Candidates court unaffiliated voters
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – Dave Scruby, who has been a banker in this Colorado mountain town for 26 years, has registered as a Democrat and Republican at various times in his life – before he got fed up with both parties.”The severity of party bias is annoying to me,” Scruby said during a recent rally for Democratic Senate candidate Ken Salazar. “They bring up negative issues to play on emotions.”There are 1 million “unaffiliateds” like Scruby in Colorado, and they outnumber Democrats by more than 65,000 registered voters as of last week. Republicans lead the way with 1.1 million registered voters.Both parties say it is the unaffiliateds who will be the deciding factor in Colorado’s presidential, Senate and congressional races on Nov. 2 – and that’s why candidates are spending lots of time and millions of dollars to win them over.Colorado has always been a tough state to figure out because of its large number of unaffiliated voters, said Mike McCurry, President Clinton’s former press secretary and now an adviser to the presidential campaign of Democrat John Kerry. Clinton won Colorado in 1992, then lost it to Republican Bob Dole four years later as Ross Perot picked up 7 percent of the vote.
“Those voters have no strong allegiance. It’s a sign of their rural independence,” McCurry said.Many Colorado voters, like those elsewhere in the inner West, tend to focus on a politician’s platform rather than party affiliation. Experts say there is no doubt about the power the unaffiliateds wield, but it is shrinking, at least in Colorado: They still outnumber Democrats, but the gap between the two has dropped dramatically since 2000, when it was nearly 130,000.Eric Sondermann, a political consultant and unaffiliated voter, said many Colorado voters were registered as unaffiliated by their spouses. Under Colorado law, a spouse can register both to vote, but declaring party affiliation must be done by an individual.”That tends to inflate the unaffiliated voter rolls,” Sondermann said.Political consultant Katy Atkinson of 1Denver said unaffiliated voters have a wide variety of views, making it difficult for candidates to single them out to appeal for their votes.
“I tell candidates, go for your base and hope your message sells well with the unaffiliated voters,” said Atkinson, who works on Republican campaigns. “It’s easier for those voters to say what they don’t want than what they want.”Salazar, who is running against Republican Peter Coors for the state’s open Senate seat, said he is not taking unaffiliated voters for granted. He said he invites them to rallies and urges them to ask questions because they usually do not participate in party functions.”The unaffiliated voters will decide the outcome of this election,” Salazar said during a campaign stop in nearby Rifle.Glenwood Springs City Councilman Bruce Christensen said he is unaffiliated because he does not agree with the platform of either major party. He said many Democrats have failed to criticize the war in Iraq, and that neither party has taken a stand on fiscal accountability, an issue he is concerned about because of his work with nonprofit organizations.John Redifer, a political science professor at Mesa State College, said the trend toward more unaffiliated voters has been driven by growing dissatisfaction over the past decade. He said they often side with one party and vote for that party – but want to keep their options open.
“They like to think they are independent and vote for the candidate and not the party, but if they tend to be Republican they usually vote Republican and if they tend to be Democrat, they vote Democrat,” he said.Redifer said that gives Republicans an advantage in Colorado.Dave Hamilton, a Republican handyman from Ridgway, said unaffiliated voters are hurting the political process when they straddle the fence, waiting to see who can make them the best offer.”Some people want it both ways. Sometimes people have to make hard choices. People need to pay attention, get involved and vote intelligently,” he said.Yet Gary Hoof, a Glenwood Springs barber and avowed unaffiliated, said he makes his choices based on the candidate, not the party.”Taking part in partisan politics is like being on a football team,” he said. “They say you are either for us or against us.”
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