Leftward leaning | SteamboatToday.com

Leftward leaning

In Routt County, shift to the left has become a slide

Brandon Gee

— Six days before Election Day, Randy Baumgardner stood in the Old Town Pub and took note of what he saw while driving into downtown Steamboat Springs that morning.

Democrats were waving signs on street corners and urging people to vote early. There were no Republican counterparts.

As Baumgardner spoke to Routt County Republicans waiting for a campaign visit by U.S. Senate candidate and former Congressman Bob Schaffer, he didn’t call for the same kind of activism. Rather, he chalked his party’s aversion to get in people’s faces to the conservative character of its members.

If Routt County has been leaning to the left since 2003, 2008 might be considered the year it fell over. Although Republicans did well in Northwest Colorado as a region, they fared abysmally in Routt County.

Baumgardner went on to a solid win in his bid for state House District 57, but he got only 37 percent of the vote in Routt County. Schaffer didn’t fare much better. He lost to Rep. Mark Udall, D-Eldorado Springs, by a modest margin statewide, but got only 39 percent of the vote in Routt County.

The story was the same for almost every other race in which Routt County voters had a say last week. Moderate state Rep. Al White, R-Hayden, was the only contested Republican on Tuesday’s ticket to win Routt County.

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“What the election results tell us is, we have a lot of work to do,” said Rick Akin, a local conservative. “There’s going to have to be a lot of soul-searching – not only locally, but nationally – to figure out what the Republican Party is.”

Republicans across the nation are echoing Akin’s sentiment, believing the party must recast itself in the wake of last week’s discouraging defeats. There also are questions facing Democrats, who hope to harness the enthusiasm achieved in 2008 and carry it forward to future elections.

Fractured

When he moved to Routt County in the mid-1990s, Akin said Republicans dominated the county. That continued through the turn of the century. Routt County voters’ preference for Democratic candidates and liberal issues in the past five years is a departure from gubernatorial and presidential elections in 2002 and 2000, respectively.

While a plurality of Routt County registered voters remain unaffiliated, Democratic voter registrations overtook Republican ones for the first time this year, by a count of 5,346 to 5,290.

Akin is not as quick as Baumgardner to dismiss the need for the party to do more outreach.

“For whatever reason, you’re unlikely to see Republicans standing on the street corner waving a sign,” Akin said. “It’s always been that way. : That’s probably something we need to get better at.”

But, more than cheerleading, Akin said the party should work on education and organization. Akin said there is a general lack of understanding of what the party stands for.

“We need to get our message out,” he said.

Paul Strong said the GOP should do some internal work, as well. Nationally and locally, Strong said the party absolutely needs to recast itself.

“It’s what the party needs to do, or it ceases to be relevant,” said Strong, who is treasurer of the Routt County Republican Central Committee. “It’s something I’ve wanted to see happen for a long time. I always thought we’ve been somewhat fractured.”

A victim of its own success, Strong said the party has been fracturing steadily since the 1994 “Contract with America” that garnered its first majority in the U.S. House of Representatives in 40 years.

That year, Strong said, the party coalesced around its dislike of then-President Bill Clinton and congressional Democrats.

“I view politics as a pendulum,” Strong said. “It swings one way. Then it swings another. : With Obama in the White House, I think you’ll see the pendulum swing back the other way.”

If that plays out, Strong said, the Democratic senator’s election might be a blessing in disguise for the Republican Party.

“You need something to shake you up sometimes,” he said. “It’s, in some ways, a good thing that the presidency tends to go back and forth.”

Strong said without a unifying factor in the party, some Republicans have allowed themselves to get too hung up on individual interests and issues. He cited the social conservatism movement as an example.

“I’m not sure the whole party is there. But they’re such a large force, it’s hard to speak out and say anything against them,” said Strong, who noted that he is a pro-choice Republican. “I’m for less government intervention, whether that’s in the economy or people’s lives. : We need to be more accepting of variances within our party. That’s the whole idea of the big tent.”

Maintaining momentum

Whether Republicans will once again coalesce around their dislike of a Democratic president remains to be seen. It is clear however, that Democrats found plenty to rally about this year.

“Barack Obama helped turn people out,” Strong said. “A bigger part of it was George Bush. No matter who the Democrats put up this year, they would have been energized to change things.”

Locally, it appears John McCain’s choice of a running mate was a motivating factor on both sides. Jerri MacMillian, a summertime Steamboat resident from Connecticut, said last week that she decided to volunteer for the campaign because she identified with Palin.

At Barack Obama’s “Campaign for Change” office in Steamboat Springs, field organizer Dylan Roberts said many of the about 500 volunteers he coordinated were helping a campaign for the first time.

“When McCain picked Palin as his vice president, the volunteers started flooding in the office,” Roberts said.

Lynn Abbott, a member of the Routt County Democrats, said the presence of a national presidential campaign office also gave the local party a boost.

“A lot of it was having these kids here,” she said. “A lot of it was George Bush. A lot of it was our local Democratic Party has grown a lot in the last four years. I grew up here, and I don’t remember this kind of campaigning ever. This is by far the most energized campaign I’ve ever seen.”

Maintaining that kind of momentum will be a challenge, said Topher Simon, deputy field organizer at the Obama campaign office. Simon said whether it continues will depend largely on the quality of the candidates the party puts forth in future elections.

“As long as we get good candidates, the enthusiasm will stay,” he said.

Catherine Carson, chairwoman of the Routt County Democratic Party, said she is not concerned that expectations are too high for Obama. She said passions will remain high if people focus on unity and compromise.

“This partisanship has to end,” Carson said. “That energy is something we all need to focus on moving forward.”

Going forward, Strong said he expects election results similar to this year’s. He thinks Northwest Colorado will stay red regionally, while Routt County will continue to follow the leftward leanings of other ski resort areas.

“It doesn’t come as a surprise to me to see Routt County go that way. I think it’s a trend that, in some ways, is unstoppable.”

Akin agreed.

“There’s no indication that change is going to stop or reverse itself,” Akin said. “What we can do is try to eliminate it to the extent we can and not lose more than we have to.”

That doesn’t change the need for local Republicans to work harder, Strong said. More than one-third of Routt County voters, after all, don’t affiliate themselves with either political party.

“It just needs to be better organized. We’ve been extremely unorganized lately and haven’t been a real active force,” Strong said about the local Republican Party. “We need to make better use of the people who want to do things. It’s a failing when people want to be active and be involved and you don’t take advantage of it.”

– To reach Brandon Gee, call 871-4210 or e-mail bgee@steamboatpilot.com

By the numbers

When it came to the winners in last week’s election, Routt County voters favored Democrats more, and Republicans less, than their counterparts across districts, the state and nation.

A look at some examples (Numbers are percent of votes received):

President

Winner: Barack Obama (D)

U.S. 52%

Colo. 53%

Routt 63%

U.S. Senate

Winner: Mark Udall (D)

Colo. 52%

Routt 61%

U.S. House District 3

Winner: John Salazar (D)

District 61%

Routt 72%

Senate District 8

Winner: Al White (R)

District 55%

Routt 54%

House District 57

Winner: Randy Baumgardner (R)

District 55%

Routt 37%

14th Judicial District

Winner: Elizabeth Oldham (R)

District 53%

Routt 41%

State Board of Education District 3

Winner: Marcia Neal (R)

District 51%

Routt 41%