Colorado Election Day storylines

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DENVER — The rallies are over, the billions of dollars have been spent and both campaigns are convinced they’ll be giving a victory speech tonight.

Something’s gotta give.

When the polls finally close across the country Tuesday night, we’ll finally have an answer to the question: which campaign’s narrative in these closing days has been based in reality?

Will the polling data hold true and drive President Barack Obama to a second term or will Mitt Romney defy that data and inherit the destiny he and his supporters believe belongs to them?

With any luck — and a minimum of vote-counting complications — we’ll have a decisive outcome before the sun comes up Wednesday morning.

We’ll also know not just who’s won the presidential race but whether Congress will continue to be split between a GOP-led House and a Democrat-controlled Senate; and we’ll have a new story to tell about Colorado.

Will that story be of a mountain west bellwether and changing electorate that’s tipped the scales in a historic battle for the White House? Or that of a state where voters approved a constitutional amendment that effectively legalizes marijuana in small quantities?

Here are some of the big storylines we’ll be watching throughout the day Tuesday and focusing our coverage around Tuesday night:

Does “The Bennet Model” deliver again for Democrats?

Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet’s narrow 2010 victory, one of few bright spots for Democrats amidst a GOP year, has since served as a model for the president’s campaign, not just in Colorado, again a critical swing state, but nationally.

Bennet successfully focused women voters, including many registered Republicans, on a series of statements by his opponent, Ken Buck, that alienated women and helped paint a composite picture of a GOP candidate who was “too extreme” to be acceptable.

In running several TV ads focused on Romney’s primary statements about de-funding Planned Parenthood, his failure to condemn outrageous statements by fellow Republicans about “legitimate” rape and his eagerness to appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade, the Obama campaign has made similar appeals to women voters in Colorado and other swing states.

In August, Obama even focused an entire campaign rally in Denver on women’s health issues and appeared with activist Sandra Fluke, the law student who Rush Limbaugh called a “slut” after she testified in favor of women’s continued access to free birth control as part of the health insurance.

If Obama can pick off suburban women by a decent margin, he’ll be on his way to winning Colorado and, in all likelihood, a second term. But Mitt Romney, who broke through the president’s characterization of him as an extremist with his commanding and moderate-seeming performance in the first presidential debate right here in Colorado, is no Ken Buck. If more women vote their pocketbook, the Bennet model may prove beatable.

Will any incumbent member of Congress lose?

Even with Congress earning the disdain of most Americans, all of Colorado’s incumbent members of Congress appear headed for victory on Tuesday night.

Despite a major gaffe in May and a re-drawn district that made his safe GOP seat into a toss-up, Aurora Congressman Mike Coffman is likely to survive a challenge from Democratic state representative Joe Miklosi, based on internal polling of the race in Colorado’s 6th Congressional District.

Reps. Ed Perlmutter, D-Golden, and Scott Tipton, R-Grand Junction, appear headed for victory as well, despite strong challenges from Joe Coors and Sal Pace, respectively.

If any challenger does pull off an upset, it could be a canary in the political coal mine. A Miklosi win, for instance, or even a defeat by one or two points, could be a signal of the president’s strength in Arapahoe County, a bellwether Colorado county. Inversely, a Coors win in bellwether Jefferson County would be a strong indication that Romney is running well there and on his way to winning Colorado’s nine electoral votes.

Battle for the Colorado statehouse and civil unions:

While the presidential race has left little media oxygen for coverage of the dozen or so statehouse races, the fight for control of both chambers under the gold dome has been intense.

Republicans face a tough climb to erase the Democrat’s 20-15 majority in the state senate, needing to win all four toss-up races on the board.

But in the House, the scene of so much drama at the end of last session with the implosion of a civil unions bill, Republicans are now holding onto a slim one-seat majority by their fingernails. If Democrats win just two of more than a half dozen competitive races, they’ll retake control of the lower chamber two years after losing it.

Should that happen Tuesday night, it’s also probable that history will be made Thursday morning, when the House Democratic Caucus will vote on leadership positions and would be set to make Minority Leader Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, the first openly gay legislative leader in Colorado history.

Should Sen. Pat Steadman win his respective caucus election for Senate President, two openly gay men would be leading both state legislative chambers in Colorado, a first in any state — and a symbolic capstone on the civil unions legislation both he and Ferrandino have co-sponsored the past two years that would be certain to pass and be signed into law early into the 2013 legislative session.

Will the votes be counted?

With Colorado already one of the closest swing states and the controversial Secretary of State Scott Gessler overseeing the election, all eyes were already trained on the Republican known as the “Honey Badger.”

News Monday that Gessler is now being investigated by the Denver District Attorney’s office for allegedly using taxpayer funds to pay for transportation to and from a partisan political event.

While those charges don’t directly impact the election itself, they only add to the concerns of Democrats that Gessler is willing to use his office to advance his partisan interests.

Gessler’s own impartiality notwithstanding, there are concerns over whether voting machines are malfunctioning in some Colorado counties.

If Colorado’s results in any important race are a cliffhanger, there’s a strong possibility that lawyers on both sides will be in court contesting those results and possibly demanding a recount.

Will Colorado go to pot?

Overshadowed by the state’s focus on the presidential race, Colorado’s Amendment 64 could be the big post-election story national reporters will be telling about Colorado, should the marijuana legalization effort pass.

Polls show the measure tracking just above 50 percent, so it’s unclear if it has the legs to get across that mark in the final tally.

If Amendment 64 passes, marijuana would be taxed and regulated similar to alcohol and tobacco. It would give state and local governments the ability to control and tax the sale of small amounts of marijuana to adults age 21 and older.

And, as opponents like Gov. John Hickenlooper fear, it may well affect Colorado’s brand, the way outsiders view our state.

One guarantee: if the amendment passes, it’ll receive more media attention than both the campaigns for and against it have gotten this fall.

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