They say legislators legislate with one eye on the next election, and taking a look at the actions for Gov. Bill Ritter so far this year, it’s safe to say that governors…well, govern the same way.
When Ritter emerged as the unchallenged Democratic candidate for Governor in 2006, many liberals knew what they were getting themselves into–a bargain with a pro-life former District Attorney who wouldn’t always do what they wanted but could conclusively win a statewide race in Colorado. Which he did. As more moderate, mold-breaking Democrats like Mark Udall consolidated the party’s hold on elected office in 2008, the wisdom of this approach seemed clearer than ever. The Democratic Party’s move to the center in Colorado, while the Republican Party slipped further to the right, is probably the most important single factor in the state’s move from red to blue since 2004.
But there’s a risk to this approach that needs careful managing, which has become more evident this year as everyone starts looking seriously at next year’s election. Love them or hate them, there is a significant percentage of Democrats, as well as left-trending independent voters, who are not exactly satisfied with Ritter’s, and to some extent the Democratic-controlled Assembly’s, performance in the last few years. Moreover, there is a growing liberal backlash within the Democratic Party nationally, seeking targets for anger at what they see as “Conservadems,” backsliders, or at least undue accomodation of minority Republicans bent on obstruction. As our readers know, we find a lot of this talk to be unproductive whining by a few relatively prominent new media liberals, lacking recognition that elected officials represent more people than just them. But at some level you cannot just ignore it.
In Colorado, much of this anger has focused on the appointment of Michael Bennet to fill Ken Salazar’s Senate seat. Different communities had their objections–Hispanics were angry at Ritter over the process, liberals that key favorite candidates (really one candidate) were passed over. But the fact is that Bennet is not really doing that badly as a Senator so far, and is vigorously touring the state whenever he’s not in Washington–and then there’s the stupendous amounts of money he’s raising. Bennet is going to be a formidable candidate to beat in the general election, and everything we see indicates a Senate primary is growing less likely by the day.
But where does that leave Ritter?
The fact that Bennet seems to be working out does not necessarily save Ritter from lingering negativity over his appointment. However people feel about the process of Bennet’s appointment, it was completely adherent to the law and relatively free of scandal–and calls to primary him right out of the gate never gained traction. Such a primary, most agreed, would have been a referendum on Ritter with Bennet as a proxy, which would be unfair to Bennet. So who emerges as the guy to be mad at? If anybody, Ritter.
Several important events this session will factor into Ritter’s standing with the Democratic base. According to numerous sources, Ritter will veto House Bill 1274, the death penalty repeal, as well as the Senate Bill 286, the sentencing reform bill–if either reaches his desk. Both of these bills are popular with rank-and-file Democrats. There are also fresh hard feelings emerging with some interest groups over his “intervention” in the budget process against the Pinnacol Assurance funds transfer. On the plus side, Ritter can point to the beneficiary act that benefits gays and lesbians, and his key initiatives on transportation funding (passed) and healthcare cost recovery (passed).
But the fact is, these would be factors in a move to primary Ritter, which won’t happen–less of an issue in the general election, and many of the things that have irritated base Democrats will help placate general election voters. This is of course where Ritter’s thoughts have already turned, and one can make the argument that preventing the Pinnacol transfer and massive higher education cuts, for example, will pay far more dividends in terms of attracting business support (and defanging Josh Penry) than it will hurt him. If Ritter’s second quarter numbers show a healthy bump in support from business types, this theory will be proven correct.
Ritter may not be facing a primary, but we have to admit that his somewhat lackluster fundraising numbers in the first quarter are less daunting to potential challengers than, say, Bennet’s $1.4 million. Now you can’t raise money as quickly in a governor’s race as a federal office, of course, so this cannot be considered an apples-to-apples comparison. But if you’re a Republican trying to decide which of these statewide races might better suit you (or your money), well, which one looks like a softer target to you?
Epilogue? There’s plenty room for Democratic trepidation: the base is considerably less excited now than in previous years. They may vote for Ritter, but they probably won’t dig deep to raise money for him, and they won’t be coming out of the woodwork to volunteer for him. It’s almost as if he’s been obsessed with placating the business community at the expense of everything else–the money will be welcome, but the business community won’t staff the campaign office or walk precincts. Additionally, external factors that helped drive Democratic success with independents the last few elections (general GOP antipathy, Obama) will not be as trenchant, and may even work in the opposite direction next year.
We haven’t changed our estimation of what we think will be a weak Republican challenger no matter who of the present field gets the nomination–but Ritter isn’t going to win by 17 points next year, folks. It’s going to be a very different game.