Every society has its myths — the stories people tell one another, passing tales down through the ages.
Whether it’s Prometheus punished for all eternity for the crime of stealing fire from the gods or Robin Hood snubbing his nose at the crown, stealing from the rich to give to the poor — Britain’s national myth, some say — myths help a group of people make sense of their place in the world and figure out how to behave.
Here in Colorado, where the mountains meet the plains and city folk come to start life anew, untethered from the rigid customs of their former states — helped along by catching a glimpse of it rainin’ fire in the sky, as the official Colorado state song puts it — myths abound, nowhere more so than in the political world.
But instead of Zeus and the Titans, overseeing the activities of mere mortals from their lofty perch on Mount Olympus, so the Colorado political myth goes, it’s philanthropist and one-time software mogul Tim Gill and medical device heiress Pat Stryker on Mount Democrat in the Mosquito Range, throwing the occasional lightning bolt. Over on Mount Republican — aptly situated near the town of Silver Plume — it’s the Coors family and billionaire Phil Anschutz, who happens to own this publication, making the weather and pulling the strings.
Most of the myths that abound in Colorado political circles aren’t as enduring as Greek mythology or even some of America’s national myths — like the one involving what George Washington said after he chopped down a cherry tree or Benjamin Franklin’s exploits flying a kite in a rainstorm — because there’s too much turnover among participants and not as much institutional memory as some veterans like to think there used to be, in the good old days before the state started growing so fast. (You’d have to look back a long ways to find those days, if they ever existed, since Colorado has been booming since at least World War II, if not the Gold Rush before that.)
But in a constantly churning culture like the state’s political scene, myths and their companion beliefs can take on greater importance because newcomers have to come up to speed quickly, having to grasp the political winds of a state in the throes of realignment, or at least the usual turmoil.
While the lines blur between myths, truisms and rules of thumb, it’s a good idea now and then to examine some of the most prevalent assumptions, including a cluster of related maxims that keep appearing whenever politicos and pundits bend elbows to talk state politics.
Purple mountains majesty, after all, isn't just a well-turned phrase from another song associated with Colorado, "America the Beautiful," inspired by a visit to Pike's Peak by poet Katharine Lee Bates.
One of the most enduring myths in Colorado politics could also be among the most up-for-grabs in the next few years.
Colorado has been known as a purple state for the better part of the last two decades, though it's a good question whether it's shifted too far toward the blue end of the spectrum to keep the nickname.
The state earned the description two ways — by landing on the short list of battleground states for several election cycles in a row, and by boasting a nearly evenly divided electorate, one-third Republicans, one-third Democrats and one-third unaffiliated voters.
The latter chestnut hasn't been true for years, though some politicians — and national observers — have yet to shake it. The unaffiliated make up 42% of Colorado's registered voters, followed by Democrats at about 29%, with Republicans firmly in the rear at about 27% and minor parties making up the balance.
Another maxim that's been outstripped by reality is the notion that Colorado's unaffiliated voters are "independent," in keeping with the state's well-known ticket-splitting tendencies, which have also mostly been lost to history.
Estimates vary, but only a small percentage of unaffiliated voters are true swing voters, political pros say — possibly 5% of the total — while the rest are simply not affiliated with one of the two major parties, even though they consistently vote as though they were.
It's true the state's voters were considered up-for-grabs in presidential election years from the middle of the first decade of this century until sometime in the decade just concluded, even landing as the tipping-point state in 2008 and 2012 — a concept invented by the election data gurus at Fivethirtyeight.com to describe the state that put the winning candidate over the edge.
Both years, Colorado delivered its electoral votes to Democrat Barack Obama, reversing its habit of tilting toward Republicans for nine of the previous 10 presidential elections.
In the two subsequent presidential elections, Democrats Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden won in Colorado as the battleground map shifted away from the state to the Midwest and the Sunbelt.
But Colorado was never as red as that track record makes it sound, except for a couple of back-to-back elections around the turn of last century, having reliably voted for Republicans for president and Democrats for governor stretching back to the early 1970s.
For nearly all of that stretch, too, Colorado split its representation in the U.S. Senate between a Democrat and a Republican, only going all-in with one party for a brief stretch in the early 1970s, when both senators — Floyd Haskell and Gary Hart — were Democrats, and for a slightly longer stretch in the late 1990s and early 2000s when both Ben Campbell and Wayne Allard were Republicans. (That one came with an asterisk, though, since Campbell was first elected as a Democrat before switching parties.)
Through most of the decades from the early 1970s until the early 2000s, however, Republicans enjoyed the majority in both chambers of Colorado's General Assembly, sometimes by overwhelming majorities.
The state's move to solid purple began to stir in 2000, when Democrats — seemingly almost by accident — took a slim majority in the state Senate, only to lose it in the next election. What happened next is what political hands are referring to when they talk about Colorado's departure from reliably red to a more blended hue.
Described in detail in "The Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado (and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care)," the influential 2010 book by political reporter Adam Schrager and former Republican state lawmaker Rob Witwer, Democrats won enough elections in 2004 to take control of the legislature and have maintained their hold on at least one chamber ever since, giving up the gavel for just one term in the House and two terms in the Senate.
It wasn't until 2018, however, that Democrats swept the election from top to bottom, winning every statewide seat that year and notching victories in congressional districts and counties that hadn't elected Democrats in decades, if ever.
The party repeated the feat in the last election, leading Democrats, at least, to pronounce that the state has permanently shifted to the left, though the jury is still out whether the results reflected a rejection of the GOP or, more narrowly, demonstrated just how toxic former President Donald Trump has been on Colorado's ballot.
It’ll take a couple more election cycles to tell whether Colorado has truly lost that purple tint.
Not so long ago, after all, Colorado turned a deep red in 1998 — re-electing its second GOP senator, Campbell, to a full term as a Republican, at the same time voters elected Bill Owens, their first Republican governor in nearly three decades, to the first of two terms — only to swing hard toward the Democrats just six years later.
In politics, the saying goes, a myth is as good as a mile.