* A political strategy that transformed Colorado from a solidly red state to a blue state
* Advised leftwing candidates to deceptively campaign as moderates and centrists
* Spent large sums of money to create a leftwing echo chamber of opinion shapers
The “Colorado Model” refers to a political operation and strategy that wealthy leftists designed in an effort to shift the political leadership of Colorado from Republican to Democrat. Initially spearheaded by then-Colorado State University president Albert Yates during the early 2000s, the strategy achieved substantial success through the alliance of influential liberal donors and nonprofit organizations. With Yates as the primary architect, the Colorado Model had four main benefactors — collectively dubbed the “Gang of Four” — during its formative years: venture capitalist Rutt Bridges, software entrepreneur Tim Gill, Internet businessman Jared Polis, and heiress Pat Stryker. A major factor in Colorado’s ongoing political realignment since the early 2000s, the Colorado Model is seen by Democrats as a blueprint for how they can potentially reshape America’s political landscape on an even larger scale in the future.
Prior to the advent of the Colorado Model, Colorado had long been a solidly red state. From 1940 to 2000, Republican Party presidential candidates won all but three elections in Colorado – including George W. Bush’s decisive 8.4 percentage-point victory over Democrat Al Gore in 2000. And, while enjoying mixed success in gubernatorial races, Republicans dominated the state legislature’s composition throughout the 20th century, especially during the 1980s and ‘90s. At the same time, Colorado Republicans consistently controlled most of the state’s U.S. congressional seats.
The year 2004, however, proved to be a consequential turning point in Colorado politics. Democrats managed to trim President Bush’s margin of victory to just 4.7 percentage points over John Kerry, down significantly from the 8.4-point margin by which Bush had beaten Al Gore four years earlier. Meanwhile, Democrat Ken Salazar’s victory over Republican nominee Pete Coors was a crucial race that flipped a Republican-held Senate seat to Democrat. Leftist momentum was also driven by John Salazar’s stunning upset win in the overwhelmingly Republican 3rd Congressional District. Overall, Democrats gained control of both chambers of the state legislature for the first time since the early 1960s.
Colorado’s Democratic dominance in 2004 was achieved principally as a result of the workings of Yates and the Gang of Four. Together, they formed the Colorado Democracy Alliance (CDA), an ally of the George Soros-backed Democracy Alliance. Under Yates’ leadership, CDA generated roughly $2 million for leftwing candidates and causes that year. During 2004 as well, CDA conducted polls asking voters to identify which Republican policy positions they thought might make GOP candidates especially vulnerable. When the polls indicated that opposition to same-sex marriage could be such a position, Democrats aggressively targeted conservative candidates who were against the legalization of gay marriage. And while Republicans got caught up in internal party disagreements, Colorado Democrats successfully ran leftwing candidates who deceptively campaigned as moderates and centrists.
The Democratic victories of the early 2000s were also founded upon several key building blocks that had been laid in the 1990s. One of these was the 1990 passage of term limits in Colorado — typically a policy popular with conservatives seeking to prevent entrenched politicians from holding public office for excessively long time periods. But in the case of Colorado at that time, the newly enacted term limits made it easier for upstart Democrats to oust longtime Republican leaders from office.
Another key development was the enactment of a 2002 campaign-finance law which placed a $400 limit on direct individual contributions to any political campaign, while permitting independent political committees — called “527s,” after the section of the tax code that regulated their activities – to spend unlimited amounts of money as long as they refrained from: (a) specifically advocating for the election or defeat of any particular candidate, and (b) coordinating privately with any particular candidate. Meanwhile, the Gang of Four had a grossly disproportionate impact on elections by means of enormous “independent expenditures” on radio, television, and direct-mail ads promoting Democrat candidates.
Moreover, the Gang of Four established new institutions and media outlets designed to challenge conservatives. In 1999, for instance, Gang of Four member Rutt Bridges created the Bighorn Center for Public Policy, a think tank that contributed mightily to the push for changes to state campaign-finance regulations. The following year, Bridges created the Bell Policy Center (BPC) to counter the state’s influential, conservative-leaning Independence Institute. BPC’s mission was to redistribute wealth by “provid[ing] policymakers, advocates, and the public with reliable resources to create a practical policy agenda that raises the economic floor [and] builds a diverse and thriving middle class.”
Shortly thereafter, Colorado’s political climate drifted further leftward thanks to the influence of newly formed leftwing opinion shapers like Progress Now Action, Colorado Media Matters, the “public interest” law firm Colorado Ethics Watch, the Center for Progressive Leadership Colorado, the Colorado Independent online newspaper, and a number of blogs like ColoradoPols.com and SquareState.net. All of these entities helped create what political analyst Fred Barnes in 2008 dubbed the state’s “anti-Republican, anti-conservative echo chamber in politics and the media.” The constituents of that echo chamber, Barnes added, comprised ”a liberal infrastructure that conservatives aren’t close to matching.”
Explaining how the aforementioned constituents worked collaboratively to push a leftist agenda, Barnes wrote further:
“To their distress, Republicans have discovered how skillful the liberal collective is at bedeviling them. It works quite simply. The investigative arm uncovers some alleged wrongdoing by a Republican candidate or official or plays up what someone else has claimed. Then Ethics Watch steps in and demands an official investigation and ProgressNowAction.org jumps on the story. This is synergy at work. It spurs political chatter. Finally, the mainstream media are forced to report on it.”
As explained by The Denver Post, the Gang of Four’s development of these new nonprofits, under the guise of a purportedly nonpartisan operation, helped the Colorado Model become a formidable political strategy:
“A typical, hypothetical scenario might look like this: A liberal group with a nonpartisan name like Colorado First puts out a list of polluters and demands official action. A Republican running for Colorado office is on the list. Paid liberal bloggers chatter. An online liberal publication with a newspaper-like name writes an article about the candidate and his company polluting Colorado’s streams. A liberal advocacy group puts out a news release, citing the group and the pollution, which sound reputable to an ordinary voter. They mass e-mail the release and attach a catchy phrase to it like ‘Dirty Doug.’ At some point, the mainstream media checks out the allegations. Depending on the facts, a news outlet does a story. Another group, or even the opponent of ‘Dirty Doug,’ uses the media story in a mail piece. And another group runs a TV or radio ad.”
The Gang of Four combined to spend an estimated $20 million on behalf of Colorado Democrats during the 2004, 2006, and 2008 election cycles. These massive outlays helped the party clinch a landslide victory in the 2006 gubernatorial election and claim a majority of the state’s U.S. House seats for the first time since the early 1980s.
In a January 2008 email memo to Albert Yates, Democrat political strategist Dominic DelPapa detailed how the party planned to spend nearly $12 million to topple key Colorado Republicans like U.S. Senate candidate Bob Schaffer and Rep. Marilyn Musgrave. The memo boasted, among other things, that the strategy would “define Schaffer/foot on throat.” And indeed, Democrat Mark Udall defeated Schaffer in a U.S. Senate race by a margin of 52.8% to 42.5%, giving Democrats control of both Colorado Senate seats for the first time since 1979. Musgrave, meanwhile, lost her House race to Democrat Betsy Markey by a 12-percentage-point margin, and she later attributed the defeat to “vicious attacks and lies” by the Democrats. And in the 2008 presidential race, Barack Obama handily defeated John McCain by 8.6 percentage points in Colorado – fully 13.3 points better than John Kerry’s Colorado performance in 2004.
As Independence Institute founder John Andrews observed in 2008, “Colorado is being used as a test bed for a swarm offense by Democrats and liberals to put conservatives and Republicans on defense as much as possible.” Meanwhile, Colorado’s Democratic House speaker, Andrew Romanoff, stated with great satisfaction: “The wind’s at our back here.”
During the 2008 and 2010 elections, Democrats spent approximately 70 percent of the $23 million which was spent by all 527s combined. Gill and Stryker were among the leading individual donors.
Despite the fact that there were fewer Democrats registered to vote in Colorado than Republicans, Democrats by 2009 managed to control the governorship, both chambers of the state legislature, both U.S. Senate seats, and five of the state’s seven U.S. House seats. By 2010, the Colorado Model had achieved, for Democrats, all seven of the “capacities” — as identified and described by Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard – normally “required to drive a successful political strategy and keep it on offense.” Those were the capacities to:
In March 2009, state representative Robert Witwer summarized the Democrats’ stunning political revolution in Colorado as such:
“In hindsight, what Colorado Democrats did was as simple as it was effective. First, they built a robust network of nonprofit entities to replace the Colorado Democratic party, which had been rendered obsolete by campaign-finance reform. Second, they raised historic amounts of money from large donors to fund these entities. Third, they developed a consistent, topical message. Fourth, and most important, they put aside their policy differences to focus on the common goal of winning elections…. In a larger sense, this is also a story about the unintended consequences of campaign-finance reform. In 2002, Congress passed McCain-Feingold. That same year, Colorado citizens enacted Amendment 27, a constitutional amendment that capped state-legislative contributions at $400 per donor. By lowering the amounts candidates could raise and spend, these laws effectively took message control out of the hands of candidates and handed it to outsiders…. Republicans didn’t just lack a compelling message; they lacked unity. While Democratic donors and organizations set aside their differences and gathered around a table, Republicans were busy tearing one another apart in acrimonious primaries.”
The Colorado Model continued to flourish for Democrats throughout the 2010s, as evidenced by the election victories of Senator Michael Bennet (2010 & 2016) and Governors John Hickenlooper (2010 & 2014) and Jared Polis (2018). Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, captured popular-vote majorities in the presidential races of 2012 and 2016, respectively.
The Colorado Model hit a relatively small speed bump in 2014, when, as PhilanthropyRoundtable.org has noted: “The Coors Foundation … worked to help Colorado conservatives learn from the progressives’ success, and in the deep-red 2014 election, Republicans finally reclaimed one of the two U.S. Senate seats in Colorado. But the other Senate seat and three of the seven House seats remained with Democrats. The incumbent Democrat governor won a tight re-election. Republicans narrowly took control of the state Senate, and they pared down Democrat control of the state Assembly from 37-28 to 34-31.”
But when Colorado Democrats recaptured the state attorney general and secretary-of-state offices in 2018, the party held total control over the state government for the first time since 1938. Independent Institute president Jon Caldara noted in 2019 that Democrats had capitalized off of their own prudent spending while Republicans continued to implode: “It took [the Democrats] 12, 15 years and they now have complete control of the state. They invested more money, but they invested it much more wisely. Instead of just chasing candidates, they built infrastructure…. Republicans in Colorado continued to put their money on racehorses, while the left just bought the race track.”
Thanks to the enormous success of the Colorado Model over the course of the 2000s and 2010s, Democrats were empowered to enact a substantial number of highly significant public policies. Some examples:
In 2020, the Democratic presidential ticket of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won Colorado’s nine Electoral College votes with 55.4 percent of the popular vote — the highest figure for a presidential candidate in that state since 1984.
In 2022, Democrat Governor and Gang of Four member Jared Polis self-funded his successful re-election campaign with an estimated $12.6 million. Just four years prior, he had spent $23 million of his own money to finance his initial gubernatorial campaign.
As of January 2023, registered Democrat voters outnumbered their Republican counterparts in Colorado by a margin of 1,052,609 to 931,195 – a far cry from what the corresponding figures had been 19 years earlier, when registered Colorado Democrats totaled 852, 910, while Republicans numbered 1,042,296, and Independents totaled 907,602.
The Colorado Model
By Fred Barnes
July 21, 2008
Painting Colorado Bluer
By Philanthropy Roundtable
Spending by Super PACs in Colorado Is the Dominion of Democrats
By Karen Crummy (Denver Post)
March 10, 2012
Blue State Blueprint: How Democrats Are Trying to Build a National Majority from the Ground Up
By Alana Goodman (Washington Examiner)
September 12, 2019