It's a difficult time for Republicans in Colorado. Democrats are in complete control of state government after the 2012 elections and they're using their majorities to push through an avalanche of progressive legislation, from new gun control laws to stricter alternative energy requirements. Three years ago, Weld County district attorney Ken Buck ran for Senate comparing homosexuality to alcoholism, a remark that helped cost him the race. Today the speaker of the state house of representatives is openly gay and Gov. John Hickenlooper recently signed a law legalizing civil unions.
If you're a Republican official in the rural eastern half of the state, you could take the party's implosion as a sign the GOP needs to find a more moderate message that can win back swing voters in the populous Denver suburbs. Or you might decide it's time to pack it in.
That's the route Republican county officials across the plains are taking, where a proposal to secede and form the 51st state is gaining momentum. On Monday, the Weld County commission voted unanimously to pursue secession by putting the issue on the ballot in November. Elected officials and activists in nine other northeastern rural counties are discussing the idea as well, with some dissenters backing a more "moderate" approach of trying to allocate state representatives by land instead of population. The new state (East Colorado? North Colorado? Great Plainistan?) would include about 154,000 voters, per The New Republic's Nate Cohn, making it the least populous in the country.
MSNBC attended three town halls in the area with Republican Congressman Cory Gardner earlier this month, whose sprawling district is the core of the 51st state movement, and he received questions on the issue in every one. Gardner has not endorsed the idea, citing his deep family roots in Colorado.
"I think that it's just a sign of frustration," he said at a town hall in Sterling, Colo., on Aug. 7 after being asked by an audience member about secession. "It's one of those state issues, where it's a sign of frustration about what's happening."
Lee Ann Laybourn, a commissioner in Washington County, told MSNBC the same week that residents were considering whether to put a secession measure on their ballot as well.
"There's very little rural voice on any of the bills that are passed," Laybourn said. "It doesn't have anything to do with Republicans or Democrats, it has to do with rural representation."
Proponents like Laybourn stress that they consider their movement non-partisan. However, the counties exploring the idea are among the most Republican in the state and their primary source of alienation is the Democratic government. According to Laybourn, talk of secession picked up in particular after the state legislature passed a new renewable energy standard in June, which residents fear will spark higher energy prices in rural areas.
While some states like Vermont and West Virginia started out as parts of larger states, alienated regional officials have had less success pursuing secession proposals in recent years. In a reverse of Colorado's situation, New York City politicians have periodically floated secession to protest the disproportionate application of tax dollars toward the more rural upstate region. But breaking off to form a new state requires support from not only the state legislature, but from Congress as well, meaning secession is not going to happen in Colorado (or anywhere else) anytime soon.