It's been a whole week since the voters of Colorado told state Senator Rollie Heath (D-Boulder) and his tax hike team of liberal legislators to "occupy this," so we figured it was a good time to take a look back at the forces that helped kill the proposed $3 Billion tax hike known as Prop 103. While opponents of the ballot measure were outspent 6:1 by proponents, they managed to help lead the initiative to a nearly 2:1 defeat.
How they did is a telling lesson for conservatives going forward.
Much like the Tea Party, the opposition to Prop 103 had no unified group, nor a big bank account to draw from, yet they managed to outfox supporters of hiking taxes at every turn, decisively winning the message war.
President of the Independence Institute, Jon Caldara, told the Peak he believes that the way the loose coalition opposing Prop 103 worked was a boon to its success:
"Prop 103 was a rare example of the center right coalition working together. Without turf warfare, big egos and bickering, different groups and individuals had the freedom to get the message out their own way. Everyone was focused on the goal instead of tearing down fellow conservatives. Maybe Republican candidates could learn something from us.
As Colorado voters inherently understand raising taxes in a recession is a recipe for disaster, had there been no opposition to Prop 103, it probably still would have failed. The ultimate effect that opponents had was to increase the margin of loss, discouraging liberals from pushing a statewide tax hike in the near future, and keeping tax hike supporters on the back of their heels for most of the campaign.
A clear view of the successful opposition campaign could be found through Googling "Prop 103" once ballots went out. Hitting the first page of results were a variety of conservative views, from Ross Kaminsky's analysis to the Independence Institute's Youtube domino sensation. As more and more voters rely on the Google search to inform their ballot measure vote, it was a sign of conservative victory, and liberal defeat.
It all began before the 2010 election cycle was even over, with conservative business leaders Buzz Koelbel and Earl L. Wright penning a Denver Post Op-Ed warning Coloradans of the coming campaign by the liberal establishment to raise taxes. What they then called a "secret plan to raise taxes" became not-so-secret in the early days of 2011 with WhoSaidYouSaid's Kelly Maher and us at Colorado Peak Politics reporting on the tax hike machinations of Liberal Loon Carol Hedges and Rollie Heath himself.
Maher dealt the first significant communications blow to the liberal establishment when through a Colorado Opens Record Request (CORA) she brought to light a Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce poll showing an uphill battle for raising taxes in any shape or form in 2011.
That helped frame the issue as one that Democrat politicians, skittish of taking positions that don't poll-test well, might want to avoid becoming embroiled in.
Over the coming weeks and months both WhoSaid and us at the Peak assiduously covered the maneuvers of the tax hike supporters trying to figure out exactly what type of tax hike porridge voters might cotton to.
The next big blow to Prop 103 came in the form of a study commissioned by the free-market Common Sense Policy Roundtable (CSPR), which showed that if Rollie's proposed $3 Billion tax hike passed it could kill up to 119,700 jobs. This study, more than anything, defined the terms of the debate early on, with supporters unable to come up with a competing "study" claiming no job loss until the week before the election.
The liberal trolls over at Colorado Pols were, of course, up in arms about the reporting of this job loss study, quibbling with the amount of jobs Prop 103 would purportedly kill. But by training their fire on the number of jobs lost they were walking into the rhetorical trap designed to frame the debate as a tax hikes=job loss argument.
It was this message frame that proponents were never able to escape and probably what drove support even lower than it would have been otherwise.
Hammering home the job loss argument, the Independence Institute (I2I) also published a study (PDF) showing the deleterious consequence for employment that raising taxes would have. While I2I's study showed less job loss than CSPR's study, it had the effect of guaranteeing further public discussion of the employment effects of Prop 103 — not a place proponents could afford to be anywhere near in the waning days of the campaign.
While Prop 103 proponents were busy begging liberal legislators to put their imprimatur on the ballot initiative, opponents were toiling away at warning conservatives across Colorado of the need to turn out and turn down the tax hike.
Between the efforts of grassroots groups Too Taxing for Colorado and Save Colorado Jobs, soon after Rollie Heath got Prop 103 to the ballot, conservatives were organizing themselves in opposition to the initiative. Too Taxing ultimately punched out nearly 150,000 robocalls, 6000 yard signs and 100,000 fliers, as well as organized Prop 103 opponent speakers for events, helping giving the opposition campaign clear visibility in communities across the state.
Joining the fight late, but with plenty of firepower, was Compass Colorado who unleashed a wave of ads and robocalls blistering legislators stupid enough to affix their public support to the ballot measure. It was Compass Colorado's ad hitting state Senator Evie Hudak (D-Westminster) that will ensure Prop 103's massive loss continues to haunt liberals through at least the next election cycle.
Beyond losing the messaging war, the supporters of Prop 103 were constantly on the back of their heels over process stories regarding their latest stupid mistakes. What began with Rollie Heath's kidnapping of a class of Douglas County 4th graders for his press conference was followed by Complete Colorado's reporting that pro-Prop 103 propaganda was being illegally mailed to parents of school children in Adams County.
Adding insult to injury, WhoSaid's Kelly Maher nailed a paid petition circulator on tape openly lying about whether Prop 103 would raises taxes or not. In an interesting twist, we've heard rumors recently that we might not have heard the last from infamous petition gatherer "Ricky" and his less-than-honest tactics.
These stories helped influence the outcome by casting a narrative of a hapless, bumbling bunch of tax hiking incompetents – ignorant about the impacts of higher taxes on a recessionary economy – just as they are ignorant about how to run and message a statewide campaign.
All of these conservatives' efforts on Prop 103 led to a spectacularly massive defeat, more than even the most grizzled operatives were expecting.
As Caldara notes, conservatives worked independently towards a shared goal, not defined by the bickering that has consumed too many campaigns in recent years. They did it through a fiscally focused message, covering closely any major slip ups by proponents, and in the end delivered one of the most embarrassing defeats the liberal political establishment in Colorado has seen in a very long time.
(Photo via Denver Post election results)