US midterms: The battle that could make or break the president

Barack Obama could lose his Senate majority in the state where he accepted the nomination
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The Independent US

It didn't begin in Colorado for Barack Obama, but in Colorado he was crowned – on an August night in 2008, when he accepted the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, in front of 75,000 people in the gleaming new Mile High Stadium where the Denver Broncos play football, on a stage set reminiscent of a temple from ancient Athens.

But two years later, in the state that was supposed to be the anchor of a new western strategy for the Democrats, it's all going wrong – just as it's going wrong almost everywhere in the country. "The 2008 convention had a magnifying effect," says Eric Sondermann, a political analyst in Denver. "We Coloradans drank the Obama Kool-Aid a little more intensely than the rest of the country. It was an artificial high, and that has made the drop a little more precipitous."

The President's party, beyond doubt, will lose Congressional seats and state offices here in next Tuesday's midterm elections. Paradoxically, the one thing that can prevent a bad night turning into a calamity is the Republicans' own shock weapon, the Tea Party.

That is why no race here is more closely followed than Michael Bennet's fight to remain a senator. On the result may hinge the Republicans' chances of gaining the 10th extra seat that would hand them control of the Senate as well as of the House (now considered a virtual certainty). But for the distaste amongst centrists for the Tea Party, Bennet would be heading for defeat; instead his race with the Republican Ken Buck is now reckoned the closest in the country. The most recent poll put the candidates dead level, on 47 per cent.

Such are the stakes that, as of last week, the Bennet-Buck battle had attracted over $23m (£15m) of spending from outside groups, more than any other Senate race in the country – largely on attack ads that swamp Colorado's airwaves, each angrier than the last. "On November 2, vote to restore sanity to the Senate – elect Ken Buck," trumpets one such ad. But sanity? Buck's positions have made him a Democratic poster boy in reverse, whose excesses have been seized on in states as far away as New Hampshire, warning of the fate awaiting the nation if Tea Party Republicans set the pace in Washington.

In one of America's most green-minded states, he has been savaged for scoffing at global warming. He is a ferocious opponent of legislation to curb greenhouse gases, and has compared gays to alcoholics.

So Democrats can still hope, knowing full well that if Bennet had been facing Jane Norton, the more conventional establishment Republican whom Buck defeated in the primary, he would have hardly had a chance.

"If Republicans fail to win the Bennet seat they will have squandered the opportunity of a lifetime," says Sondermann, who carries a candle for neither party. "We won't see a set of circumstances like this again, maybe in a century. Buck would be 4 or 5 points ahead if he'd run even a slightly more disciplined race."

Even so, in this anti-incumbent year, when American voters are frustrated and anxious as never before, Buck catches their mood. Two factors above all make this a perfect year for Republicans. One, of course, is the dismal economy. With its 21st-century skyscrapers shimmering against a soaring Rocky Mountain backdrop, Denver still feels like a boom town. In fact, unemployment in the state has climbed to over 9 per cent, while the state government (unlike its federal counterpart obliged to balance its budget) has had to cut spending by 20 per cent since the recession hit. That is not a recipe for popularity.

Oddly, however, Republican turmoil could keep the Democrats in the Governor's mansion as well. A single Republican candidate would probably have been able to defeat the Democrat John Hickenlooper, the current mayor of Denver, in the gubernatorial election, that is the second best show in town after the Senate race.

Instead two candidates are splitting the Republican vote: the official Republican Dan Maes, and the renegade right-winger Tom Tancredo, like Buck a darling of the Tea Party and running for the American Constitution Party, who trails Hickenlooper. But Hickenlooper, like Bennet, must overcome a second problem: Obama himself. In Colorado, party activists have traditionally focused on community issues: education, traffic, and "the quality of life". Western Democrats who make national waves tend to be quirky and independent-minded, typified by Colorado's former senator and presidential candidate Gary Hart. The 44th President however comes across as an urban liberal. Here, half a continent from the capital, anti-Washington arguments resonate especially loud.

Part of the trouble, admits Rick Ridder, a top Democrat strategist in Denver, is that "Obama is not a good salesman. He hasn't got across what his goals are, even when he's achieved them." Choosing his words carefully, Ridder professes to be "baffled" by the President's "inability to articulate a permanent message for the administration".

That, adds Ridder, explains why nearly 70 per cent of Americans (according to a recent poll) regard Obama's stimulus package as a waste of money – even though a good part of it went to preventing individual states making even deeper budget cuts than they did.

Much the same is true of healthcare. This election year as always, Colorado voters have a selection of ballot initiatives to ponder. With only 75,000-odd signatures needed, and organisational costs of $300,000 or so, they are easily procured. Nine items feature on the 2010 menu. Three, reducing property and state taxes, would cause further havoc with the state budget. They are likely to be rejected; Colorado voters may be angry, but they can do their arithmetic. The healthcare proposal – Amendment 63 – is however another matter.

Essentially, it challenges a key part of reform, the requirement that all Americans, whether they like it or not, buy coverage. Amendment 63, says Sondermann, "will be a litmus test for health reform. Most of the initiatives will go down, but there's a 50/50 chance the health one will pass." If so, fierce legal battles will follow. But should Republicans win control of Congress, Colorado will have emboldened them in their avowed aim of inflicting death on health reform by a thousand cuts.

All of which leaves the Democrats' dream of building a new electoral stronghold in the Rocky Mountain West in some disarray. In Colorado, from one to three Democratic seats in the House are at risk, and perhaps six more across the region's eight states – Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and Idaho.

Even if Hickenlooper wins in Colorado, Democrats are set to lose governorships in Wyoming and New Mexico (with the latter poised to elect America's first-ever female Latino governor in Susana Martinez). In Nevada, the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is in as tough a re-election battle as Michael Bennet here.

The bigger question, though, is: do this year's losses herald a long Democratic decline? No say some, pointing to the growing Hispanic vote, traditionally Democratic, and the suburbanisation of the region that is steadily eroding old frontier conservatism.

Others though are not so sure. In retrospect 2008, when Obama carried Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, may have been a high water mark. At best they will be swing states – and that giddy August night in the Mile High Stadium will become just another faded and dusty memory.

What would happen if Obama lost the Senate...

Some 19 Senate seats are in play at this election; of that 19, only six look certain to stay in the Democratic column. That equation could leave them four short of even a bare majority, let alone the 59 seats they currently hold. On the other hand, the Republicans would need to win six of the seven races that are too close to call to get to the magic 51 mark, a tall order indeed.

If the Democrats were to lose their majority, the political calculus for the rest of Barack Obama's term in office would look very different. Shorn of the support he needs to push through his agenda, the President would be forced to scale back plans: his hoped-for climate change bill, for example, would presumably be radically cut down. But there may be an upside to defeat for Mr Obama: like Bill Clinton, he could see his waning fortunes transformed by having someone else to blame for the country's travails.

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