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How to Win in a Red State

By Ken Salazar

How could a Democrat win statewide office in a red state like Colorado? That's the question I've been asked often since I beat Pete Coors by 5 percentage points in 2004. The answer lies in choosing the right issues, telling your own story and being authentic, and convincing the voters that you understand their real, everyday concerns.

When word got out that the Republicans had recruited Pete Coors to run for the Senate, a lot of people felt that the race was over. Not only is Pete from a famous family that owns a famous brewery, but the family seems to have some kind of business in just about every county -- or at least a ball field named for the family. Pete had name recognition and a long record in the civic life of Colorado. And, of course, he brought with him millions upon millions of dollars.

I had almost none of those things. I come from a very humble background. My parents were 11th generation immigrants whose families had farmed in the San Luis Valley for 150 years. None of my ancestors had been to college. And while I had served as Colorado attorney general, I had never run for a statewide office with this kind of national attention. But we went into it with everything that we had. In seven-and-a-half months we raised over $9 million. Yet money was only part of the challenge.

What made the biggest difference was that I emphasized the right issues. I was able to connect with the people of Colorado in a way that made them feel that I was going to be on their side. People just weren't sure that Coors, the CEO of a big company, would ever be able to understand the issues that they were facing every day. They understood that I would be a strong supporter of the issues that the people in Colorado care about every day.

During my campaign, I often talked about what it's like to get up in the morning and wonder what the day holds for you. People wonder whether they're going to have a job; whether or not they're going to have health insurance for themselves or for their families; whether or not their children will be able to get access to higher education; whether or not there is a level of violence around the world that has become really dangerous.

Security first. The number one issue on people's minds is security. As a Democrat who had spent six years working with 14,000 law enforcement officers and who had argued numerous criminal law cases, I knew that security was central to the election. And as the person who had dealt with major crimes such as the Columbine school shootings, security was an especially important issue to me.

So I told people that, in our post- 9/11 world, security was at the very top of our agenda. The function of the national government is to make sure that we have a strong defense and the safest homeland we possibly can. Because of my work with law enforcement, I had support from most of the law enforcement organizations. This theme strongly contrasted me with Coors, who had no experience working with security issues.

The second defining theme for me was my work in the rural parts of Colorado. As the son of farmers, I made it a point to spend a lot of time as attorney general working to protect water resources for farmers and ranchers. I also worked on rural law enforcement issues, such as the methamphetamine crisis and law enforcement training for deputy sheriffs in our rural communities.

I promised to visit all 64 counties in the state, no matter how small -- and I did. People in smaller, rural communities always feel that the golden curtain somehow drops at the city limits of the bigger cities and that rural areas are forgotten. They appreciate the fact that somebody cares about them. I made rural America a major part of my agenda -- and I got treated very well in comparison to other people who were running.

The third key issue was faith. I'm a Catholic, but I didn't talk about my faith in a way that people found offensive. I presented it simply as a very important part of who I am. My family founded the city of Santa Fe, N.M., in 1598. They named it the City of Holy Faith. The valley where I grew up is dotted with names that come right out of the Bible. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains, which means Blood of Christ mountains, bordered us to the east, and the San Juan Mountains bordered us to the west. And the rivers that run through our ranch are named after saints as well.

My first campaign commercial was a biographical spot that included a picture of the oldest church in Colorado. It's a Catholic Church with a cross on top -- the church where I was married. My great-grandfather is buried under that church. In that commercial, I wasn't trying to accentuate my faith so much as just say: This is who I am. If someone asked me about my faith, I explained that much of my own decision to become a public servant was based on my faith.

As a Christian, I think the Beatitudes and other doctrines that I learned growing up taught me that I should help as much as I can to serve other people. My public service has very much been a part of that journey.

Besides the issues, the most important thing that a candidate can do is to be authentic. If a candidate tries to wear religion like clothing without really having it, that tactic will backfire. I think that someone could very well be president or win political office without having to say very much at all about religion. What's most important is that the candidate be authentic. For some people, faith is a very important part of who they are. It ought to be okay for people who are running for office to talk about their faith.

There was one issue that I decided not to talk about: abortion. This is a hot button issue that sometimes entraps people running for office.

In 1998 and 2002, my good friend, Tom Strickland, ran for the U.S. Senate. I supported and worked for Tom's campaign. NARAL and other organizations were very supportive of him. He ran many TV ads about a woman's right to choose, making abortion a central part of that campaign. But Tom lost.

I didn't want that to happen in my campaign. I was not endorsed by NARAL or Planned Parenthood because, frankly, I support parental notification and other kinds of restrictions on abortion. I think that was a significant contrast between me and Tom Strickland.

I think abortion is a very personal question, one which by necessity should be an issue of conscience for people who are involved in dealing with that particular decision. Even though my pollsters told me that all the surveys indicated that I ought to be running ads that dealt with abortion, I made the decision not to do that.

Perhaps the key thing Democrats need to remember is that we must have a message of optimism. We need to stand for something and not just draw the contrast between ourselves and the mistakes of Bush and Cheney over the last six years. We need to stand for a strong nation and strong homeland defense. We need to be very strong on security.

The right vision. We can take our cues on this from the generation of World War II. When I speak in Colorado, I tell people that I think about my father who served in the war and about my uncle who lost his life on the soils of Europe. It's in that generation that I find my own vision. They believed in very strong defense and homeland security. They wanted us to have a more secure America than the one they lived in during World War I and World War II. They wanted to make sure that we were creating a safer, more secure world for those who were coming behind them. Their vision ought to be the vision of the Democratic Party.

Democrats also need to stand for the proposition of opportunity. Those fighters in World War II were fighting for the opportunity of all Americans. My parents never had the opportunities that I've had in life. They never had the opportunity to go to college. We grew up in a place that didn't have electricity and didn't have a telephone, and we studied around a kerosene lamp in a place that was far removed from any city. And yet my parents knew that somehow opportunity was the keystone to being an American. They pushed us all to get a quality education. And the result is that all eight of their children became first-generation college graduates.

They had faith and hope in the future of America. I think we need to have that same faith and hope in the future of America on domestic issues. It means that we have to work for health care solutions because that crisis is affecting so many American families and businesses. That means that we need to work to make sure that educational opportunity stays alive and well.

It means that we need to have the courage to achieve energy independence so we don't mortgage our national security or economic security to the sheiks and kings of the Middle East. We have to have a positive agenda that America can be a very strong country.

With an optimistic campaign based on key issues, I not only beat Pete Coors, but we picked up another congressional seat for the Colorado Democrats. That was my brother's seat in the 3rd Congressional District on the Western Slope, a rural area of Colorado. And we won the Legislature. For the first time since John Fitzgerald Kennedy was president of the United States, Democrats control both the House and the Senate in Colorado.

There is great hope for Colorado Democrats in 2006. The governor's seat could go to a Democrat. We will continue to build our majorities in both the House and the Senate. There are also a number of congressional seats that look competitive. For the first time in a long time, there's a sense that Democrats have a chance just about everywhere in this red state.

Ken Salazar is a U.S. senator from Colorado.

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