Friday, September 23, 2005

Delphi on the Battle over Ref. C.

The Conventional Wisdom is that the debate over Referendum C is creating a rift in the Colorado State Republican Party. An excellent Durango Herald article outlined the basic facts of the rift.

A November ballot proposal to fix Colorado's financial woes has sparked a nasty and expensive campaign that has split the state's Republican base, already reeling from losses in last fall's elections.

Gov. Bill Owens, once touted as presidential material in conservative Republican circles, teamed with Democrats last spring in drawing up the proposal that will ask voters to give up as much as $3.7 billion in tax refunds over the next five years.

TABOR [The part of the state constitution that limits tax increases and government spending and which would be modified by Ref. C] supporters recently brought in former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, who accused Owens in a face-to-face debate of "drinking backslider wine" for supporting the ballot measure. The measure's author, Douglas Bruce, has threatened to sue if voters approve the ballot plan.

Owens acknowledged the plan does not have much support among Republicans, but he said Colorado is facing a crisis next year if voters refuse to give up surplus tax refunds. He said he is simply backing TABOR's provision that requires voter approval involving tax dollars.

And it is true, the State party is split, but the split is more symbolic than real. A handful of elected GOP officials have come out in support of C, however, straw polls, polling and local party officials have revealed that the Republican party is anything but split, rank and file members don't support C. For instance the Larimer County Republican Executive Committee voted against supporting C, angering some former GOP office holders. An earlier GOP straw poll saw support for C at about 25%. The question that I have to ask is why are these Republicans taking a position that seems suicidal inside their party?

The answer appears to be the recent Democratic surge in Colorado. In 2004 the Democrats picked up both houses of the State Legislature, a Senate Seat and a Congress Seat. Many GOP leaders believe that the reason for that surge was voter disgust at the "wither on the vine" attitude many Republicans have towards State spending. I believe that many of these GOP leaders have made a strategic choice. Support C and take away a Democratic issue. Governor Owens is a perfect example of this approach. If C loses he blunts the criticism of Democrats, but if C wins he can take much of the credit as the highest profile Republican in support of C. Perhaps allowing this one time presidential hopeful to restart his career.

The Democrats see C as a win-win. If C wins they can finally do some damage to the hated TABOR amendment. Democratic constituents have been disproportionately affected by TABOR's limits on spending growth. Quite literally TABOR takes money out of their pockets. They also can blunt some of the effects of Amendment 23, which put the K-12 education budget on autopilot, by undoing parts of TABOR, not modifying 23. If C loses then the Democrats can come back in 2006, and with all the state-wide races, including an open governors seat, they can play the same cards that they won with in 2004, namely that the GOP is ideologically rigid and can't respond to the real world needs of everyday Coloradoans. However this isn't my idea, it comes from the American Prospect:

It [the Democratic Da Vinci Code] also echoed Colorado Democrats, who used deficits to win the state Legislature for the first time in 40 years. "The Republicans' obsession with narrow cultural issues while the state's looming fiscal crisis was ignored drove a deep wedge between fiscally conservative live-and-let-live Republicans and the neo-conservative extremists with an agenda," wrote one Denver Post columnist.

More often than not the conventional wisdom is wrong. The state GOP is not deeply split over C. When new polls become available look for anywhere from one quarter to one third of the GOP voters to support C, but no where near the huge divide that you hear in the media. Where their is a divide is between the base of the party and the elected officials who believe that the Democrats rode the budget deficit to victory.

The Democrats are going to believe that they have won no matter what. If C passes any reform to amendment 23 will be off the table. If it loses they can play the same cards that won in 2004. And, unless the GOP learns to play the same game as the Democrats they will win.

The Colorado GOP may not be as divided as the media makes it out to be, but it is infected with a cancer. It held power for too long, as Vince Lombardy used to say, sometimes you need to get beat down in order to win. The Colorado Democrats have found out how to win. They blocked any ballot issues to deal with the budget problems while in the minority in 2003 and then accused the GOP of doing nothing, and they won. For the GOP to win in the future they may have to do something that Republicans in the late 1990s never could have imagined, learn from the Democrats.


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