Rural issues in Colorado’s 2018 election

The view is spectacular from Doug Welch’s home, sandwiched in between the bases of Mount Antero and Mount Princeton, two of Colorado’s massive fourteeners. There’s very little traffic in Chaffee County, he says. And in recent years, there’s been a boon of quality restaurants and a thriving art scene in the nearby towns of Buena Vista and Salida.

It’s the best part of the state, Welch boasts. But there are downsides to life in rural Colorado, too. Internet and cell phone access can be easily interrupted. Housing and health care costs are skyrocketing.

“We’ve got a nice view here,” Welch, a registered Democrat, said. But “when you can’t hire school teachers, or nurses because they can’t afford to live here, that’s a real problem.”

Welch, a retired machinist, is just one of about a million voters who don’t live along Colorado’s booming Front Range. But his concerns about teacher pay, infrastructure and the economy echo those of other rural voters from the Western Slope to the Eastern Plains.

This year’s race to be the state’s next chief executive officer features two men — Treasurer Walker Stapleton, the Republican, and U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, the Democrat — from the pulsing Denver metro region. Neither has particularly close ties to the state’s rural voters. Knowing this and the likelihood that the election will be decided by voters in the suburban counties around Denver, voters such as Welch are asking where they fit into the future of state’s most important policy debates.

“We get that we’re not going to be the ones to elect the governor,” Welch said. “There are fewer voters in Chaffee County than most zip codes along the Front Rage. The one thing I’d have to say to the next governor: ‘Don’t forget about us. We live here, too.’”

Several of the issues on the minds of Colorado’s rural voters aren’t alien to those along Interstate 25. Health care, energy and the consequences of the state’s population boom are marquee topics no matter the corner of the state, but they can play out differently in a rural context. Additionally, access to high-speed internet, climate change and water also make the top list of issues rural voters care about.

The need for more and better internet access for Colorado’s mountain towns was never more acute than during the Fourth of July weekend. The area near the Spring Creek Fire, which burned more than 100,000 acres, was without mobile or internet access for several days.

“Our entire community was cut off,” said Bill Smith, a self-employed lawyer who lives in Salida. “You couldn’t even call 911.”

Expanding rural broadband — seen by rural business leaders and elected officials as a linchpin for economic development, more affordable health care and better schools — has long been a policy initiative for Colorado’s current governor, John Hickenlooper. While some progress has been made, it has been slow.

It’s not just the mountain towns that don’t have access to high-speed internet. Remote towns in the northeast corner of the state also go without, said Marc Arnusch, a grain and sugar beat farmer. Arnusch, a Republican, is also a board member of Colorado’s Farm Bureau, an association that advocates for farmers at the state Capitol.

“It’s just not acceptable in today’s economy,” he said.

Many of these issues, including health care, weigh on Republican and Democratic voters alike. And there’s plenty of skepticism that either candidate can make a difference.

Western Coloradans are paying some of the nation’s highest premiums for health insurance, fewer doctors are accepting Medicare or Medicaid, and physicians seem to be retiring at a faster clip, said Christian Reece, the executive director of Club 20, a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for many of the state’s western counties.

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