As goes Colorado's 7th, so goes the nation?

Posted: Apr 20, 2006 12:05 AM

DENVER -- Rick O'Donnell looks 25 but is 35 -- old enough to know better. Nevertheless, he is running for Congress as a Republican in a daunting year.

Think of this city as the hole of a doughnut. The doughnut's bottom half is the 6th Congressional District, represented by Tom Tancredo, the fire-breathing bantam rooster -- the image is ornithologically implausible, yet accurate -- who is the frequently contorted face of today's immigration debate. The doughnut's top half is the 7th District, whose incumbent congressman, Republican Bob Beauprez, is running for governor.

After the 2000 Census, when Colorado got a seventh congressional seat, the Legislature deadlocked over redistricting. So a judge created the 7th as one-third Democratic, one-third Republican, one-third independent. In 2002, Beauprez carried it by 121 votes out of 172,879 votes cast -- and that was with the help of an election-eve visit by President Bush. In 2004, when John Kerry carried the 7th with 51 percent, Beauprez won 55 percent.

But what a difference two years make. Two years and, O'Donnell says, three events that have made the Republican base cranky.

The first was the president's post-Katrina vow to pay unlimited sums to fix New Orleans. The second was Tom DeLay being quoted -- not accurately, but the truth never caught up -- to the effect that all the fat had been trimmed from the federal budget. "Spending more than anything,'' says O'Donnell, bothers the base right now. The third event was the weird nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court.

And now there is immigration, which in Colorado has produced a strange alliance: Tancredoites have a kindred spirit, sort of, in Dick Lamm, a Democratic greenie and former three-term governor. He believes that population growth is bad for the environment.

O'Donnell is an archetypal product of the decision by national Republicans, three decades ago, to systematically grow activists. He was 10 when inspired by Ronald Reagan's anti-Washington victory in 1980. By his early 20s he was working in a Starbucks in Washington, looking to join the generation of future candidates and staffers nurtured in the capital by conservative think tanks. He was employed by one run by Haley Barbour when Barbour was chairman of the Republican National Committee, and another run by Newt Gingrich. Then O'Donnell came home to be policy director for Gov. Bill Owens, who made him state director of higher education at the tender age of 33 -- too young to get tenure on most faculties.

Colorado has gone Republican in 12 of the last 14 presidential elections by an average of 15.4 percent; in nine of the last 10 by an average of 13.7 percent; in three consecutive elections by an average of 4.8 percent. (Bill Clinton carried it in 1992, perhaps because Ross Perot won 23.3 percent of the vote. In 1996, Colorado was one of just three states to abandon Clinton for Bob Dole.) Colorado was the only state considered safe for Republicans in 2000 but a Democratic target in 2004.

An eccentric target. Lamm and Roy Romer -- he later was chairman of the Democratic National Committee -- held the governorship for 24 years. Colorado sent two different flavors of liberalism -- Gary Hart's and Tim Wirth's -- to the U.S. Senate while also sending Republican Bill Armstrong's high-octane social conservatism. Ben Nighthorse Campbell was elected to the Senate as a Democrat, then switched parties, was re-elected as a Republican, then rode off into the sunset on his Harley.

O'Donnell, who understands the patience required of politics, urges fellow conservatives not to sulk in their tents this autumn. Remember, he says, "how long it took the Progressives to get the New Deal'' -- they started in the late 19th century and before they got to FDR, they had to pass through the 12-year Harding-Coolidge-Hoover era. Republicans, he says, really began their drive for a limited-government, ownership society agenda only 12 years ago, with the 1994 capture of the House.

National Democrats understand that if they are going to flip 15 districts to win control of the House, O'Donnell must lose, so their help for his opponent will be unstinting. But his opponent will not be known until the Aug. 8 primary. Meanwhile, the two contenders in that Democratic primary are tormenting each other with arguments calculated to make voters feel tormented: Who has the deepest roots in the district? Was it sinful that one of them skipped an optional caucus contest? If they keep arguing about the politics of politics, the phrase "Speaker Pelosi'' will not be heard in 2007.