Colorado Republicans’ Plan To Regain Power? Wait for Democrats To Overreach

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Nathaniel Minor/CPR News
The Colorado House chambers as seen from the public viewing gallery on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017.
Photo: Capitol Jan 11 2017 11 | House chambers from gallery
The Colorado House chambers as seen from the public viewing gallery on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017.

Colorado Republicans are preparing for life in the political wilderness.

After election night’s midterm blue wave receded, the party was left without a foothold in the state government. Democrats won every statewide office and both chambers of the legislature for the first time since the New Deal.

GOP Chairman Jeff Hays said losing a narrow majority in the state Senate was particularly painful.

“We felt like the state Senate was a backstop against all the wild pitches Democrats tried to throw against us,” he said.

Hays doesn’t have any illusions about what’s coming. With their government trifecta — both the state House and Senate along and the governorship — Democrats can pass any bill they want in the legislative session that gavels in on Jan. 4. Without a Republican counterbalance, they could move on everything from paid-family leave to renewable energy mandates to a ban on the death penalty.

Hays does see an opportunity in that new normal for Republicans.

“It’ll be interesting to see how voters respond when Democrats inevitably overreach,” he said. “I think Republicans will work very hard to show the flaws and the fallacies in that socialist agenda.”

Hoping their opposition overplays their hand is a familiar playbook for Colorado Republicans. Democrats last held a trifecta in 2014. The party used that power to pass gun control bills, which Republicans later seized on to recall lawmakers and retake the state Senate.

For that to work this time, Hays said Republicans in the legislature have to offer alternative policies on key issues like health care, transportation and teacher pay.

Michael Fields, executive director of the conservative advocacy group Colorado Rising Action, agrees Republicans need to offer their own ideas. He also thinks they have to do a better job selling them.

“They key is how you explain stuff,” he said. “It’s always leading with people that will make their arguments more effective.”

Fields said Democrats have just done a better job putting their ideas into personal, positive terms. Republicans should follow suit, he said, and explain how their policies would increase opportunity for each Coloradan. For Fields, that generally means more storytelling, and fewer graphs and statistics.

Messaging isn’t all Fields admires about his adversaries. He says the left has built an effective political infrastructure in Colorado that doesn’t just operate in campaign years. He thinks Republicans should use their time out of power to catch up and talk to state’s biggest voting bloc.

“Any candidate I would just tell them, their goal is to win to unaffiliated voters and speak to those middle issues,” Fields said.

It’s a clear strategy given the 2018 midterms. Unaffiliated turnout in Colorado surpassed either party for the first time. Those voters supported Democratic Gov.-elect Jared Polis over Republican Walker Stapleton by a 59-25 margin, according to a post-election poll by Magellan Strategies. They also disapprove of President Trump by more than a 2-to-1 margin.

Fields and Hays hope that by 2020, those unaffiliated voters will instead be looking for a way to put a check on Democrats.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story misidentified the year that state Democrats last held the three major seats of the government. It was 2014, not 2013.