tone on immigration. That's something Republicans may turn to again if they want to carry this week's momentum into 2016.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.