Excerpt from “The Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care” (Fulcrum 2010) Copyright: Fulcrum Publishing, Adam Schrager and Rob Witwer
For six days in August, it felt more like Cannes than Denver.
Not that the Starz Green Room was terribly glamorous – quite the contrary. The converted art-house theater is just one wing of a sprawling 19th century red brick building called the Tivoli Center, which doubles as the student union for three community colleges. If you wanted action, the Pepsi Center across the street seemed a better bet.
But appearances can be deceptive. During the 2008 Democratic National Convention, the Green Room’s VIP-only admittance policy and high-powered programs set it apart from other venues in town. In a city full of elite A-listers, the Green Room was the place to be seen. Here, movie stars, celebrity bloggers, Washington journalists and elected officials could pass the time in relative privacy while awaiting the nightly parade of headliner speeches.
The Hollywood paparazzi and Washington media who gathered about the entrance of the Green Room were not disappointed. Their cameras captured some of the well-known faces who were in Denver that week: James Hoffa, Charlize Theron, John Podesta, Kal Penn (of “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” fame), Walter Isaacson, James Carville, several members of Congress and Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas.
Those lucky enough to get into the Green Room could relax in the lounge, catch a socially-themed indie film or attend panels on hot political topics.
In one program, blogger Arianna Huffington, Jonathan Alter of Newsweek and Chris Cilizza of the Washington Post talked about the role of new media in modern politics. In another, Hollywood stars Josh Brolin, Ben Affleck and Rosario Dawson gave live readings from an upcoming film based on socialist author Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States.”
The air in the lounge was crammed with anticipation. National Democrats had gathered in Denver once before, exactly a century earlier. Back then, they picked Nebraska orator and three-time Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan to carry the party’s banner into the general election. It ended in disaster, with Bryan losing the Electoral College by a humiliating 321-162 margin.
This time was going to be different. Although the election was still nine weeks away, Democratic insiders confidently discussed what they didn’t dare say in public: this election was over. Barack Obama was going to be the next President, no doubt about it.
And the best part? His historic nomination would take place in the heart of the Rocky Mountain West, right under the noses of a GOP that had, until recently, dominated the region’s politics.
No cameras were clicking as Rob Stein walked into Theater 8 of the Green Room just before 10 o’clock that Wednesday morning. But to Democratic operatives, the well-dressed Stein (whom journalist Matt Bai has called an Albert Brooks look-a-like) was easily one of the biggest celebrities in Denver that week.
Stein was there to moderate a panel entitled “Democracy Alliance: Colorado as a Model – Donor Cooperation for Social Change.” He, better than anybody, understood the secret electoral formula discovered by Colorado Democrats in the previous 48 months. Using it, Democrats hoped to capture control of states where just a few years before they wouldn’t even consider taking a shot. It was a blueprint for future Democratic success across the nation.
The former Clinton staffer was known for his famous Power Point presentation called “The Conservative Message Machine Money Matrix,” which detailed how the right had built a thriving network of think tanks and independent organizations to support conservative candidates. One such institution, the Heritage Foundation, was founded with the financial support of Joe Coors, whose grandfather built a brewery in the town of Golden just a few miles west of where Stein now walked.
For years, Stein carried his electronic slideshow around the country trying to beg, borrow or steal a few minutes in front of Democratic Party leaders and wealthy “progressive” donors (the term progressive has come to mean left-leaning, as the word once “liberal” did in an earlier generation). The left, Stein argued, needed the same thing – would they help him do it?
In the early to mid 2000s, Stein’s message slowly caught on with donors like financier George Soros, Hollywood director Rob Reiner and Taco Bell heir Rob McKay. Enlisting the financial resources of more than 80 deep-pocketed benefactors, in 2005 Stein founded the Democracy Alliance to help build the progressive infrastructure that had, until then, existed only in his head.
Meanwhile, and quite independently of Stein, a small group of Colorado progressives had put the substance of Stein’s vision into practice with great success – one year before the Democracy Alliance opened its doors. In 2004, several wealthy donors and a network of united progressive organizations helped make Colorado — until recently, a reliably Republican state — a deep shade of blue.
They called it the “Colorado Miracle”.
To the insiders in Theater 8, the Colorado Miracle needed no explanation. In October 2004, the GOP dominated politics at every level in Colorado. Republicans held both U.S. Senate seats, five of seven congressional seats, the governor’s mansion, the secretary of state’s and treasurer’s offices, and both houses of the state legislature. On Election Day in 2008, the opposite would be true.
By any measure, it was one of the most stunning reversals of fortune in American political history.
Even taking national trends into account, the success of Colorado Democrats was extraordinary. While changing demographics and an unpopular President played a part, it could not explain the complete and total domination the left achieved in such a short time.
As national Republicans cruised to victory in 2004, winning the Presidency and moving six U.S. Senate seats into the GOP column, Colorado Democrats captured both houses of the state legislature, flipped a Congressional seat and provided one of only two Democratic pickups in the U.S. Senate (the other being Barack Obama in Illinois). From 2004-2008, Colorado Democrats consistently outperformed their peers in other states, even as Republicans held a statewide voter registration advantage.
The Colorado Miracle was one of the reasons the convention was in Denver this year. And with Obama up in the polls, the state was in play for a Democratic Presidential candidate for only the second time in four decades.
This was a story worth telling.
“Had we been here four years ago, at this exact same date,” Stein began, “there would have been virtually no credible capabilities that we could talk about that in any way, shape or form could be seen as fairly competitive with the enormous machinery that the right has built.”
“But,” he continued, “there has never, in the history of progressivedom, been a clearer, more strategic, more focused, more disciplined, better financed group of institutions operating at the state and national level.”
Stein then introduced Laurie Hirschfeld Zeller, Executive Director of the Colorado Democracy Alliance. Zeller’s presentation was CoDA’s public debut, and a proclamation of the organization’s pivotal role in transforming Colorado.
“At CoDA we’re very proud to be the poster child for state based collaboratives,” she said. “We embrace the progressive label in our giving and in the strategic role that we play in Colorado politics. Our job is to build a long-term progressive infrastructure in Colorado, while we’re conceding nothing in the short term, in terms of progressive goals at the ballot box.”
“I’ve been struck,” she mused, “as friends from out of town are coming here for the convention, [they] are pleased to find a sophisticated modern city here. I think they pictured a frontier town and we were encircling the wagons, surrounded by hostile red, conservative populations.”
Carrying the metaphor forward and then mixing it a bit, she had a message for progressives: “the tents have been struck and we’re building a community here. There’s an irrigation system in place that is going to provide a harvest later this fall but that’s also building a community and building an infrastructure for the long-term.”
Stein jumped in, “and in the absolutely finest form of flattery,” he said, “the Weekly Standard, which is the most respected conservative-right opinion journal in the country, did a cover story about a month ago, written by Fred Barnes, on the Colorado Model.”
“And it is a warning shot to conservatives in America, that if the Colorado Model is replicated elsewhere, conservatives have nothing comparable to possibly compete with it and they had better watch out.”
The crowd erupted with applause. From the back, someone shouted, “Yay Colorado!”
“’Yay Colorado’ is exactly right!” Stein replied. “And it really is the model.”
The unmistakable message electrified the audience: Colorado was just the beginning.