Is post-election Garfield County seeing red?

John Colson
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
Gretel Daugherty/APRepublican state Rep. Scott Tipton, center, watches election returns with his cousin Monica Gorsuch, left, and daughter Elizabeth on Tuesday in Grand Junction. Tipton defeated incumbent Democrat John Salazar.

GLENWOOD SPRINGS – Political observers might be forgiven if they concluded from the Nov. 2 election results that Garfield County has returned to its historic roots, when Republican politicians ruled the local roost.

But the county’s party leaders, Republican as well as Democrat, say that is not necessarily the case.

“I don’t think it means the county is solidly Republican,” said local Rebublican chairman Milt Blakey. “This county is solidly in the center.”

In the recent election, any Democrat running as an incumbent was unable to keep his or her Garfield County job, and a Democrat challenger to Rebublican incumbency did not fare any better.

That was true for outgoing County Commissioner Tresi Houpt, county assessor John Gorman and former sheriff Tom Dalessandri’s run for the job now held by Republican Lou Vallario.

In addition, in more than one statewide race, Garfield County contributed substantially to Republican victories over Democratic incumbents.

An example was the 3rd U.S. Congressional District race, where Republican challenger Scott Tipton convincingly beat out Democratic incumbent John Salazar. Garfield County helped with a tally of 8,880 for Tipton, over 8,234 for Salazar.

But, by the same token, as Blakey pointed out, the county also voted strongly to put Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, in the governor’s office. Local voters went for Hickenlooper by a margin of 8,516 to 3,208 for Republican Dan Maes.

“That was an anomaly for this county,” said Blakey. “The Republicans put up a totally unacceptable candidate.”

He noted that American Constitutional Party candidate Tom Tancredo, a former Republican, got 5,745 votes from Garfield County electors.

“People are not going to go hard right, and they’re not going to go hard left,” Blakey said of the county’s electorate.

Put the same question to local Democratic party chair Ed Sands, chagrined over the trouncing his party got locally and nationally, and the answer will be a little different.

“Unfortunately, it does appear that way,” he said, referring to Garfield County’s tilt toward the red end of the political spectrum.

“I think we’ve always been something of a purple county,” he added, referring to a perception of more moderate political coloration.

Blakey agreed, saying the county is fairly evenly split between Democrats, Republicans and Independents.

“I think the county is still about the same a it has been,” he explained, “pretty close to a third and a third and a third, with the unaffiliates the strongest.”

Plus, Sands added, the vote was swayed by the fact that “there were a lot of people hurting [due to the recession] and blaming those in power … particularly in Tresi’s case.” He said voters criticized Houpt’s service on the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, including the drafting of tighter restriction that some believe drove the industry out of Colorado and killed jobs in Garfield County.

As for Gorman, Sand said, voters blamed him for a jump in their property tax bills, even though that jump largely was caused by a reluctance on the part of taxing districts to lower their tax rates in response to rising property values.

Sands noted that, had the tax rates been reduced, Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights would have required that the rates stay low even if property values came back down, which would have slashed the districts’ budgets.

In general, Sands agreed with Blakey, “because we’re a purple kind of county” that shies away from extremes at either end of the spectrum.