States in Play
Two boys riding their bikes next to a natural gas well in Frederick, Colo.
By JACK HEALY
October 23, 2014

ERIE, Colo. — To trace the border between the liberal and conservative corners of the American West, head down East County Line Road, a two-lane asphalt stripe parting the plains here in Northern Colorado.

To the east lies Weld County, a conservative stronghold where 20,000 oil and gas wells pump day and night, and Republicans are so dominant that they are running unchallenged for county assessor, clerk and a commissioner’s seat. Fifteen miles to the west is Boulder, where a Buddhist-inspired university offers classes in yoga and the Tibetan language, and nature activists are working to carve out legal rights for ecosystems and wild species.

Straddling those divisions is Erie, a town of 21,500 whose perch along County Line Road embodies the shifting politics and demographics of a Western swing state where Republicans are waging a spirited battle to reclaim power after recent years of Democratic gains. Two prominent Democrats, Gov. John W. Hickenlooper and Senator Mark Udall, are in fierce re-election fights, and both parties are spending millions to claim a bellwether win.

“Colorado is subjected to extremes,” said Roy Romer, a former governor. “It’s not just blue and red. It’s also urban and rural. We have a history to this.”

To some, the social and demographic changes that have shaded Colorado blue in recent elections are welcome. But Colorado’s political leanings have tilted back and forth in surprising ways since it became a state in 1876, sometimes marching in lock step with Republican ranching and mining magnates, and other times bolting to support populists or so-called Silver Republicans who detested the once-dominant gold standard.

“This is not a blue state,” said Ted Trimpa, a lawyer and political strategist who helped to craft the …read more