POLITICS AUGUST 20, 2013
One of the weird things about the “blue states” is that some are mainly red. I’m from Washington State, where the populous and liberal Seattle metropolitan area dominates state politics. The three metropolitan Seattle counties constitute 52 percent of the state’s electorate and voted for Obama by 29 points, 63-34. But across the Cascade Mountains, eastern Washington—fully half of the state’s area—votes more like Idaho than the pro-Obama, pro-gay marriage, pro-marijuana western half of Washington. Unsurprisingly, the conservative residents of eastern Washington occasionally flirt with seceding from Washington. And equally unsurprisingly, Democrats say no: The new state of Western Idaho would give the GOP more electoral votes and senators. There’s a similar phenomenon in southern Illinois. And according to the Washington Post yesterday afternoon, there’s now a burgeoning secessionist movement in northern Colorado. But unlike Illinois and Washington, there’s a case that Democrats should entertain the newest secessionist movement in the Centennial State.
Apparently, 10 counties in northeastern Colorado are tired of living under the tyrannical rule of Denver-Boulder and their lean-Democratic suburbs. In Colorado, Denver-Boulder and their Democratic-leaning suburbs constitute 57 percent of the electorate and voted to reelect the president by a 21-point margin. The ten counties considering secession, of course, voted for Romney by a 20-point margin. And although there are some very conservative metropolitan counties along the Front Range—Weld, El Paso, and Douglas—it’s pretty clear that the state tilts slightly toward Democrats, who won every statewide election after 2004, including gubernatorial and senatorial contests in 2010.
So why should Democrats entertain Republican secession in Colorado? Wouldn’t it just give the GOP more electoral votes and senators? Well, it would do those things. But it would do something else: make Colorado bluer. In solid blue states like Washington and Illinois, that’s not very helpful to Democrats. But Colorado is only the lightest blue: In fact, it was the “tipping point” state in the last presidential election.
How much would Republican secession help Democrats in Colorado? Obama’s 5.36-point margin of victory would grow to 6.96 points. That would make the state more Democratic than any other “battleground” states, including “lean Democratic” states like Nevada or Wisconsin.
And although the GOP could conceivably still win by means of Colorado, they would probably need to go through the so-called “blue wall,” probably though Pennsylvania, Iowa, or New Hampshire. If a presidential election is coming down to Pennsylvania, Democrats should feel very good. Iowa and New Hampshire have voted more Democratic than the country in most recent elections—including about 2 points left of center in 2012. Colorado, in contrast, was closer and has a relatively recent history of tilting toward Republican presidential candidates.If Democrats could persuade a few more Republican counties to get on board, the remaining "blue" Colorado could get even bluer. That said, they want to make sure that Northern Colorado only receives 3 elecoral votes--as you'll see in a moment.
Republican Colorado’s new electoral votes wouldn’t be enough to undo the advantages of a more Democratic, rump Colorado, either. The 10 Republican counties are basically empty, with the exception of exurban Weld County, home to the thriving town and likely capital of Greeley. Combined, the ten counties only cast 154,045 votes—even less than, you guessed it, the undeserving state of Wyoming. So Republican Colorado will get three electoral votes and Democratic Colorado will lose one, turning the current 272-266 Democratic advantage in the Electoral College (defined by the states where President Obama did better than the national popular vote) into a 271-269 advantage. So a more Democratic Colorado would actually solidify the Democratic advantage in the Electoral College, even though a Republican Colorado would automatically give the GOP three new electoral votes—either way, Democrats have a one state edge.
Of course, Republican Colorado would be bad for Democrats in the Senate. Of course, there’s an argument that the presidency matters more than the Senate, but Democrats already have a slight structural advantage in the Electoral College, while they’re at a distinct structural disadvantage in the Senate. Realistically, Democrats can’t trade two Senate seats for solidifying their Electoral College advantage.
Even then, there’s still cause for Democrats to entertain Coloradoan secession. Maybe they could get Wyoming to annex northern Colorado, preventing the GOP from picking up new Senators? That would be a great deal for Democrats. More realistically, Democrats could offer a new state in northern Colorado in exchange for D.C. statehood. Two new senators and a voting representative for D.C. would completely cancel out the GOP’s gains in the Senate. So then why would the GOP do it? Well it still looks like a pretty good deal: They’d still get the three new electoral votes from the new state, while Democrats wouldn’t get any new electoral votes, since D.C. already has three electoral votes. Yet Democrats might take eight bluer electoral votes in exchange for three new Republican electoral votes.
Obviously this plan isn’t without risks for Democrats. Imagine that Colorado keeps getting more Democratic, and then, perhaps especially after reapportionment makes the Electoral College friendlier to Republicans in 2020, those three additional Republican electoral votes loom large. Maybe Democrats lose their three-point edge in Colorado, and then the GOP just got additional electoral votes without turning Colorado blue. On the other hand, Weld County, an exurban county outside of Denver holding 75 percent of the Northern Colorado electorate, is trending Democratic. The county grew by 39 percent between 2000 and 2010, and it went from a 27 point Bush victory in 2004 to a 13 point Romney win in 2012. If Democrats could win Weld County with 54 percent of the vote—which might still be a long ways away, as Obama only won 42 percent—they could overcome the heavy Republican-lean of the rest of the new state.
Of course, you shouldn’t go out and buy “fiveforty.com” and “271towin.com.” None of this is likely, especially since I've blown the Democratic cover and Democrats don't want to encourage other secessionist movements in the red parts of blue states. But a new state in northern Colorado could easily yield a relatively equitable partisan outcome, particularly in comparison to the one-sided proposals in Washington and Illinois. There are plausible scenarios where either party gains.