The Democratic Party’s stunning victories in Colorado’s 2018 elections are now well documented. Regular Democrats and regular Republicans predictably voted for their party’s candidates. But three things were different this year.
First, Colorado has seen a surge of newly registered unaffiliated voters (or independent) voters over the past few years.
Second, nearly 60 percent of Colorado’s unaffiliated voters supported Democratic Governor-elect Jared Polis and Democratic 6th Congressional District U.S. Representative-elect Jason Crow.
Third, Donald Trump is U.S. president and his disapproval rating is much greater here in Colorado than in the nation. Colorado Republican candidates tried, to no avail, to distance themselves as far from Trump as possible.
The once two-party competitive Jefferson County voted nearly 65 percent for the Democratic gubernatorial candidate. This was the year of aroused independents, women, and suburbanites. Voters seemed less inspired by the candidates than they were about sending a message of disapproval to President Trump.
We want to call attention to a less understood part of Colorado’s political culture. It is not a defining factor such as Trump was this year, yet it is part of the foundational philosophical leanings of our state.
Colorado has a small third political party – the Libertarian Party. They nominate candidates for many offices yet rarely win. There are, in fact, just a handful of elected Libertarians in office in Colorado – in places such as Lakewood, Milliken, Frederick, and in San Miguel County.
But there is more to the Libertarian Party, or at least the libertarian spirit, than easily meets the eye.
Libertarianism is a set of political principles that celebrate personal liberty, emphasize freedom of choice, voluntary associations, individual judgment, and limited government. The Libertarian Party in the United States was founded in December of 1971 in Colorado Springs. The novelist Ayn Rand (1905-1982), who wrote the best-selling novels Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, is viewed as a godmother of the libertarian movement. Note that her fictional boot camp for her heroic would-be libertarian revolutionaries, including the famous John Galt, was based in a Colorado mountain region. This might have been inspired by Rand’s vacationing in the rugged individualistic hamlet of Ouray.
Turns out that Governor-elect Jared Polis is proud of several libertarian-leaning positions he has taken over the years. He boasts of his membership in the small libertarian caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives. Some commentators have described him as one of the most libertarian-leaning Democrats in Congress, and Polis has acknowledged he is “left-libertarian-ish.”
How does Polis earn these descriptions? He has favored constitutional amendments that would balance the federal budget, which is a contrarian position in the Democratic Party. He, in common with Ron and Rand Paul, has opposed U.S military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. He favors the decriminalization of marijuana. He is an outspoken champion of civil liberties and gay rights. He is not only an advocate but has started and operated charter schools.
Polis also stated that he favors a modest reduction in Colorado’s state income tax. Turns out, as well, that Polis is a long-time friend of Arthur Laffer, a well-known “trickle-down” free-market economic theorist. Laffer was a mentor and later served on the boards of some of Polis’s remarkably successful start-up companies.
Polis understands that Colorado voters dislike voting to increase state taxes. He did not support the recent ballot issues that would have increased state taxes for education and roads and highways. He also opposed, to the consternation of environmentalists, Prop 112, which would have imposed greater set-backs for drilling and fracking operations in Colorado.
No one believes Jared Polis is going to shrink Colorado’s state government. The point is that you do not have to be a Republican or a conservative to share a number of libertarian aspirations. Many unaffiliated voters and Democratic partisans share a “Don’t Fence Me In” philosophy and strongly support America’s entrepreneurial free-market economic system.
What kind of governor will Polis be? He certainly campaigned as a bold programmatic progressive. Yet it is clear he has a libertarian streak in him as well.
Colorado is a paradoxical state. On the one hand we are proud of our state and we want it to succeed. And its current economy has certainly been successful. But we want better schools , bridges and highways, too. On the other hand, we like being a low-tax state and, thanks to TABOR requirements for voting on all tax increases, we seldom vote to support the tax hikes required to provide good public schools and a sound state highway system.
That is what just happened in the 2018 mid-term elections. A majority of those crucial unaffiliated voters who cast votes for Polis and the entire Blue Team apparently just as enthusiastically voted down the ballot issues on education and highway spending.
Do we have a paradoxical new governor to match our state’s paradoxical political leanings? Our prediction is that he will be much more of a Democrat than a libertarian, but don’t be surprised if he mixes the two philosophies up a bit.
So the Libertarian Party did not win much in terms of political offices in Colorado in 2018. Still, two major statewide tax hikes were voted down. So also were stricter regulations on Colorado’s energy industry. Voters have a new governor who has pledged state income tax reductions and accepts the TABOR constitutional principle that any state tax increases can only be approved by the voters.
That is at least something for libertarians to cheer about.
Tom Cronin and Bob Loevy are retired political science professors who were longtime members of the faculty at The Colorado College in Colorado Springs.