(Editor's note: This column was updated at 10 a.m. Dec. 19.)
As the post-election political landscape has continued to take shape, one word has best described the state of Colorado's Democrats.
It started with a powerful pair representing the state in the U.S. Senate, Ken Salazar and Mark Udall. Diana DeGette, John Salazar and Ed Perlmutter stood out as influential figures in the U.S. House.
Closer to home, Gov. Bill Ritter clearly had established himself among the most visible governors from the West, and Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper had carved out his place among the nation's prominent big-city leaders.
Everything was fitting together so well. Perhaps one or two from that group might end up being involved with the Barack Obama administration, possibly even for the next president's second term. For now, though, the prospect of having such a solid array of strong and energetic leaders was comforting, if not exciting.
This week, though, the political playing field has changed dramatically.
Sen. Salazar will become the next Interior secretary, a Cabinet position where he should have a positive impact nationally and regionally, championing the environmental interests of Colorado and the West. Along the way, Salazar will be in a prime job to cultivate his political future, even as a potential successor to Obama.
As encouraging as Salazar's rise might be, though, it also brings an abrupt end to that Democratic stability.
Now we'll see a scramble, first as Ritter quickly appoints Salazar's replacement in the Senate, then as the dominoes fall beyond that.
One idea tossed around by national media has been John Salazar taking his brother's place. It's an interesting angle, but don't count on it. Rep. Salazar just landed a much-coveted spot on the House Appropriations Committee, where he can wield considerable power. He had been listed as a possible agriculture secretary, which could happen later in Obama's tenure, but that seat in Appropriations Rep. Salazar campaigned more than a year for it is far more than a consolation prize. It could make him a fixture among House leaders for years to come.
(Another point: Rep. Salazar had a credible Republican opponent in 2008, and that seat could go to the GOP with no obvious Democrat standing in line.)
That still leaves Ritter with many capable choices for the Senate, unless he picks himself, which seems unlikely: DeGette, Hickenlooper, Perlmutter, even outgoing Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff (also among three finalists for secretary of state). Romanoff would appear to have the longest odds, though his long-range future might be the brightest. Hickenlooper might emerge now, after Obama chose someone else as transportation secretary.
How Ritter handles this challenge, as he deals with difficult state financial issues, will tell us a lot about his standing as a state-level party leader.
Here's one scenario: Ritter appoints DeGette to replace Sen. Salazar, adding another female Democratic presence in the Senate (there currently are none from the Mountain Time Zone). She's been in Congress since 1996 and, in a locally interesting twist, would be one Colorado College graduate replacing another.
Next, with DeGette's House seat vacant, the Dems would have the perfect spot for Romanoff, who really is over-qualified for secretary of state. But Romanoff found himself in a vacuum after being term-limited out of the Colorado House and without an opening to pursue in the state Senate. At 42, with charisma and broad respect already, he could become an immediate, energetic figure in Congress.
Ritter removed part of the mystery on Friday morning, making known his choice for secretary of state and it wasn't Romanoff. The pick was state Rep. Bernie Buescher (D-Grand Junction), who was set to replace Romanoff as the new House Speaker until losing his legislative seat in the November election. Outgoing state Sen. Ken Gordon, who was nearly elected secretary of state in 2006 and lost a close race to Mike Coffman, had campaigned for Ritter's appointment. In the end, though, Buescher had fewer enemies and a better relationship with Ritter.
That news more clearly defined Ritter's options for replacing Sen. Salazar. The governor could go with someone like Hickenlooper, Romanoff or Perlmutter. Or it could be DeGette, with Romanoff replacing her.
Regardless, Colorado's reshuffled political lineup will enter 2009 with a description that seemed outlandish only a few weeks ago.
Come January, Mark Udall will be Colorado's senior U.S. senator.
With dominoes falling all around him.
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