Routt County leaning to the left

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Farther left than Colorado

Democratic candidates and liberal issues fared 7 to 15 percentage points better in Routt County than they did statewide. A look at some examples (Numbers are percent of votes received):

U.S. Rep. John Salazar

Routt County: 68

District wide: 61

Difference: 7

Governor-elect Bill Ritter

Routt County: 66

Colorado: 56

Difference: 10

State Treasurer-elect Cary Kennedy

Routt County: 60

Colorado: 51

Difference: 9

Attorney General candidate Fern O'Brien

Routt County: 49

Colorado: 42

Difference: 9

Secretary of State

Routt County: 60

Colorado: 48

Difference: 12

No on Amendment 43, defining marriage as between one man and one woman

Routt County: 59

Colorado: 44

Difference: 15

Yes on Amendment 44, legalizing possession of one ounce or less of marijuana

Routt County: 53

Colorado: 40

Difference: 13

Yes on Referendum I, domestic partnership rights

Routt County: 60

Colorado: 47

Difference: 13

— Like racers on a NASCAR track, Routt County voters keep turning left.

Results of Tuesday's elections show that, for the third year in a row, Routt County voters cast ballots strongly in favor of Democratic candidates and liberal issues, a departure from gubernatorial and presidential elections in 2002 and 2000, respectively, and a significant statement by a county in which voters continue to be split into almost equal - if not conservative-leaning - thirds among Democratic, Republican, and unaffiliated registrations.

Statistics from the Routt County Clerk and Recorder's office show that, as of September, Routt County had about 4,200 registered Democratic voters, about 5,000 registered Republican voters, and about 5,200 unaffiliated voters.

Tuesday, unaffiliated voters made a clear choice.

Not only did Routt County voters elect Democratic candidates in all three contested, countywide races, but county voters also supported several progressive issues - such as expanding partnership rights for same-sex couples, denying a traditional marriage amendment to the state constitution, and legalizing possession of less than one ounce of marijuana. On each of those issues, Routt County's vote ran counter to the statewide totals.

While the city of Steamboat Springs dominated the left-wing vote, a Democratic tilt was also seen in Routt County as a whole. Governor-elect Bill Ritter of Denver won all 18 precincts in Routt County, part of a resounding victory statewide over Republican U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez of Arvada. Incumbent U.S. Rep. John Salazar, a Manassa Democrat, also swept the Routt County precincts on his way to victory over Republican challenger Scott Tipton of Cortez.

But a liberal Steamboat vote won the day for Democrat Gary Wall in the sheriff's race. Wall swept all eight precincts within the city limits but lost to Republican Garrett Wiggins in Hayden, Oak Creek, Yampa and North Routt.

Republican county commissioner candidate Paul Strong also won in Hayden and Yampa, but lost to Democratic commissioner-elect Diane Mitsch Bush, who swept all precincts in Steamboat, Oak Creek and Stagecoach. The candidates split votes in northern and eastern county precincts.

The only Routt County precinct that Democratic county assessor-elect Mike Kerrigan lost was Yampa, the home of Republican assessor candidate Dick Klumker.

"I would say that this is a definite turn for Steamboat toward the left," said Lynn Abbott, secretary of the Routt County Democratic Party.

Departure from history

Not too long ago, conservative candidates could win in Steamboat.

In 2000, five of the nine Steamboat precincts voted in favor of President George W. Bush, who tied in another Steamboat precinct and won a total of 10 precincts in Routt County compared to nine for Democrat Al Gore.

Also in 2000, Republican U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis swept Steamboat en route to a victory and election to Congress over Democrat Curtis Imrie. Democrat Doug Monger won his county commissioner seat that year, and county voters supported Democratic Clark rancher Jay Fetcher for the state House seat won by Republican Al White.

In 2001, Democrat Ken Brenner - now Steamboat Springs City Council president and chairman of the Routt County Democratic Party - lost a City Council race to current councilman Loui Antonucci.

In 2002, Republican Bill Owens won every Steamboat precinct on his way to the Governor's Mansion in Denver, defeating Democrat Rollie Heath. McInnis won re-election that year, and took all but one Steamboat precinct on his way to victory over Democrat Dennis Berckefeldt. Both Owens and McInnis won Routt County by more than 1,000 votes that year.

Seeds of change

The tide began to turn in 2003.

Brenner won a City Council seat that year, defeating Kathi Meyer by about 170 of the nearly 5,000 votes cast. Current council President Pro-tem Susan Dellinger defeated George "Bud" Romberg by less than 10 votes.

In 2004, the 11,500 voters who cast ballots in Routt County supported Democratic candidates Ken Salazar for U.S. Senate, John Salazar for Congress, Fetcher for state Senate and John Kerry for president. Kerry received 64 percent of the vote in Steamboat, compared to 44 percent in the rest of Routt County.

White, as in 2006, was the sole Republican to win the county that year, on his way to re-election to the state House.

In 2005, the taxpayer initiative Referendum C a bipartisan effort backed by Democrats statewide but supported by only some Colorado Republicans, including Owens, won by nearly 2,000 votes in Routt County.

In 2006, Democrats are enjoying results of the most one-sided election Routt County has seen in years.

Why so blue?

Democrats say numerous factors contributed to the party's success in Routt County, and in other rural counties across Colorado.

"There's no doubt that what was going on in Washington played a role in local races," said Brenner, chairman of the county party. "Because Republicans were in the majority, they were held accountable, and people clearly said, 'we're going to give Democrats a chance.'"

Democrats won majorities in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate last week, in addition to increasing majorities in the state House and state Senate in Colorado.

"It was a bad day to be a Republican candidate across the nation," Republican Paul Strong said.

"I really believe that this election is a very strong statement that America wants a change," Abbott said, adding that dissatisfaction with national leadership likely fueled participation in local Democratic events. "We had enormous turn-outs for all of our (county) events since March."

Courting rural votes

Denver Democrat Andrew Romanoff, recently elected to his fourth term in the state House and second term as Speaker of the House, said a Democratic effort to reach out to voters in rural counties is paying off.

"I think Ken Salazar led the way two years ago by courting rural Colorado and not taking any votes for granted," Romanoff said Thursday. "We have found strengths in parts of the state that haven't sent Democratic legislators to the Capitol."

Romanoff said voters in traditional Republican strongholds are turning to Democratic legislators. He cited the re-election of Democratic state Rep. Bernie Buescher in Grand Junction as an example. Buescher, chairman of the Legislature's powerful Joint Budget Committee, won election this year and in 2004 with 55 percent of the vote.

"We've made a concentrated effort to reach out to rural counties," said Pat Waak, chairwoman of the Colorado Democratic Party.

Waak listed Grand, Garfield, Archuleta, Conejos and Weld as rural counties, in addition to Routt, that supported Ritter.

"I think rural counties are looking for the kinds of things that we as Democrats are looking for - such as how do we move Colorado to the future, how do we keep our agricultural counties alive economically, and how do we keep our young people here," Waak said.

Middle of the road

A platform of supporting the economy, education and renewable energy is not at all solely Democratic.

"My sense is that the election was more a desire of people to move to the middle," Democratic City Council member Towny Anderson said. "It's not like we voted in a whole leftist movement here it's not a radical view; it's moderate. If there's any movement in Routt County, it's toward the middle."

Romanoff, Waak and local Democrats have expressed a desire to foster a bipartisan work ethic in the next two years.

"Typically, when you get in you say that sort of stuff," Strong said of parties that win majorities. "But then you take office, and that's not what you end up doing."

Routt County Republicans are already gearing up for the 2008 election, which will include a national race for president and local races for two county commissioners.

"Our goal is to win elections in 2008," Jennifer Schubert-Akin, chairwoman of the Routt County Republican Central Committee, said in an e-mail to supporters this week. "Your Routt County Republican Party leadership will be back to work in the next few weeks, to analyze what went wrong in 2006 and to prepare for victory in 2008.

"We are going to think about it, plan for it and work for it every single day. We are going to relaunch the "Republican Party brand" in Routt County."

- To reach Mike Lawrence, call 871-4203 or e-mail mlawrence@steamboatpilot.com

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