Editor’s Note: Since 2008, for the first time, Arapahoe County has boasted more registered Democrats than Republicans. This is the second in a …
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Editor’s Note: Since 2008, for the first time, Arapahoe County
has boasted more registered Democrats than Republicans. This is the
second in a three-part series on the changing politics of the
Deep purple? Maybe not.
Republicans are hoping that red is still the color of Arapahoe
County’s and Colorado’s true love — especially as the midterm
elections approach. But love is blue, according to some optimistic
In addition to Colorado choosing a Democratic president two
years ago for the first time since 1992, the Democratic party now
occupies the state’s two U.S. Senate seats and five of Colorado’s
seven chairs in the House of Representatives.
Democratic victories in 2008 came as the party was already
controlling the governor’s office and both houses of the Colorado
General Assembly — the result of Republican losses in the 2006
A faltering U.S. economy, the unpopularity of the Iraq War and
President George W. Bush’s historically low approval ratings were
considered the major contributors to 2008’s second round of
Democratic wins in Colorado and elsewhere.
In recent years, Arapahoe County has been part and parcel to the
gradual “bluing” or “purpling” of the Centennial State. According
to Pat Waak, chair of the Colorado Democratic Party, the county was
an important site in the 2008 statewide voter registration drive
that saw declarations from 240,000 new party members.
As in Arapahoe County, the Democrats’ statewide registrations
have narrowly surpassed Republicans for the first time. According
to Denver pollster and political analyst Floyd Ciruli, the county
is something of a microcosm of what has happened across the larger
“Colorado is a pivotal state in this battle that’s going on for
the soul of the country in terms of its policy direction,” he said.
“Arapahoe County has been a slightly lagging indicator on that. I
would see it as an essential battleground.”
Ciruli likens the political evolution in Arapahoe County to that
of neighboring Jefferson. Both counties had been solidly Republican
as recently as the 1990s. In recent years, Jefferson, in
particular, has moved clearly into the Democratic fold.
The pollster says the increasingly competitive Arapahoe County
will be a bellwether to watch in November’s elections and beyond
and could make or break the political futures of state Democrats
facing tough challenges.
New suburbs, new politics
Two names are inevitably mentioned in any discussion about the
changing political face of Arapahoe County, though neither has ever
called the area home — Presidents Barack Obama and George W.
“There’s no mystery about what happened,” said Dick Wadhams,
chairman of the Colorado Republican Party. “There was a very
unpopular president with horrible numbers and Republicans at all
levels were seen through that prism. Obama brought a charisma to
the race that people got caught up in.”
David Kerber, who chairs Arapahoe County Republicans, agrees. He
says the tide had clearly turned by the time he was walking
neighborhoods and talking to voters during his own unsuccessful run
for the statehouse in 2008.
“There were two people I met who were excited about John McCain
out of thousands of houses,” Kerber said of his House district,
which stretches from Greenwood Village to Littleton.
Most Republican leaders concur that excitement about Obama and
indifference about McCain helped fuel Democratic efforts to
outmaneuver the GOP’s voter registrations in Arapahoe County and
“[Democrats] were very well organized and extremely well
funded,” said Rep. Spencer Swalm, R-Centennial. “Obama’s success
also reflected a reaction against George Bush. He’s sort of the
anti-George Bush. Bush was white and inarticulate and a Texan.
Obama is the antithesis — urban, black and articulate.”
Many observers also agree that changing demographics have played
an important concurrent role in the increased number of Democratic
registrations in Arapahoe County. A growing Hispanic population and
the party’s increased popularity among middle-income voters have
been cited as contributing factors.
But according to Ciruli, the most crucial demographic variable
of all was so gradual — and inevitable, given the nature of urban
sprawl — that neither Republicans nor Democrats had paid much
attention to it.
“The suburbs got old,” Ciruli said of Arapahoe County, an
increasingly urbanized contingency of communities bordering Denver
to the immediate south. “They now have the same problems that old
Aurora, Ciruli says, was in some ways the proverbial canary in
the coal mine for the rest of urbanized Arapahoe County.
Historically, the second largest city in the metro area has been
far more friendly to Democrats than its neighbors to the west.
For years, Democratic state legislators, ranging from Frank
Weddig to Morgan Carroll, have been elected to represent Aurora.
Weddig now serves on the county’s board of commissioners, along
with Pat Noonan, another Aurora Democrat. Noonan’s election in 2006
signaled the first time two Democrats had served on the board
Many say it is just a matter of time until a Democrat represents
other Arapahoe County districts on the board. By Swalm’s
estimation, Centennial, Littleton, Englewood and other cities are
finally catching up with Democrat-leaning Aurora.
“We’re not the outer suburbs anymore,” the Republican legislator
said. “Typically, as neighborhoods get older, for whatever reason,
they tend to attract more Democratic voters. It’s been years since
Republicans have had a legitimate shot at doing much in the city of
The reason for the change, according to Ciruli, is the
increasing importance in the suburbs of such historically urban
issues as land use, mass transit and aging infrastructure — issues
that tend to play well for Democrats.
“It’s not just low taxes and the issues that have been the main
staples of Republican rhetoric for so long,” the pollster said.
“Politicians have had to adapt. If you’re running countywide, you
want to be an environmentalist and be very sensitive to open
In 2003, Arapahoe County voters approved a quarter-cent sales
and use tax to pay for the preservation of open space in the
county. Among the tax’s chief boosters has been the county’s
Republican-dominated board of commissioners.
According to Ciruli, by associating with such generally
appealing issues as parks, open space and overall quality of life,
Democrats have been slowly able to improve their party’s image in
traditionally conservative areas like Arapahoe County.
“If you’re running with George McGovern, Walter Mondale or John
Kerry — candidates that are not very attractive to the Western
sentiment, the Democratic brand was very difficult to sell,” he
said. “Now, the Democrats have made the brand at least reasonably
Next week: Predicting the future
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