US Election 2016: The View from a Square State

Explaining to folks abroad from whence I come, I often had to resort to “One of the square states.”

In recent years, though, a law known as Amendment 64 has put Colorado on the international map as the vanguard of full legalization and regulation of both medical and recreational marijuana. Those ubiquitous green chemists’ crosses, once reserved for Paris’ 17th arrondissement, now clutter the streets of Denver, signaling a different kind of relief.1024px-Colorado

Disparate approaches to this law, however, and to the highly controversial issue of hydraulic fracturing show political difference in Colorado is not simply liberal blue versus conservative red, but wavering lines of both that make it paradoxically purple.

North of South Park

My home town, Walden, is located in the northern heart of a high, cold, mountain citadel in Colorado called North Park (north of the better known South Park, which itself is south of the more populated Middle Park). It is a sparsely populated, high, windswept valley with generational cattle and hay ranching outfits populating its willowed river and creek beds. The next town is a 60-mile drive over a mountain pass away. This is Republican Country.

The sort of Republican Conservatism that has generally existed here is the type connected to land rights (including public lands and grazing rights), inheritance of that land, limited government and the right to own a gun to deal with troublesome bears and hunt the moose, elk, deer and antelope that outnumber the people—a “leave me be and let people do as they will” ethos. Bars outnumber churches, or at least bar patrons do and while there are certainly some of the older, passively held prejudices here, none is so entrenched it cannot be overcome by a hard day’s work and a demonstrated capacity to hold your beer. While not welcoming pot shops with open arms, most North Parkers care little what they’re smoking down in Denver.

The GOP, particularly at the state level, has generally done well in North Park, although when Libertarianism (the most significant of the smaller political parties, founded here in Colorado—more on that later) comes knocking, it sometimes answers. When you drive through the streets of Walden, the one real town in North Park (sorry, Cowdrey) you do not see many Trump-Pence 2016 signs.

Contrast this with the second-largest city in Colorado: Colorado Springs. “The Springs,” with a population of 600,000, is home to a massive army base, the national Air Force Academy, Focus on the Family (a religious, highly conservative political organization), mega-churches, meth and a forest of newly bought Trump-Pence 2016 signs and bumper stickers (the bumper having become the prime commons for American political expression). These signs recently replaced “TrusTed Cruz” signs. Colorado Springs banned marijuana dispensaries within its city limits, leaving those limits clearly delineating by the barrage of green crosses just beyond them.

So what’s the difference?

In many ways, North Park represents what the Republican Party used to be, while Colorado Springs is what it has become. Sliding from ideals of fiscal conservatism and limited government, which Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio were generally seen to have represented in the GOP primaries, to social conservatism (usually based on religion) and limiting rights, generally, as represented by Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. The GOP seems to have abandoned the hay-truck and bank for the mega-church. This is important because it is indicative of the shift in the Republican base and has influenced Colorado’s move from a fairly reliable red state to a purple one. It is partly why Colorado went for Cruz over Trump in the Republican Primary. But although there may be a quiet distaste for Trump within North Park, it will go red come November. There is not necessarily such distaste in Colorado Springs, where Trump and Pence have held multiple well-attended rallies, and which will go decidedly for Trump. People in the Springs have an eye on Cruz in 2020.

The Front Range

A short, 60-mile slog north on congested Interstate 25 lands you in the epicenter of Colorado’s Democratic heart, Denver, and its famously liberal satellite college town, Boulder. Denver is at the heart of an urban corridor cuddled against the eastern face of the Rockies called the Front Range, a swath of cities, including Colorado Springs, that is home to the vast majority of Colorado’s population. A patchwork of cities as distinct from one another as California from Texas, or Boulder from Greeley.

Defaced Bernie Sanders mural, Denver, Colorado

Defaced Bernie Sanders mural, Denver, Colorado.

These last two cities are a few miles apart, and while the former has welcomed the pot industry and banned fracking altogether, the latter has allowed fracking within its city limits and banned marijuana. Had a secessionist movement, born in response to the passage of both Amendment 64 and gun control laws, succeeded in creating the new state of North Colorado, Greeley would have been its capitol. This in the state which has seen two of the most horrific mass shootings in America.


“And there in the blue air I saw for the first time, far off, the great snowy tops of the Rocky Mountains. I had to get to Denver at once.”— Jack Kerouac, On The Road (1957)

Where Mr. Kerouac and his cronies saw a sort of beautiful, open freedom in Denver’s endless brick row-homes and the faded grandeur of the 19th century mine barons’ mansions, now cut up into small apartments, the city itself struggled through the 20th century. Denver suffered from a partly self-inflicted identity crisis as a Western Provisional Cow Town, trying to shun its past as a city dependent on the boom and bust cycles of the “Three C’s” that still drive parts of it economy: carbon, Cold War and Coors.

Through a long-sighted series of planning and reforms, including a gleaming new airport in the ’90s and one of the largest, most progressive mass transit projects in the country, Denver has come into its own in the 21st century. The folks who knew it as that somewhat sleepy cow town remain, but they’ve been joined by the throngs finally heeding Jack Kerouac: thousands of transplants, many young, now flock to the city from all over the US. It is bursting at the seams, suffering the happy pain that so often accompanies gentrification.

While the city itself is very Democratic, tensions lurk in the reasons why. This was made clarion clear by the massive support in the city (and state) for Bernie Sanders, who carried Colorado in the Democratic caucuses. Bernie Sanders stickers plaster the buildings and the bumpers of the hybrid cars and scooters of Denver.

The anger and disaffection at Sanders’ loss and eventual endorsement of Clinton were prescient in Denver, leaving behind a sort of resigned tolerance for Clinton as the standard-bearer, although anger still festers.

The Arkansas River

With all Trump’s talk of borders and walls, it is interesting to consider the political map of 1846, when the Arkansas River, sourced in Colorado, was the border between the US and Mexico. This can been seen in the geographic appellations of Colorado: north of the Arkansas are Fort Collins, Walden, Leadville and the Never Summer Mountains. On and south of the Arkansas are Pueblo, Durango, Alamosa and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Mexico played a deep role in Colorado’s past, and continues to factor in its present in the form of a massive number of Latino voters (most of Mexican ancestry, but many from other parts of Latin America).Donald Trump with taco bowl tweet.

According to the Pew Research Institute, about 1.1 million Hispanics live in Colorado, which is about 21% of the state’s population, and nearly 2% of the USA’s total Hispanic population. Needless to say, Latinos in Colorado will have a say in where the state goes in 2016.

In theory, the Republicans should have an advantage with Latino voters in Colorado and elsewhere because, as a bloc, they emphasize family, are predominantly Catholic, and are generally conservative on social issues such as abortion. In practice, the Republican movement toward a white, evangelical Christian base has put it on the wrong side of the major issue for most Latino voters: immigration. “Build a wall” is not something Latino voters care to hear; moreover, Republican attempts to reach out to Latino voters have appeared condescending, patronizing and cynical.

While this is also true for a bevy of GOP politicians at every level of American government (including Colorado’s own gubernatorial candidate and immigration firebrand Tom Tancredo) it has seemed particularly pronounced in Trump’s campaign, evinced by a recent tweet of Trump over a taco bowl on Cinco de Mayo (a holiday celebrating a Mexican victory over the French; important to Mexican-Americans and bar owners, little observed in Mexico.)

As goes Colorado’s Latino vote, so often goes the Colorado election and, faced with Trump’s antagonistic approach to Latino issues and obliviousness to Latino culture, Colorado Latinos are seeing red and feeling blue, leaning heavily for Clinton, who invested heavily in media across the state throughout the primaries and into the run up to the convention. Clinton has a massive ground force of offices with nearly 100 people in Colorado, while Trump has about a dozen people throughout the state. While the state was too-close-to-call through much of the pre-convention drama of both parties, it seems the results have swung the state’s nine electoral votes comfortably into Clinton’s column. Clinton’s campaign remains vigilant in Colorado, but has relaxed its media presence as other states once thought comfortably red (like Arizona, Georgia and possibly even Mississippi) seem up for grabs.

With such diverse shades of rural and urban, old and new, green and non-green, white and brown, past and present, the square state of Colorado may not be so square after all, but looks likely to remain blue in November.


Shay V. Carlstrom


Born in Walden, North Park, Colorado, Shay V. Carlstrom is an educator and writer living in Denver.



Featured photo, Walden, Colorado, photographed from hot-air balloon by Shay Carlstrom.


Colorful Colorado sign by ErgoSum88 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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