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Colorado's Key Senate Race Is a Battle for America’s Environment

VICE News is in Colorado, a political and environmental microcosm of the US, and where the vital midterm vote might decide who wins the Senate.
Image via AP/Ed Andrieski

At the end of the Senate debate in Pueblo, Colorado last Thursday between incumbent Democratic Senator Mark Udall and Republican challenger Congressman Cory Gardner, they played Ashokan Farewell, the mournful melody that serves as the background music for Ken Burns' The Civil War. The choice was not entirely inappropriate.

The debate hall was "a house divided." The left third of the auditorium was comprised of Udall supporters, younger and more diverse than the older, whiter Gardner backers who filled seats in center and right — though the race itself is actually much closer than the crowd composition implied. (An average of recent polls has Gardner ahead by just above one percentage point.)


When the candidates came out, the crowd erupted in Jerry Springer-style chants: "Udall! Udall!" vs. "Cory! Cory!" The candidates themselves appear straight from central casting: Udall, 64, the scion of a western political dynasty, wore a bolo tie to accent his flash of white hair and saddle-leather tan. Gardner, 40, looked like a slightly pudgy, political Ken doll: good-looking, well-dressed, and a bit dead behind the eyes.

Then the battle began. Hold off for a second on what the candidates said — here's what the crowd screamed. From the Gardner section, where I sat, a 30-something guy outfitted in a "Bikers against dumb drivers" leather jacket shouted with tapering confidence: "A BABY'S BORN WHEN IT'S… conceived." An older woman with a clear case of political Tourette's disdainfully shouted the name of Senate Majority Leader "Harry Reid!" over and over again. She also hissed "ISIS!" every time Udall said "ISIL." (She must prefer Syria to the Levant.)

Denver votes blue, but its suburbs are purple — except for Boulder, which votes so deeply blue that I enjoyed a locally-made organic cold-pressed kale juice.

A blonde woman in her 20s, dressed for the cotillion with her 1950s pearls, yelled "Fuck off, liberal!" and "Fuck you, baby killer!" When asked for an interview after the debate, she told VICE News that she couldn't because she "worked for the GOP" — although I suspect she was just a volunteer.


Other hecklers yelled barbs like: "Senator Uterus!" "We love fracking!" "Okay, Obama!" "YOLO!" and "Jazzercise!" (It sort of made sense in context.) From the Udall section, there appeared to be no similar outcries, but there was at least one person dressed as a cowboy — although I believe he was an actual cowboy.

I came to Colorado to cover the environment but discovered that — as in most of the country — the political environment is already toxic. Of course, politics has as much of an impact on the environment here as in any other state in the Union. Colorado is a microcosm of the country — both politically and environmentally.

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Democrats show their support in the divided state of Colorado. All photos by Ari Ratner.

Geographically, the eastern part of the state is high-prairie and resembles its similarly flat neighbor, Kansas. Towards the middle, the state is bisected from north to south by the I-25 corridor that runs alongside the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. At its heart is Denver, the state's capital and largest city, which is circled by a growing ring of suburbs and exurbs. This corridor also includes several other population centers, such as Ft. Collins, Colorado Springs, and Pueblo.

West of I-25, the state becomes more beautiful and less populated. A diverse scattering of towns dot the mountain landscape: resorts like Aspen and Vail, current and former mining centers like Leadville (many of which, like Aspen, have now turned to tourism), and ranching communities like Rifle and Gunnison. Far western Colorado resembles its neighbor Utah, as the Rockies fall off into canyon country.


'Young people have the most at stake in this election because it's about sustainability and it's about our future.'

Politically, the landscape mirrors the natural environment. Colorado's eastern prairie votes like Kansas — forming the backbone of the Congressional District that Gardner represents. The Rocky Mountains have peaks of Democratic and Republican support based on their valley's local demographics. Far western cities like Grand Junction, which Californians fly over on their way to ski, vote Republican like everywhere else Californians fly over without visiting.

The political heart of the state remains the I-25 corridor. Denver votes blue, but its suburbs are purple — except for nearby college town Boulder, which votes so deeply blue that I enjoyed a locally-made organic cold-pressed kale juice. North of Denver, as you approach Wyoming (think Dick Cheney), the state becomes so red that there has been a secessionist movement. Colorado Springs — home to both the Air Force Academy and the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family — is another red outpost.

Yet, the state is moving increasingly to the democratic column, having voted for Barack Obama twice. As immigrants from Latin America — and the liberal coasts — continue to move to the state, Colorado is likely to turn even bluer over the long run.

For now, though, the state remains a key political battleground. There's not only the close Senate race, there's also a toss-up Governor's race between incumbent Democrat John Hickenlooper and Republican challenger Bob Beauprez.


The competitiveness of this year's races are due in no small part to the fact that as a midterm election — without a presidential candidate on the ballot — key Democratic constituencies like young voters and minorities are traditionally less likely to turn out.

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Yet when it comes to the environment, young voters may be the most affected. In an interview at the University of Colorado campus in Boulder, that he represents, Democratic Congressman Jared Polis told VICE News: "It's ironic — because young people have a lot more at stake in any particular election than more senior Americans. They have their whole future ahead of them. So when we're talking about quality of life, environmental issues, and renewable energy, we're talking about our lifetime. We're talking about the lifetime of somebody in their 20s or 30s and how it affects the geo-political landscape, how it affects the air they breathe, how it affects the price they pay for energy, how it affects the quality of their life. So, young people have the most at stake in this election because it's about sustainability and it's about our future."

The litany of environmental issues in the Colorado race runs long — climate change, fracking, the building of the Keystone XL pipeline, conservation, land and water management, among others. And the stakes extend far beyond Colorado itself. Control of the Senate may hinge on the outcome of this race.


A Colorado oil rig, with the mountains in the background. All photos by Ari Ratner.

The Senate is currently Democrat controlled, with the 53 Democrats and two Independents who caucus alongside them outnumbering their 45 Republic colleagues. Because Vice President Joe Biden would hold the deciding 101st vote in the event of a 50-50 split, the Republicans need 51 seats to control the Senate. The GOP is likely to win three seats in Montana, West Virginia, and South Dakota — Republican states where Democratic Senators are retiring. Control of the Senate depends on a few remaining toss-up races in states like Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, and North Carolina. Colorado is among the closest of these races.

Outside money is now pouring into Colorado. The state has become a proxy war between opposing sides in the national debate on environmental issues. The conservative Koch brothers — whose family made their vast fortune in the oil industry— have spent over $2 million on the midterms in Colorado this year. Environmentalist and former hedge-fund manager Tom Steyer — the liberals' answer to the Koch brothers — has spent $4,664,739 against Gardner's campaign through his NextGen Climate Action Political Action Committee.

When watching the Broncos game on Sunday — I believe in immersing myself in the local culture — a slew of commercials bought by these and other PACs flashed across the screen.

When it comes to the environment, the political euphemisms can't obscure real divides.


Of course, environmental issues aren't always as black and white — or red and blue — as the ads make them seem. Matching its political and geographic complexity, Colorado also has a mixed energy base. Colorado is the country's seventh largest natural gas producer, ninth ranking oil producer, 11th largest coal producer, and 15th in terms of energy production from renewable resources. Estimates of the number of oil and gas industry jobs in the state range from 48,000 to more than 111,000. Meanwhile, one estimate for the number of green jobs in Colorado put it at over 72,000.

Colorado also has a long environmental tradition that aims to conserve its unique environment. While expanded resource extraction can bring new jobs to often-depressed areas, it is also increasingly raising the ire of a range of other stakeholders, including environmentalists, ranchers, hunters, and those whose jobs depend on tourism.

Given Colorado's mixed energy landscape, candidates often end up saying similar things — they're politicians, after all — even if the policies they ultimately support are markedly different. Udall and Gardner both emphasize the importance of "energy security," "protecting" the environment, and Colorado's way of life.

The planks of Gardner's "Four Corners Plan" are "energy," "environment," "economy," and "education." It's hard to be against any of that. Udall, meanwhile, emphasizes "economic opportunity and building a better life," "creating good-paying Colorado jobs," "fighting for our rights and values," and "protecting Colorado's way of life." Nothing controversial there.


Yet, when it comes to the environment, the political euphemisms can't obscure real divides. When most Republicans speak of energy security, they normally mean expanding oil, gas, and other traditional energy production — even if they give lip service to the importance of green jobs. When Democrats speak of energy independence, they usually emphasize green energy as a potential breakthrough technology that will offer both new jobs and environmental benefits — even as they also have to be responsive to constituents who work in traditional energy industries.

Of course, sometimes the differences are clear. On climate change, the five debates between Gardner and Udall have shown the stark divide between them. "Is climate change man made?" posed a moderator during the yes/no portion of their debate in Denver last Tuesday. "Yes," replied Udall.

All photos by Ari Ratner.

Gardner's answer ended up as this exchange:

Gardner: "Well I've said all along the climate is changing…"
Moderator: "This is yes or no."
Gardner: "Look, this is an important issue and I don't think you can say yes or no…"
Moderator: "But you've got 60 seconds after."
Gardner: "I believe the climate is changing, I disagree to the extent that's been in the news that man is causing it."
Moderator "Congressman, at the end of the yes/no questions, you will each be given a minute to respond to any of these questions that you would like to…"
Gardner: "Look, I think we ought to be able to provide an answer. This is a serious debate, we're both running for the United States Senate, this is a serious issue. And I don't think we should shortchange serious issues with yes or no answers without being able to talk about them now."
Udall: "That was 60 seconds."
Moderator: "These yes or no questions are meant to be answered yes or no, because they should come from a core belief that you would hold."


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When it comes to building the Keystone XL project — the 1,179-mile pipeline extension that would bring tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, directly to Steele City, Nebraska and then onto Texas or Illinois the difference is also clear. Gardner supports it. Udall has wavered, previously opposing it, but now supporting it if "the science is complete."

Even though the pipeline will not pass through Colorado, it's an issue of national importance that will be decided on by the Senate. If Republicans gain control of the Senate, the legislative houses will almost certainly pass a bill mandating its construction. This would force President Obama — who has allowed the issue to be decided by a State Department review because it passes through an international boundary — to either acquiesce to Republican will or veto the bill. On environmental protection, Gardner received a score of just 4% in 2013 by the League of Conservation Voters. Udall scored 92%

Perhaps no issue divides Colorado as much as fracking, which has set county against county and sometimes neighbor against neighbor. The narrow country road that separates Boulder County from its eastern neighbor Weld County, which Gardner represents, may be one of the starkest borders in America.

To the west in Boulder County, fracking is under a moratorium. Bicyclists meander through pastoral farmland that quickly rises to the foothills of the Rockies and then soon up again to the towering peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park. (Pro-tip: You can still see the elk and the hotel that inspired The Shining, but the pass is closed this time of year. I tried. I failed. And I had to backtrack several hours through backcountry roads.)


While many in Weld County value the new jobs and revenue from fracking, others like Maria worry about its negative impacts — on their health, on their quality of life, or on the value of their homes.

To the east, as soon as you cross the county line, the skyline is dominated by new oil and gas drills, reflecting Weld County's openness to the extraction industry. The landscape is a mashup of farms, ranches, new subdivisions, and drills.

The county road itself is a strange no-man's land, where bicyclists and industrial-grade trucks seem to peacefully — if tentatively — coexist.

At one site just inside the county line run by the Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, drills hummed away with an eerie, pulsating screech reminiscent of the Terminator soundtrack once Skynet takes over. As I snapped photos, a worker yelled: "This is private property!"

Just down the road, I spoke with Maria, 40, a factory worker and immigrant from Mexico who lives in a small house in the shadow of several drilling sites with her five children and rancher husband. (The house itself is owned by the owner of the ranch.)

As the drills hummed away, Maria complained to me about the noise and worried about the health affects it could have on her children. "¿Quién se sabe?" she said. "Who knows?" While many in Weld County value the new jobs and revenue from fracking, others like Maria worry about its negative impacts — on their health, on their quality of life, or on the value of their homes.


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Maria's house in the shadow of the drilling sites. All photos by Ari Ratner.

Yet despite the heated election and local disputes, the political patchwork that is Colorado remains strangely woven together.

Back in Pueblo, when the passions of the debate died down — and The Civil War tune still echoed in the hallway — supporters of both candidates intermingled.

We are at a crossroads for our state and our country.'

VICE News spoke to Kate, 71, a retired public schoolteacher and lifelong Republican. Bedecked in an American flag outfit and GOP pins, Kate was friendlier and more polished than most political spokespeople — even though she did not officially work for any campaign.

She told VICE News that Colorado needed "new leadership" and that "we are at a crossroads for our state and our country." When asked about whether climate change worried her, Kate said: "God wants us to be good stewards of the earth, but that there will be changes in the world over which we can only have some control."

I asked her: "Do you disagree with the overwhelming majority of scientists who argue that climate change is largely the result of human activity?" Kate replied: "Yes, I disagree that the majority of scientists believe that climate change is the result of human activity."

Ari Ratner is VICE News' special political correspondent for the 2014 midterm elections. He is a Fellow at New America and co-founder of a small PAC called America Innovates. Follow him on Twitter: @amratner