DENVER — For a decade, the Colorado Democratic Party has enjoyed incredible success by holding together its diverse constituencies and presenting a unified front, but now cracks are emerging.
The party’s schism on the core issues of energy and the environment is becoming too obvious to cover up and increasingly difficult to manage as tension grows between advocates of oil-and-gas development and the environmental left.
“We spend all this time talking about the terrible divisions in the Republican Party between the Tea Party and the [establishment]—well, that’s exactly what you’re watching here with the Democrats,” said Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli.
At one end is Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who famously drank fracking fluid to show his support for the fossil-fuel industry. At the opposite end is Democratic Rep. Jared Polis, who is reportedly the secret moneybags behind the anti-fracking measures aimed at the November ballot, according to Fox31’s Eli Stokols.
Support from the multi-millionaire Polis “would really make those initiatives very, very viable,” said Ciruli.
“If you’ve got Polis funding them, you’re in a whole different situation, because he is a very high-profile Democratic officeholder,” said Ciruli. “It definitely is a huge problem. It both fractures the base and could clearly damage certainly the governor’s race, because he [Hickenlooper] is not eager to alienate some environmentalists, and this puts in high relief that he’s not on their bandwagon, that he’s supporting gas and oil.”
That Polis may be working behind the scenes against Hickenlooper in a critical election year is the most stunning but not the only example of the party’s widening chasm on energy issues.
Democratic U.S. Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet are generally peas in a pod when it comes to voting, but not on the Keystone XL pipeline. Last year, Bennet supported a non-binding resolution in favor of the pipeline, while Udall voted against it.
Then Udall participated in the Senate Democrats’ all-nighter Monday on climate change, while Bennet did not.
“People like John Hickenlooper are trying to head off a fracking ban statewide that would drastically hurt Colorado’s economy,” said Republican strategist Dick Wadhams. “Colorado’s two Democratic senators are split on the Keystone pipeline. I mean, the fissures are occurring everywhere.”
Meanwhile, the Democratic legislature, caught between a pro-fracking governor and an aggressive green movement, has been so far unable or unwilling to offer legislative fixes to head off the proposed anti-fracking initiatives.
“They were going to try to offer some kind of legislation that was ameliorative. I don’t know where that is,” said Ciruli. “But I do know these initiatives are moving through the title board. They’re moving right down the road.”
Wadhams said that may be because “the vast majority of legislative Democrats are definitely more comfortable with the Polis view.”
“You look at the kind of Democrats who have been elected in the last few election cycles, and they are to the left, way to the left of center in Colorado, and they’ll support this fracking ban,” said Wadhams.
The Democratic Party’s ability to keep its far left in line and avoid fractious battles on issues has helped it win the support of the business community, which values political stability. That could change if business leaders suspect Democrats are aligned with the anti-fracking forces.
“So you’re watching the fracturing of the base, but also as important, they’re going to alienate the business community and [even] the progressive business community,” said Ciruli. “I don’t think those people won’t give to Hickenlooper, but they might not give to these Democratic Senate campaigns.”
The oil-and-gas industry is gearing up for a battle royale on fracking in November, launching educational efforts like Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development and promoting lawmakers who support fossil fuels.
The American Petroleum Institute recently sent out flyers and robocalls urging voters to contact Hickenlooper and “say ‘thank you’ for supporting Colorado’s energy economy.”
The split “highlights that the Democratic Party is not able to discipline its own far left,” said Ciruli.
“I think it undermines their job and economic message, or at least it’s going to confuse it, because as best as I can tell, gas and oil is going to spend all the money they have—I’m exaggerating slightly, but we’re talking multi-tens of millions of dollars–to basically say these people are against the economy,” he said. “And these people are going to be Democrats.”