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The Sea-Change in Colorado

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Cross-posted at Latino Decisions, Latino Vote Matters, and Daily Kos

A month seems like an appropriate time to reflect on the outcome of Colorado’s 2012 general election and the role of Latino voters in both the Presidential and state-level contests.  In many respects, the election reflected a continuation of the state politics apparent in 2008 and the 2010 midterms.  Coloradoan’s sent all of their incumbent U.S. House members back to Washington.  Obama won the suburbs, and ultimately the overall state by 5.4% of the vote (51.5% vs. 46.1% for Romney).  And, while the win was smaller than in 2008 (Obama won by 8.9% four years ago), the general patterns of support were reflected in this year’s contest.

At the same time, an argument could be made that the election resulted in a sea-change in Colorado politics.  Colorado passed Amendment 64, which will result in the legalization of the possession and sale of marijuana.  However, the high profile nature of this policy shift may obscure several more important changes to come in Colorado that resulted, both directly and indirectly, from this past election.  I’d like to highlight a few of these below with particular attention to the role of, and effects on, Latinos in the electorate.

The Democrats now control Colorado’s state legislature.  The Democrats took control of the lower chamber from the Republicans, and now can command the legislative agenda that stalled significant policy proposals for civil unions and the creation of special tuition rates at institutions of higher learning for undocumented immigrants.   As I noted a few months ago, the Republican’s obstruction of these bills in the 2012 legislative session may have hurt them in the polls, and at least did not help them carry Latino voters who overwhelmingly supported Democratic candidates.  Leaders of the Democratic caucus in Colorado have pledged to fast-track civil unions and one should expect the tuition rate issue to pass early in the session as well.  And as tangential evidence of the Democrat’s support of the tuition policy, prominent Democrats in Colorado’s U.S. House delegation recently commended my home institution, Metropolitan State University of Denver, for its introduction of a new tuition rate for “DREAMers.”  It is hard to imagine the undocumented tuition rate failing once again in the legislature under these conditions.

Another important change in Colorado politics is the diversity of the legislature.  When the Colorado General Assembly convenes in January of 2013, the makeup of the House and Senate will include 12 Latino and five African American legislators—highpoints for both groups.  Colorado’s diversifying state legislature reflects new gains nationally at the Congressional level, particularly in terms of a record 31 Latinos expected to serve in the upcoming session.  These gains should translate into more representation of the interests of minority constituents (here is some recent work done by myself and Eric Gonzalez Juenke on Latino legislators and both groups at the state legislative level).   Thus, not only has party control shifted towards Latino interests, but the diversity of elite decision-makers has as well. (Colorado will also have a record number of openly gay legislators, and its first openly gay Speaker of the House in 2013).

How has this come about?  Well, one answer is that Latinos in this election solidified and expanded their political influence in Colorado in 2012.  The election eve polls conducted by Latino Decisions indicated that almost 87% of Colorado Latinos (see figure below) supported Obama in Colorado and 88% supported the Democrat in Congressional elections.

Those numbers are staggering.  Combine this overwhelming support for Democrats with what The Pew Center estimates as 14% of the electorate (up from 8% in 2004), and Latinos have become a key constituency for Democratic success in Colorado.  A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that Latinos accounted for a whopping 12% of the President’s 54% of the vote (more than double his margin of victory).  Questions of Latino mobilization and affect all fell by the wayside on November 6th.  From here on out, it is hard to imagine a Colorado policy issue that will not be framed at least in part by the question of how Latinos will be affected by, and what are Latino preferences on, the issue.  This, in many ways, represents a sea-change—and one that is in great part a function of the political participation of the Latino community in Colorado.