IF COLORADO WERE a piece of jewellery it would be a mood ring, changing with the country’s political temperature. Or at least that used to be the case. Today Colorado looks more like a sapphire, featuring varying shades of blue depending on one’s angle. After the 2018 election it became a Democratic trifecta, with the party controlling the governor’s office, statehouse and senate. One of the state’s two senators, Cory Gardner, is a Republican, but he has a low approval rating and may not win re-election in 2020. Last autumn’s election was the most significant for Colorado’s political realignment in more than 40 years, says Floyd Ciruli of Ciruli Associates, a political consulting firm.
“The type of Republican who does well here is not a Trump Republican. Our suburban, swing electorate is more attracted to the Reagan version of Republicanism, the hopeful version of Republicanism,” says Jared Polis, the state’s new governor. In recent years Colorado’s economy has boomed, with the state attracting young and educated immigrants from other states, who tend to be more Democratic.
Mr Polis, the first openly gay man to be elected as governor of any state, championed a progressive agenda on the campaign trail, but he does not sound like your average Democrat. He backs universal health care, an expansion of full-day kindergarten, paid parental leave and investments in renewable energy. But he also wants to lower the income-tax rate. He identifies as a libertarian. “The less government intervention in our private lives, the better. I think that’s a value many Coloradans have on the left and right,” he says.
The legislature, which is now in full session, will not share that sense of moderation and is likely to pull Mr Polis further left than he wants, according to Mr Ciruli. Legislators are considering bills that could enrage conservative voters, including eliminating the death penalty and passing a “red flag” law that would make it possible to seize guns from someone who is deemed mentally ill after a judicial process. Lawmakers are unlikely to let Mr Polis lower income-tax rates, which he wants to do.
For years Republicans have warned that Colorado could become like California if Democrats got too much power. That prediction sounded far-fetched. Since the start of this legislative session, however, the state stands to look more like Californian than it ever has before. National Democrats should watch what solutions Colorado adopts on questions facing all states, such as health care, parental leave, public education and the environment.
Mr Polis himself deserves some credit for this political transformation. He is one of a group of liberal donors, called the “Gang of Four”, who helped Democrats flip the state assembly in 2004. Mr Polis, who is 43, spent his youth as an entrepreneur, building companies. He helped to transform his parents’ company, Blue Mountain Arts, into an online greeting-card firm that was sold for around $780m in 1999, and built up ProFlowers, an online florist, which was sold for nearly $480m in 2006. Today his net worth is estimated at several hundred million dollars, and he has freely used his fortune to pursue his political career. He won his first post in Colorado in 2000, after he reportedly spent $1.2m to win a seat on the Board of Education (his opponent spent $10,000). He went on to serve five terms in Congress before running for governor last year. He spent more than $23m of his own money on his campaign, or around 97% of the total raised.
His predecessor in the governor’s mansion, John Hickenlooper, is now on the presidential campaign trail, hoping to win the Democratic nomination. Some wonder whether Mr Polis may also have higher aspirations, perhaps to be the country’s first openly gay president. That would be a Mount Elbert-sized peak to climb. Mr Polis has the credentials of a computer geek and the charisma of one, too. To think beyond Colorado is to rush ahead in the story. The state’s political transformation is still relatively new. Whether it lasts will depend in part on the success of Mr Polis’s reign.