In Purplish Colorado, And This Sprawling Battleground District, Swing Voters Hold The Key

<p>John Daley/CPR News</p>
<p>Democrat Tammy Story, left, meeting voters in state Senate District 16. She&#039;s challenging GOP incumbent Tim Neville. </p>
Photo: State Senate District 16 Tammy Story 1
Tammy Story, left, campaigns door to door in Golden as she seeks to unseat Republican incumbent state Sen. Tim Neville.

Jefferson County, sprawling across western Denver, the adjacent suburbs and into the foothills, has long been ground zero in the turf war between Republicans and Democrats in purplish Colorado. Like Colorado as a whole, about 40 percent of voters are unaffiliated. Democrats and Republicans have roughly 30 percent each.

And it’s in JeffCo, part of state Senate District 16, that Democrat Tammy Story is battling to unseat Republican state senate incumbent Tim Neville.

Story recently walked a scenic neighborhood in Golden with a tall rock mesa rising to the east, knocking on doors, introducing herself to voters. At one house with a picket fence she rang the bell and introduced herself to the woman who opened the door, Rusha Lev.

“What are your top issues? What are you greatest concerns?” Story asked.

“Education and growth,” Lev replied.

Her kids’ schools are packed: a JeffCo school funding measure failed at the polls in 2016. And she he pointed to crowded roads and highways as another issue.

“I think that we don't have the infrastructure, the resources to handle the mass amounts of people are moving here,” said Lev, a pediatrician who works at Denver Health, the region’s safety net hospital.

Housing is another worry.

Photo: State Senate District 16 Tammy Story 2
Democrat Tammy Story, left, meeting voters in state Senate District 16. She's challenging GOP incumbent Tim Neville.

“What I see in my job is a lot of families who are kind of living on the edge and now housing is their biggest problem,” said Lev. “They're totally forced out of the metro area. People are couchsurfing; there's no such thing as low-income housing anymore.”

Her husband, Guy, is a physical therapist at the University of Colorado. They moved to Golden eight years ago.

“Just traffic is worse and worse and worse and worse and worse and we know we live in a wonderful place,” Lev said. “But if we have a great economy can we do something about it and make the growth sustainable?”

Story said that the people she meets on the campaign trail tell her they want to protect the environment, and see more money for roads and schools. “They're concerned about the lack of funding and they're concerned about the teacher shortage.” said Story. “They recognize that we have 3,000 open teaching positions across the state … It's hard to have the best public education system when we are so underfunded.”

As she walked in Golden, Story met another Golden resident, Julie McClanahan, a physician worried about the current national political environment. She has two boys 10 and 7, both adopted from South Korea.

Photo: State Senate District 16 Tim Neville 1
Republican incumbent state Sen. Tim Neville campaigned at a chili festival in Boulder County.

“I worry about their future I worry about just because their children and because they're not white,” said McClanahan, who pledged her support for Story.

McClanahan comes from a Republican family. Her father, who is still alive, served in Vietnam. She teared up as she recalls how the recent death and funeral of Sen. John McCain touched a nerve.

“I come from a family that respects religious, moral, and military type values and I feel like they're I feel like it's a huge loss,” McClanahan said. “The great leaders and the great moral compasses of our time are disappearing, and it's scary.”

Later, Story said she meets many people with strong views like McClanahan’s. “This happens every day when I’m out here knocking on doors,” Story said. “There's this strong grassroots support, and these are the issues that people are passionate about.”

Photo: State Senate District 16 Tim Neville 2
Republican state Sen. Tim Neville in his Ken Caryl campaign office. He's being challenged in Senate District 16 by Democrat Tammy Story.

There are strong opinions on both sides of this race for Senate District 16. At an office park in Littleton a number of Republican candidates explained their message to a couple dozen volunteers. Tim Neville was among them.

Neville and Story have one thing in common: Both of them moved to Colorado, Neville in the 70s and Story in the 80s. That’s where the similarities end however.

Neville beat a Democratic incumbent to help Republicans take over the state senate in 2014; Story was part of the successful effort to recall three conservatives on the Jefferson County school board.

Neville told the volunteers he wants to keep the state a place that values the chance to get ahead with hard work.

“That’s what we call the opportunity that comes only from making sure that we have freedom and individual liberty,” Neville said.

Democrats are in solid control of the state House of Representatives, while Republicans control the state Senate by just one seat. “We have a balanced legislature. Now it's not the end of the world with that balance, that balance creates a level of sanity,” Neville said. “However this year, the push is to undo that balance.”

Volunteer Cindy Beyer doesn’t like the prospect of Democrats taking total control of state government. She’s an attorney, a single mom, and backs smaller government. She also thinks the state passes too many ballot measures — and opposes one limiting oil and gas development.

“We are looking at a crossroads,” said Beyer. “You always need checks and balances like we have checks and balances with the House and the Senate and the governor. You need to have a voice of reason between all houses.”

Another volunteer, Marc Auville, a telecom engineer and small business owner from Arvada, worries a Democratic sweep could push an agenda too progressive for him.

“We’ll be California East. And I think there’s a lot of people in this state that don’t want that,” said Auville. “We have a lot of people, carpetbaggers, coming in, telling us they know better than us. They know better than we the people.”

Photo: State Senate District 16 Francis Smith
Francis Smith works in the aerospace industry, says he's concerned about health costs and education. In this election, “I am unaffiliated, so I would vote for whoever I think is making the smartest decisions for the largest amount of people out there."

Neville said the current bi-partisan control of the legislature has mostly worked, that lawmakers compromised to pass meaningful legislation to improve the state’s schools, roads and public safety. He sees a split legislature as a check on Democrats who are “moving a little bit farther more toward a socialist bent, or a different focus that Colorado has not been used to in the past.”

Soon, the group of GOP candidates, and volunteers, fanned out through the community. Neville headed to a Chili Fest in the town of Superior. He set up at a tent with the Boulder County Republicans, and started shaking hands, first with a man rolling his two sons around in a stroller.

Neville talked to Francis Smith, who works in the aerospace industry. He moved to Colorado from Seattle a year and half ago, is concerned about health costs and education. “I am unaffiliated, so I would vote for whoever I think is making the smartest decisions for the largest amount of people out there,” said Smith.

Smith is following the race between Tammy Story and Tim Neville a little bit. Like this crucial swing county in general, Smith said his vote could go either way.

This story is part of CPR’s Road Trip to November coverage. Our reporters and producers are traveling around the state to hear what is on people’s minds ahead of the upcoming election. You’ll see more of these stories in the weeks to come.