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A Split Decision:
Voters Launch New GOP ERA
By Floyd Ciruli

Colorado's independent voters have done it again. They bucked election day's national Democratic trend and ushered in their own era of Republican-style politics.

In doing so, Colorado voters have ended a tradition of power-sharing among the major parties, and set the stage for the reforms that figured so prominently in Bill Owens' successful campaign. And while the overall November 3 election results signal caution and perhaps even a few mixed messages Coloradans appear ready to "Let the reform begin," as governor-elect Owens said in his election night victory speech.

Last Tuesday's decision continues the trend that has dominated politics in Colorado and indeed the Rocky Mountain region for most of the 1990s. Governor Romer began the decade with three Democratic colleagues in the neighboring seven western states. When he leaves office in January 1999 there will be no Democratic governors in the region. Even with the addition of two congressional seats in this election, there will be only five Democratic congressmen out of 24 in the intermountain west. Colorado now joins its neighbors in the nation's most Republican region.

Transplants from California, Texas and other states have brought their preferences for less government and swelled the ranks of Colorado's Republican party since 1992. The passage of tax limitation in 1992 and the election of a second Republican U.S. Senator in 1996 are markers in the growing domination of Colorado Republicans over the state's partisan offices and issue agenda. Last Tuesday's victory in the governor's race caps a decade-long swing to the right.

Because Colorado politics is largely defined by it governors, the end of 24 years of Democratic control of the governorship will spur significant change in personnel and policies. Gone are the sometimes halting checks and balances between a moderate and conservative Republican legislature and a liberal to moderate Democratic governor. While normal institutional differences may produce tension, the new alignment means a smoother working relationship between the executive and legislative branches. Coloradans can expect rapid adoption of new and more conservative tax, school and business regulatory policies in the next legislative session.

Candidates closely balanced

The two candidates were closely balanced on a number of criteria. Both had substantial political experience and were seen as members of their respective party establishment. Amendment 15 campaign finance limitation also leveled the field.

Colorado's long history of party sharing between the governor and legislature was an advantage that Gail Schoettler used effectively to argue for continuity. Conversely, Owens' message of change had difficultly resonating with a large majority of voters.

Owens' major challenge was to unite the liberal/moderate wing of his party with his core conservative constituency. That proved difficult. He also had to avoid the Democrats' effort to label him as extreme. Here, his well--modulated, low key campaign was successful. He was greatly helped by the endorsement of most of the state's daily newspapers.

Even the Republican registration advantage was offset in the campaign's last weekend by new, unaffiliated voters susceptible to Schoettler's negative advertising and a strong get out the vote effort by unions, feminists and environmentalists.

Ultimately, a victory of 8,000 out of 1.2 million voters involves considerable luck, but in the final analysis, the Republican base built up over the decade was enough to carry the day.

Ballot Issue Results

The success and failure of the state's ballot issues tell an important story about voter wishes. Namely, Coloradans were as discriminating as ever in their buffet-style approval and disapproval of a crowded ballot. And, the win/loss roster signals caution to newly elected and re-elected officials on social and economic issues.

The narrow voter approval of parental notification for abortion and the failure to ban partial birth abortion shows that voters are still hesitant to stem abortion rights. Even though many disapprove of late-term abortion, a "ban" stopped voters from passing the measure. The message: Avoid laws that carve too much from the bedrock of choice.

The resounding failure of Referendum B, which would have allowed the state to keep a portion of tax surplus, continues the resistance voters have shown since 1992 to sweeping statewide tax proposals for such things as schools, roads and tourism. It also illustrates that the proposal's lack of specifics failed to sway voters, who still believe solutions to statewide education and transportation exist in current budgets.

Passage of the Bronco Stadium tax stands as an anomaly, in which voters abandoned their normal tax resistance in favor of emotion, civic pride and support for their successful team.

Although tax credits for private schools failed, education clearly remains at the top of the public and leadership agenda. Passage of nearly every school proposal, with the exception of the poorly conceived Jefferson County Schools plan, indicates that voters are comfortable funding local projects. But voters remain reluctant to approve voucher- or tax credit-type proposals that are largely undefined in operation or outcome. School choice and education reform remain priorities and should not be tied to the failure of Amendment 17.

The results of restrictions and fees on San Luis Valley water and protection of hog farms show that efforts to buy an issue onto the ballot don't guarantee success. More importantly, the initiatives themselves demonstrate that in the absence of defined policy, interest groups will rush in to fill the void. In the case of water and hogs, the electorate rejected special interest and, ultimately, chose the environment.

Congressional Races

Colorado's congressional races produced much rancor, but no change in partisan makeup of the delegation. Democrats still hold two congressional seats after a major challenge in the Boulder-based 2nd Congressional seat. The winner, liberal environmentalist Mark Udall, will be matched by new 6th Congressional District Congressmen, former conservative talk show host and think tank executive Tom Tancredo.

In the Senate race, Ben Nighthorse Campbell's victory over Dottie Lamm was largely a product of his teflon charisma and a good year for incumbents. While Dottie Lamm benefitted from her well-known last name in the nomination process, it proved a handicap in the general election as large numbers of Democrats supported Campbell.

As the results of the national election point out, advantage changes quickly in politics. Small shifts in turnout or emphases in issue positions can dramatically alter election outcomes. Colorado Republicans begin the decade well-positioned for rule, but diverse constituencies and controversial issues create both opportunity and challenge. Meanwhile, the Democrats must patiently wait for their opportunities without the strength of the governor's office.

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