The historic edge Republicans have enjoyed in El Paso County throughout much of the county’s history is being dulled by a larger population, increased Democratic voter turnout and shifting opinions, according to a Gazette analysis of 2012 voting results and political experts.
Long known as the Republican stronghold in Colorado, El Paso County hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. But that Republican grip may be loosening, the analysis shows.
In the last dozen years, the number of votes for Democratic presidential candidates in the county has grown more than 50 percent faster than the number of votes for their Republican counterparts.
While Republican candidate Mitt Romney won the county in November with almost 59 percent of the vote, the county’s Democratic voting bloc was a big push that helped President Barack Obama win Colorado, experts say.
The trend probably won’t swing the county to vote Democratic, but it could impact statewide races that depend on big Republican vote margins here to help offset expected losses in places like Denver and Boulder counties.
“It’s difficult to imagine a Democratic (presidential) candidate winning in El Paso County, but that’s not the point. In a statewide race, all votes are equal,” said Joshua Dunn, a political science professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
“You can’t afford to ignore the Democrats in El Paso County. There are just too many people here.”
El Paso County is Colorado’s most populous and has grown more than 20 percent in the last dozen years, according to the U.S. Census. That growth is a large part of the reason the total number of votes for the county’s presidential races has grown by 31 percent since 2000, according to a Gazette analysis. However, a disproportionate number of those votes favor Democrats. In November, President Barack Obama had about 45 percent more votes in El Paso County than Al Gore had in 2000. Mitt Romney, by contrast, saw about a 25 percent increase in total votes over previous Republican candidates.
Eli Bremer, chairman of the El Paso County Republican Party, said he is aware of the growing Democratic voting block. It’s time for the Republican party in the county to stop assuming easy wins, he said.
“We cannot skate by in El Paso anymore,” he said. “We did more in this election than we have ever done before, and despite that, we saw these numbers. It’s somewhat of a warning shot for Republicans. If we don’t up our game, our lead will continue to fall here and we will be less competitive.”
He gave Democrats credit for expanding their reach in the county.
“A lot can be said that we’ve been complacent for awhile,” he said. “When you’re winning, it’s easy not to push the envelope. When you’re losing, you are hungry. And they’ve been losing a lot.”
A growing blue base
El Paso County is still solidly Republican. Republicans account for 42 percent of all registered voters in the county, compared to 22 percent of Democrats, according to the El Paso County Clerk and Recorder’s Office.
Kathleen Ricker, chairwoman of the El Paso County Democratic Party, said some of the biggest gains in votes for Democratic candidates have been made with the party’s unaffiliated voters, who make up 35 percent of registered voters. In November, there were more than 111,000 people in the county who voted for President Obama — that’s about 17,000more votes than there were registered Democrats. Romney, by contrast, had about 171,000 votes — about 6,500 fewer votes than there are registered Republicans.
“Republicans will probably stay the majority in numbers, but as we become more visible and seen as the voice of reason, it means more independents will be looking at our candidates,” Ricker said. “The swing vote here are the independents. To keep them, we need to keep connecting with our people and communities and build from the ground up.”
Eric Sondermann, an independent Denver political analyst, attributes the big increase in Democratic votes to President Obama’s 2008 election. His campaign was one of the first Democratic presidential campaigns that didn’t write off of the county, he said.
“Even though it’s heavily Republican dominated, because of the size there are so many more Democrats and independents than other places,” he said. “It used to be that Democratic candidates went to Pueblo. There are twice as many Democrats in El Paso than Pueblo because of the population difference.”
Seeing those numbers, he said, the Obama campaign focused on the county and Obama made several more visits than the Democratic candidates before him.
Campaign workers targeted voters and worked hard to get them registered and out to vote, Ricker said.
It worked. In 2008, Obama had about 31,000 more votes in the county than Democratic candidate John Kerry received in 2004. In 2012, Obama added about 3,000 more votes.
“The fact that they’ve been able to maintain that has been impressive,” Dunn said. “In 2008, he showed it wasn’t hopeless in El Paso County. You could get a significant increase in voter turnout.”
The president won 39 El Paso County precincts in November, mainly in downtown Colorado Springs and much of the west side. Those represented about 19 percent of the county’s 199 political precincts. The precinct with the highest percentage of the vote for the president, 76 percent, was downtown and included Colorado College. Romney won much of the vote in northern and eastern El Paso County and also in the southwest part of the city.
Bob Loevy, a Colorado College political science professor, said the Democratic core of El Paso County has always included downtown and the west side. What’s changed over the years, he said, is the number of precincts the president won.
“The areas in the city that have gone blue are much larger than they used to be,” he said. “There’s always been a blue Colorado Springs, but it used to be confined to the downtown area and the area around lower Shooks Run trail. But the Republicans lately have been losing precincts.”
Making a change
To keep the Republican base strong in the county, there will have to be changes to the party, experts and Republican leaders say. They differ about what those changes should be.
Loevy attributed the weakening Republican base in the county to a shift in the party’s politics. In their heyday, Republicans in the county were what Loevy called “Eisenhower Republicans” who tended to vote based on fiscal issues. When the party started to define itself by social issues, with positions on abortion and gay rights, it lost local voters, Loevy said.
“Back then, these social issues weren’t splitting the Republican party like they are now,” he said. “The result is something I never anticipated. As those issues have broken up the Republican coalition nationally, they are also breaking it up in El Paso County.”
Bremer, the county’s Republican chairman, said his party lost the battle technologically to Democrats in November. The Democrats had a stronger campaign organization and employed technology to get out its message via email, text messaging, social media and other means, he said.
“We got absolutely killed in that battle,” he said. “You can’t run a campaign in 2012 using 2004 technology.”
Those issues, he said, made more of a difference than social issues.
“I would caution people not to overreact and think that the Republican values were out of date,” he said. “I think the methods we’re using in elections are much more out of date than our core values.”
He said the Republican party both nationally and in El Paso County needs to find a way to reach more Latino voters. Many of those voters agree with the party on several issues, he said.
“We’ve always taken a stand for free markets,” he said. “After some soul-searching we might want to think if we want our core values to be less about immigration and more about free markets.”
If the party isn’t successful at making changes in El Paso County, a loss of Republican votes here will be felt statewide, analysts say.
“If your base starts to get a little softer, that’s a concern,” Sondermann said. “Any Republican votes that they are not pulling in El Paso County, they have to find somewhere else. They’re not finding it in Boulder and Denver and they’re not finding it in swing counties like Arapahoe and Jefferson and Larimer counties.”
If Colorado expects to elect a Republican presidential candidate in the future, El Paso County needs to produce a larger chunk of the Republican votes than it did in 2012, Dunn said.
“El Paso County should be a given, and it will be, but here you need to run up the score.”
Contact Maria St. Louis-Sanchez: 636-0274
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Click on the map below to see how El Paso County precincts voted for president in the 2012 general election. Click here to see a larger version of this map.