How the Republicans lost Eagle County | VailDaily.com
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How the Republicans lost Eagle County

Tom Boyd

There’s been plenty of political haberdashery hurtling through television and cyberspace lately: talk of Democratic succession from the Union, charges of a GOP-rigged election, slanders and praise for the religious right, and lots of nonsensical attempts to resolutely reveal the reasons why Bush won the presidency.But it didn’t happen here in Eagle County, where thousands of voters showed their blue colors Nov. 2, electing Democrats nearly across the board.So what happened? Did the Democrats campaign harder than Republicans, convince everybody they were better, and win the county on pure merit?I don’t think so.It’s more likely that Republican leadership dropped the ball, alienated voters with brash overconfidence, and forgot to appeal to the thoughtful, moderate elements in their party.After all, Eagle County’s registered voters are 37 percent unaffiliated, 34 percent Republican and 26 percent Democrat. Republicans should have had this county all sewed up.But they were dealt sound defeats almost without exception. A Denver Post headline from Nov. 8 said it best: “GOP candidates pummeled in Eagle County.”Even the county’s solitary Republican victor, Heather Lemon, barely won her home county and lost the election at large. Lemon has commented, in other newspapers, that she feels she lost because of an influx of young voters from California and Boulder transients from blue-stronghold areas who invaded Eagle County and voted party line Democrat. This sentiment has been echoed by other Republican leaders in direct conversations with the Vail Trail.I don’t buy that argument.First off, it’s been universally noted that this is not the 1960s, there is no generation gap, and that young voters are now more likely to be conservative and older voters more likely to be liberal.But the real problem with Lemon and the efforts of other Republicans is that they associated themselves with the right wing, more extremist elements of their party, thereby misrepresenting themselves and alienating the valley’s centrist voters.People like Lemon, Mark Hurlbert, Richard DeClark, and A.J. Johnson are NOT hard-core, right-wing candidates, but that hardly matters to a general public that PERCEIVED them as such. The spokespeople for the conservative movement, the leadership, came out too strong to the right. And by associating themselves with these folks, campaigning with them, fundraising with them, and working together with them, Republican candidates put themselves in a bad spot.Take Henri Stone as an example. As the wife of Republican Commissioner Tom Stone and co-chair of the Eagle County Bush-Cheney campaign, Henri Stone was responsible for garnering support for Republicans in Eagle County.But on at least one issue, that of campaign sign destruction and vandalism, Ms. Stone came out on the far right:”I’ve been criticized for comparing the sign-burning to cross-burning and the actions of (Hitler’s) brown shirts, but I won’t take back one word,” she told the Vail Trail in an article printed Oct. 21 (see “Send lawyers, guns, and muzzles,” at vailtrail.com).This may appeal to Republican insiders and the hard-core base, but it’s not a good way to appeal to unaffiliated voters, who are the true majority in Eagle County.There are many more examples of this kind of behavior from vocal conservatives in the county. And Republican candidates appeared extreme because of whom they associated with, where they advertised, and whom they campaigned with. I had the luxury of meeting each of the candidates and talking in-depth with them, and I know they’re not rabid right-wingers. But when the public at large sees Henri Stone and, say, Richard DeClark together at an event, how are they supposed to distinguish the difference?There was one race where my theory doesn’t hold true: the race between Arn Menconi, Buz Reynolds, and Johnson for county commissioner. More people voted against Menconi than for him, but, frankly, Reynolds split the vote and gave Menconi the edge. Johnson is well known in this county, and his identity and views transcended that of the local party affiliations. Without Reynolds in the race, it’s very possible he would have won.As for DeClark’s loss to Peter Runyon, I also should give credit where credit is due. While DeClark probably suffered from his party’s outspoken representation of itself, I believe Runyon won, to a large degree, on the merits of his campaign. Nothing appeals to Eagle County voters more than an environmentally minded candidate who is dedicated to the idea of smart growth.Which is the same reason why Tamra Nottingham and Kristi Ferraro won seats on the town council. As Nottingham said once in an Avon Council meeting, “We’re not anti-growth. We’re pro-sustainability.”Peter Buckley, on the other hand, didn’t make the cut, most likely because of his associations with the conservative fringe element and his unwillingness to take a similar stand on growth and development issues.But all is not lost for Republicans. All they need to do is find moderate leaders, perhaps someone from the business community who comes out looking more like a Pete Coors and less like a David Duke. The problem is that, in this county, most of those kind of moderate Republicans enjoy working in the background, behind the scenes, and wouldn’t want to take the risks involved in party leadership.But until the local party comes forward with a more moderate front man/woman, they will continue to struggle in a county that has firmly announced its current preference for the color blue. VTTom Boyd can be reached for comment at tboyd@vailtrail.com


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