Liberal tide meets secession push in Colorado's conservative counties

Jack Healy / New York Times News Service /

CHEYENNE WELLS, Colo. — The Old West has decided it is fed up with the New West.

At Nan’s convenience store here in eastern Colorado, where the front door tells visitors that “Gun Control Is Hitting Your Target,” the farmers, crop sprayers, mechanics and retirees who gather for morning coffee say they have had enough of the state and its Democratic leaders. They bristle at gun control laws and marijuana shops, green energy policies and steps to embrace gay marriage and illegal immigrants.

“I would’ve never believed the state of Colorado would become this liberal,” said Lyle Miller, who owns the convenience store. “I’m afraid for my grandchildren. I want them to have the same heritage I had.”

So in November, this rural county and 10 others will hold a quixotic vote on whether to secede from Colorado and work to form their own state, one that would cherish the farm towns and conservative ideals that people here say have been lost in Denver’s glassy downtown lofts or Aspen’s million-dollar ski condos. It would be called New Colorado, or maybe North Colorado — a prairie bulwark against the demographic changes and urbanization that are reshaping politics and life across this and other Western states.

“People think this is a radical idea,” said Jeffrey Hare, a leader of the 51st State Initiative, which supports secession. “It’s really not. What we’re attempting to do is restore liberty.”

Many residents and politicians, even those frustrated with the direction of Colorado’s politics, have criticized the secession movement. What would happen to state highways? State parks? Water and irrigation rights? Is it even possible to build a new state government from scratch?

The push for a 51st state faces almost insurmountable hurdles. Even if counties from Cheyenne to Elbert to Sedgwick do decide to shear away from Colorado, the state must then vote to allow them to leave. After that, Congress would have to agree to admit a new state — something it has not done for a breakaway since West Virginia in 1863.

Some residents say the idea just sounds absurd.

“It’s supposed to be United States, not split-up states,” said George Kemp, who runs a well-water business here.

Much of this frustration stems from complaints that rural areas, whether in Keweenaw, Mich., or Yuma, Colo., have lost their voice in state governments as cities and suburbs grow while rural areas wither. For Colorado, that shift has helped send more Democrats to the Legislature and to Washington, and put the state in President Barack Obama’s column in the last two elections.

Here in Cheyenne County, where 82 percent of people voted for Mitt Romney last year, residents say they feel like their state changed on them. There have never been more than about 3,700 people here, and the last two decades have brought sharp population declines as children moved away and the descendants of homesteading families died off. The county’s population is now 1,870, about one resident per square mile.