KEN SALAZAR, DEMOCRATIC SUPERSTAR.
by Michael Crowley
Post date 10.07.04 | Issue date 10.18.04
If Denver is the heart of Colorado, Trinidad is a capillary. It's a dusty little outpost about 200 miles south of the mile-high city and just north of the New Mexico border. Trinidad is a weary-looking place whose main drag is peppered with boarded-up shops and dank saloons and whose main attraction is a grim memorial honoring fallen miners from this coal-rich region. It is a typically depressed rural town, in other words. But Trinidad also has a bizarre claim to fame. It is unofficially known, according to the Lonely Planet travel guide, as "the sex-change capital of the USA."
As we drove into Trinidad last week, I asked Ken Salazar about this strange honorific. At the time, Colorado's Democratic nominee for Senate was at the wheel of my car-- a courteous gesture to facilitate my note-taking and one that seemed typical of a man without a self-important bone in his body. As we rolled through wide-open plains, Salazar, who grew up on a ranch not far from here, was in his element. He had traded the suit and tie he wears as Colorado's attorney general for a Western denim look: jean jacket, blue jeans, and the white cowboy hat that has become his trademark.
You might suspect Salazar of wearing a costume until you hear him talk about the region. As we passed through different counties, he effortlessly ticked off their populations and translated their Spanish names. ("We're in Las Animas County. It means, 'The Spirits.'") He explained what year towns were founded and what their main industries are. Just off Trinidad's main street, we passed an impressive red brick building. "They are known for their brick in this town," Salazar remarked matter-of-factly. "I have one on my desk." Salazar said all this in his unalterably placid voice; he projects an inner tranquility that suggests a man who has just tucked his children into bed or enjoyed a very thorough massage.
And, yes, he knows about Trinidad's gender-bending specialty. "Yeah," Salazar chuckled, the little grin expanding. "There was a doctor here who developed a specialty in sex-change operations, so people from around the country would come here." He pauses, choosing words carefully. "Shows you the diversity of America."
As a 49-year-old up-and-coming Democrat, Ken Salazar hasn't been one-tenth as hyped as the younger, swooninducing Barack Obama. But, should he win his tight race here--and several recent polls have shown him with a small-to-medium lead over beer baron Pete Coors--he'll join Obama in Washington as a new Democratic rock star. As a senator, Salazar would become one of the most prominent Latinos in national politics--second only to New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. (Florida's Republican Senate candidate, Mel Martinez, is also hoping to join this club and signal to Latinos that the GOP is their ally, making it all the more important for Democrats that Salazar succeed.) If elected, Salazar would bring to Washington a claim few other Democratic minority politicians, including Obama, can make: He will have survived a competitive statewide election in a pro-Bush state with the help of conservative swing voters and even some Republicans.
Which is why Salazar has driven for hours to reach Trinidad. Given that Colorado has 190,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats, Salazar can't count on Democratic cities like Denver and Boulder for victory. He needs to rack up huge margins in more conservative rural areas-- in places like Trinidad. Once in town, Salazar met with a group of enthusiastic Democrats at a local party office. Most gushed over him. But one skeptic challenged the mood. "A lot of people go to Washington and become federal-minded," the man says. "Are you gonna become federal minded?" Salazar slowly raises his arms, spreads open his palms, and looks the man in the eye. His hands are marked from working on his ranch. "These calluses on these hands will never let me forget from where I come," Salazar says. The man nods his head in approval. And soon, Salazar is back in the car, headed off to another lonely rural town.
Colorado is rough turf for Democrats. As it happened, Salazar first hopped into my car outside Colorado Springs, just a few miles from the national headquarters of Dr. James Dobson's rabidly religious-conservative organization Focus on the Family (which I later heard broadcasting a radio program warning against the indoctrination of young people with the "homosexual agenda"). The state offers a microcosm of the problem Democrats confront nationally: the skepticism of culturally conservative rural voters has outweighed the party's support in big cities, and Christian-conservative and pro-military voters in exurbs like Colorado Springs offer Republicans a firm bulwark. As a result, it has been a decade since any Democrat has won a major election in Colorado--except for Salazar, who, after a career as a lawyer and an aide to former Governor Roy Romer, was twice elected attorney general. He won his 2002 reelection campaign by a 20-point margin.
Salazar's success so far has little to do with ideology; he is not a policy wonk. He is a fairly moderate Democrat whose differences with the national party are more tonal than substantive. Salazar never talks about party control of the Senate, for instance, and has yet to appear publicly with John Kerry. Yet his overall platform--which calls for preserving President Bush's middle-class tax cuts, more "urgency" on homeland security, and more international support in Iraq--roughly mirrors Kerry's.
Rather, Salazar's two key assets are personal. The first is his ability to connect with rural voters who might otherwise be skeptical of a Democrat. Those calloused hands are no fraud: He is one of eight children to grow up on a ranch in a farming area in south-central Colorado with no telephone, power lines, or running water. "We brought in water in fifty-gallon buckets," Salazar explains. "We were poor; we didn't have money for almost anything." This hardscrabble identity has so far been crucial to Salazar's rise. "The old math of the state was that you would win as a Democrat by driving up the margins in the metro counties around Denver," says Mandy Grunwald, Salazar's Washington-based media consultant. "But there just aren't enough votes there for a Democrat anymore, even a centrist Democrat. You really need to build a coalition that goes beyond that. And what Ken has been able to do in his past campaigns is reach into rural areas. He's one of them. He's not a Denver candidate."
So far, Salazar's new formula has been working. A mid-September Rocky Mountain News poll showed him with a 59-to-35 point advantage over Coors among rural voters--even as Bush leads Kerry among those voters by three points. "A lot of people have approached us and said, 'I'm voting for Bush, but I'm also voting for you, Ken,'" says Salazar Press Secretary Cody Wertz.
Salazar's second advantage is his ethnicity. Latinos now make up nearly one-fifth of Colorado's population, and their numbers are growing fast. Although Colorado Latinos lean Democratic, as they do nationally, they are susceptible to Republican appeals. (In 2000, Bush carried Colorado with the help of 33 percent of its Latino voters.) But the News poll showed Salazar leading Coors among Latinos by 68 percent to 23. And, while Latino voters often turn out in low numbers, the Salazar campaign is hoping they will vote in droves for one of their own. "A theory behind the Salazar campaign, particularly with Latino voters, is that they are going to turn out people who usually do not turn out," says Eric Sondermann, a Colorado Democratic consultant. One possible predictor of what could happen, Sondermann recalls, was the 1983 campaign of Denver Mayor Federico Pena, who triumphed thanks in part to a surge in Latino turnout.
Yet, while he would be just the fourth Latino to serve in the Senate (and the first in more than 25 years), like Obama, Salazar has avoided depicting his candidacy as a historic civil rights crusade. "It's not something that Salazar seems to have played up to this point," says Denver pollster Lori Weigel, who conducted the News survey. As a result, Salazar hasn't been branded as an "ethnic" candidate, and his support among white voters--among whom he is roughly tied with Coors--hasn't suffered. When Weigel's survey asked voters what phrases came to mind when they thought of the candidates, large chunks of voters offered such responses for Salazar as "attorney general," "Democrat," and "positive values." An observant 2 percent even offered "cowboy hat." But "Latino" didn't register.
Salazar's success is particularly impressive when you consider the strength of his opponent. The Coors family is the closest thing Colorado has to royalty. From the site of its sprawling brewery complex in the Denver suburb of Golden, the Coors empire stretches across the state--encompassing downtown Denver's Coors Field, thousands of Coors billboards, and the ubiquitous Silver Bullet brew itself. But being Mr. Beer has proved complicated for Coors. During his primary campaign, a right-wing group attacked Coors for running TV ads featuring "scantily-clad girls and frenzied drinking scenes" that were "degrading to women and nearly pornographic." Coors the candidate and Coors the company--which has spent years trying to recover from discrimination charges and resulting liberal boycotts--fled from one another over the issue of gay marriage. After Coors said he would support the federal marriage amendment, the brewery even launched a $1 million ad campaign in the gay press affirming that "[w]e do not support discrimination against the glbt community--via legislation or otherwise"--suggesting, by implication, that its chairman does. More recently, the deaths of two Colorado college students in separate binge-drinking tragedies have left Coors regretting some recent musings about the benefits of a lower legal drinking age.
But the key to the race so far has been Salazar's impressive ability to reverse traditional party stereotypes against Coors. During Colorado's 2002 Senate race, Democratic nominee Tom Strickland blew a lead against GOP Senator Wayne Allard after Allard depicted himself as the champion of hard-working rural voters and Strickland as an effete Denver "lawyer-lobbyist." This time, Salazar has turned Coors into the rich Denver elitist. Salazar often speaks of having "walked in the shoes" of ordinary Coloradans. And he savaged Coors with a TV ad featuring Coors's dunderheaded comment, "I don't know what a common man is." As a result, Coors has been stuck with a two-dimensional image. Weigel's poll found that voters linked Coors with terms like "beer" and "businessman"--and not with campaign themes like tax cuts or security. Coors has tried to fire back by tagging Salazar as a faux-cowboy lawyer in league with liberal Democrats, but so far the image hasn't stuck.
Maybe that's because it isn't true. Soon after his visit to Trinidad, Salazar stopped in the even smaller, sadder town of Walsenburg, about half an hour north along I-25. Speaking before a group of local Democrats who shivered against a bracing early fall wind blowing in from the plains, he once again sounded almost as if he were in his hometown: "I have been through this road probably two hundred to three hundred times." And no one doubted him for a moment.
Michael Crowley is a senior editor at TNR.