Over the past 40 years, Colorado has proved one of the most reliably red states in presidential elections. In nine of the past 10 national votes, it has tipped Republican, the only exception coming in 1992 when Ross Perot's independent candidacy divided the GOP base and delivered the state to Bill Clinton.
What's more, local politics in the Centennial state turned decidedly red at the turn of the century, reaching a deep shade of crimson by November 2002. In the wake of an election cycle that retained a Republican governor by a 63-34 margin, kept Republicans in control of the state legislature, and handed the GOP five of seven U.S. House seats, many Democrats throughout Colorado moped in despair.
But at least one small cadre of liberal activists believed the state was ripe for change. In June 2003, about a dozen grassroots political operatives gathered at the Hotel Boulderado in downtown Boulder and imagined a statewide transformation from crimson to cobalt. A second meeting in the back room of Denver's renowned Sullivan's Steakhouse helped turn vision to strategy.
Michael Huttner, an adjunct professor at the University of Denver College of Law, was there: "There was a sense that we have got to do something. The conservatives in the state had gone so far to the right that it was just out of control. They believed the number one threat to Colorado was gay marriage and whether they posted the Ten Commandments in the public schools, just absurd considering, even at that time, the huge number of foreclosures, not to mention health care."
Three months later, armed with a left-leaning agenda and considerable funding from wealthy sympathizers, Huttner spearheaded the launch of the Rocky Mountain Progressive Network, since renamed ProgressNow. The group set to work with a threefold mission: organizing liberal voters online, pushing mainstream media to cover particular news stories, and serving as a public-relations advocate for progressive think tanks and activist organizations.
By election time in 2004, numerous other liberal groups had sprung up to support the ProgressNow vision, and signs of shifting political winds were plainly evident. President George W. Bush, who had cruised to a Colorado win by 9 points over Al Gore in 2000, saw his margin of victory cut in half. Brothers John and Ken Salazar, both Democrats, claimed a House and Senate seat, respectively. And for the first time in 44 years, Democrats gained control of both houses in the state legislature.
Two years later, a now firmly established progressive infrastructure unified the Democratic Party behind gubernatorial candidate Bill Ritter, despite his pro-life position. Ritter promptly clobbered Republican Bob Beauprez by 17 percent. The imagined transformation had become reality: Colorado looked as blue as the sunny Denver sky.
So comprehensive and dramatic was the change that other states and the Democratic National Committee took notice. Had grassroots activists in Colorado stumbled on a political panacea? And if so, could liberal organizers replicate the formula nationwide, perhaps even as a strategy for taking back the White House?
With the Democratic convention set to invade Denver this month, Colorado's progressive grassroots movement will gain even more exposure among party leaders. In partnership with Dailykos.com and the Alliance for Sustainable Colorado, ProgressNow is organizing a massive event down the street from the convention. An 8,000-square-foot double-decker tent will house about 500 of the most influential leftist bloggers in the country.
Google is on board, providing a YouTube stage for video bloggers. Among the high-profile names scheduled to drop by is T. Boone Pickens, the conservative billionaire whose recent calls for investment in wind and solar energy have allied him with prominent Democrats he formerly opposed.
The Big Tent affair is a reflection of the political muscle and coordination Colorado progressives have managed to cultivate in the past five years. And it can only boost the already energetic organization of Barack Obama's presidential campaign in the state. The Illinois senator demonstrated his appeal and connection among Colorado's liberal voters and activists during the state's party caucus in February, when he overwhelmed Hillary Clinton 2-to-1 despite polls showing a tight race.
Democrats in Colorado hope Obama can pull off a similar victory in November. Statewide polls have consistently put the charismatic candidate out front of Republican John McCain. But the numbers have tightened of late. Obama's lead of 7 to 9 points over McCain early in the year has all but evaporated, and the most recent Wall Street Journal poll even put him 2 points behind.
One reason that McCain may be able to win: Republicans continue to hold a 34 percent to 31 percent advantage in registered voters. That disparity has not translated to GOP victories in recent elections largely because unaffiliated voters have more often sided with centrist Democrats than conservative Republicans. But in a presidential campaign pitting a liberal Democrat against a centrist Republican, the supposed blueness of Colorado suddenly appears a less defined shade of purple, and conservative bloggers like Anthony Surace are optimistic: "McCain's going to prevail. The more people see of Obama in the general race, they start to see him as very left-wing."
The University of Denver's Huttner says the progressive movement should not take blame for a McCain victory in the state any more than it should take credit for an Obama win: "Even with a strong progressive infrastructure, when it comes to presidential politics, there are so many other things that decide it." Therein lies one significant limitation of the Colorado blueprint: It could prove a lousy nationwide model for winning presidential elections.
Besides, replicating the model's local political impact would be expensive. A memo from a Democratic political consultant, leaked to reporters in January, revealed plans to devote $5.1 million to undermining the U.S. Senate campaign of Republican Bob Schaffer. The same memo earmarked another $2.6 million toward defeating GOP congresswoman Marilyn Musgrave.
That level of financial backing has driven the progressive movement's advance in Colorado from the beginning. Four multimillionaires in the state, known locally as the "Gang of Four," have devoted loads of capital toward the creation of activist agencies. Tim Gill, a Denver gay-rights advocate who made his fortune developing the publishing software QuarkXPress, highlights the group. His Gill Action Fund has spent millions of dollars to change Colorado politics and is now targeting strategic races around the country.
Pat Stryker of Ft. Collins, whose inherited fortune stretches into the billions, likewise funnels large sums into building protected-class status for homosexuals. Entrepreneur Jared Polis of Boulder and petroleum exploration innovator Rutt Bridges of Denver round out the quartet.
Journalists have not been able to trace precise amounts of dollars or the exact delegation of funds from the four political financiers, because the resultant organizations do not disclose their donors. But sufficient evidence exists to connect the Gang of Four to the establishment of numerous liberal groups like Colorado Media Matters, Colorado Ethics Watch, the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute, The Colorado Independent, ColoradoPols.com, and Progressive Majority Colorado, among others.
With careful coordination, this collection of agencies applies continual pressure to media, develops new liberal policy ideas, brings accusations and lawsuits against Republicans, reports findings in online newspapers and blogs, and mobilizes voters for elections.
Progressives have managed at least partial replications of that formula elsewhere. ProgressNow has established chapters in 10 other states, including battleground centers like Ohio, Michigan, Florida, and Pennsylvania. In Michigan, Stryker's brother Jon dumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into ousting Republicans from the state legislature in 2006. In this election cycle his political action committee, Coalition for Progress, has trained liberal activists and rallied voters behind progressive candidates.
But finding similar dynamic funding sources in most other states is hardly realistic. And waging an all-out, year-round, multi-tiered, highly coordinated political blitz is no easy task on a shoestring budget.