Battleground Counties: Arapahoe County, Colorado

The Wall Street Journal wades into the Battleground County of Arapahoe in Colorado:

While opinions are hardly uniform, some local voters who backed Mr. Obama four years ago now agree with Mr. Romney when he says the president is “attacking success,” according to interviews in Arapahoe County, Colo. Even as the president seems to have made strides with middle-class and working-class voters with his populist campaign message, the interviews suggest he risks alienating voters a notch higher on the income scale. Arapahoe County, home to aerospace workers, business managers and other professionals who occupy the upper tiers of the middle class, is one of three bellwether counties in the swing states of Colorado, Ohio and Florida that The Wall Street Journal is tracking through the November election.

Battleground towns

The county is southeast of Denver and stretches across 72 miles of suburban and rural landscape. Arapahoe is home to the cities of Centennial and Greenwood Village, which have become suburban destinations for white-collar workers seeking quiet neighborhoods, good schools, smooth streets and Colorado’s only IKEA store. Centennial and Greenwood Village are home to a variety of companies, from life sciences to energy, defense and insurance. Many residents work in local office parks, avoiding the congested daily commute to Denver.  Arapahoe County’s median income of $58,968 is a notch above the statewide figure of $56,456. Centennial’s median income of $85,185 and Greenwood Village’s $114,460 put them squarely in upper middle-class territory. In the 2008 election, the towns were evenly divided, with Mr. Obama winning Centennial by less than 200 votes out of more than 60,000 cast and Republican Sen. John McCain taking Greenwood Village by 118 votes out of 8,818 cast.

Obama critics say its class warfare

Mr. Obama’s rhetoric isn’t specifically directed at many of the families here. Those who fall below the threshold of $250,000 for families and $200,000 for individuals would see tax cuts extended a year under the president’s plan. The question is whether voters within striking distance of those tax brackets are comfortable with the president’s campaign tone. Scott Anderson, of Centennial, is one voter who isn’t. He co-founded a company that builds computers for the satellite industry. Mr. Obama “is constantly attacking the people who create jobs,” Mr. Anderson said. The president’s “class warfare pits people who have not been as industrious or as successful against those who create jobs,” he added. Mr. Anderson said Mr. Obama’s tax policies have cut into his ability to reinvest profits in his company. He would pay more under the president’s plan to allow tax cuts to expire for families earning more than $250,000. Mr. Anderson said his views weren’t shaped only by self interest. Both his company and the U.S. economy would suffer if the president wins a second term, he said. That sentiment is echoed by other business people here. When several members of Rotary Club of Littleton gathered for coffee recently, they cited regulations, bureaucratic hassles and tax policies that have persuaded them to support Mr. Romney. While most had heard few details from the Republican candidate, they said his broad vision was more business-friendly and, presumably, better for their families’ finances.

Obama says its Populism

Mr. Obama took on a populist tone in December. In a speech designed to echo Theodore Roosevelt’s call for government activism against wealthy interests, he cast the American middle class as under attack, harmed by growing income inequality and “the breathtaking greed of a few.” He said government should impose higher taxes on the wealthy and do more to help people on the lower rungs. He said his opponents would grant health insurers and financial firms, among others, a return to abusive practices. Echoes of that speech have continued this year as Mr. Obama cast Mr. Romney as a “corporate raider” whose former private-equity firm, Bain Capital, made profits at the expense of laid-off workers. Some residents of Centennial are close enough to the town’s rural and middle-class roots to feel outrage over allegations that Bain profited from layoffs.

Centennial is Colorado’s newest city, an amalgam of loosely connected, mostly middle-class neighborhoods and former farm areas lashed into a municipality in 2001. Many neighbors describe their lives as comfortable but not upscale. Some voters say Mr. Obama is setting the right course to find new revenues aimed at helping lower- and middle-income Americans. “Most people who are 40 to 50 or older remember that the rich used to pay more taxes,” said Barbara Wahl, a public health nurse who talks to voters as a phone bank volunteer for the Obama campaign in Arapahoe County. “They were still very rich.”

What is a fair tax rate?

Greenwood Village has more expensive homes and exclusive neighborhoods than Centennial, miles of tree-lined trails snake through hilly enclaves. Homes have expansive yards with access to equestrian parks. Though this suburb borders Denver, the town has fiercely protected its rural feel, taking steps to insulate homes from noise and traffic. About 500 people lived in Greenwood Village 50 years ago, when it was a community of dairies and farms. The town has since blended high-tech business parks housing Fortune 500 companies with a pastoral feel, even preserving some dirt roads through uncrowded neighborhoods and past large homes.

Mayor Ron Rakowsky said the president’s populist tone is falling flat in Greenwood Village, which has nearly $1 billion of assessed property value on the town’s eight square miles. Business is booming and many residents would feel a bite from Mr. Obama’s tax plan, he said. While Greenwood Village has bounced back since the recession, Mr. Rakowsky said many residents don’t credit the president for the strength of the local economy and many don’t want to pay more taxes. The question of what is a reasonable tax rate is a tricky one, the mayor said: ” ‘Fair’ from Obama is like ‘beauty.’ It’s in the eye of the beholder.” For Mr. Obama, skepticism in these Colorado communities is a danger sign. Upper middle-class voters are highly likely to show up on Election Day. In The Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll in May, voters whose household income exceeded $75,000 were the most likely to say they were very interested in the November election, with 78% of the group rating their interest as 9 or 10 on a 10-point scale. That compared with 69% of people overall who identified themselves as high-interest voters.

Swing voters

Mr. Obama’s path to re-election runs through not just Colorado but other battleground states, including Virginia, which have large numbers of well-educated, affluent voters. In Colorado, a once-reliably Republican state that swung Democratic in 2008, one-third of voters had a household income of $100,000 or more. Mr. Obama won 56% of those voters four years ago. Voters in upper-income brackets also have been a core audience for Mr. Romney, who carried the group by wide margins in the GOP primaries. Polling shows Mr. Romney may be carrying this edge into November. Interviews conducted by WSJ/NBC pollsters showed Mr. Romney leading among voters who earn more than $100,000, 50% to Mr. Obama’s 44%.

A rube self-identifies

Ms. Leatherwood is one voter who has moved into the Romney column. In her Centennial neighborhood of Parkborough, economic fear seems to have sapped confidence in the president’s prescriptions. Ms. Leatherwood said she has friends and neighbors who have struggled to find work. “For Rent” signs have appeared on her block. Foreclosed houses have fallen into disrepair. From her vantage point, Ms. Leatherwood said, her neighborhood isn’t better off now than it was four years ago. Ms. Leatherwood is appreciative that she and her husband have good jobs. She works at an economic development company and he works as a commercial construction superintendent. But her family has lost ground financially, she said.

Ms. Leatherwood supported Mr. Obama’s health-care plan. But after it passed, her family’s insurance premiums went up. Her husband’s back surgery cost tens of thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket expenses. The couple now worries the president will raise their taxes. That is a big change for the mother of two teenagers. Ms. Leatherwood said she was a true believer when Mr. Obama ran for president in 2008. She had been laid off from a subsidiary of Lehman Brothers, the financial services firm that declared bankruptcy four years ago. Ms. Leatherwood, who is registered as an independent, said she was taken with Mr. Obama’s promises to create jobs and bring down health-care costs. Now, Ms. Leatherwood said, she is disappointed. “Obama never talks about us,” she said. “He’s not doing anything for people who are working hard and keeping the economy running. We’re being punished for good behavior.”

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