Douglas County’s wealthy suburbs and rural enclaves have long been solidly Republican, making it write-off territory for Democrats. But this year, party organizers see cracks in that red wall; they’re targeting a statehouse seat held by the Assistant House Minority Leader. And they are pledging to put up real money to back their ambitions.
If Democrats can pull off an upset in this Highlands Ranch race, it would be a sign of how much the state has shifted to the left. While other Douglas County communities like Parker and Castle Rock remain solidly red, more than a fifth of the precincts in Highlands Ranch voted for Hilary Clinton in 2016.
“In recent years we’ve seen Highlands Ranch has creeped closer and closer to being viable. Last cycle, we lost the [statehouse] seat by roughly 2,600 votes, which we do believe is a flippable margin,” said Matt McGovern, the head of the House Majority Project, which works to elect Democratic state lawmakers. “Especially as demographic change continues to occur in Highlands Ranch and as more previously Republican voters become disaffected with Donald Trump and the current state of the Republican party.”
Anthony Alders is exactly the kind of voter Democrats are counting on. The military veteran lives in Highlands Ranch with his wife and two young children. He said he switched his party registration from Republican to unaffiliated because of Donald Trump and plans to vote exclusively for Democrats this fall.
“He's just a disaster of a person and a bigger disaster as a president,” said Alders. “I’m disappointed in the way the Republican party let him take over,” he said.
Alders said Republicans have not stood up to Trump on fiscal issues or what he sees as mismanagement of the military and international affairs, like the president’s decision to pull U.S troops out of Syria last fall.
These suburbs are changing, but how much?
According to data from the Colorado Secretary of State’s office, Democrats are gaining some ground in northern Douglas County. But even though Clinton won parts of Highlands Ranch in 2016, those same voters also helped reelect their Republican House Representative, Kevin Van Winkle, by a large margin.
“For some reason, there were thousands of voters that did not support our president, but did support me,” Van Winkle said recently. He thinks things will be different this time around, in Trump’s favor. “‘Cause he has a track record that people can look to. He cut taxes, he moved the embassy to Jerusalem.”
Van Winkle was born and raised in Highlands Ranch and is running in part on his record of passing bills with Democrats, while also pledging to hold the majority party in check around issues like taxes and regulations. If elected, this would be his fourth and final term in the House.
He said that he is taking his Democratic opponent seriously, but dismissed the idea that his re-election might be in doubt.
“In my opinion, Democrats would just be throwing money away to enter Douglas County, especially in a presidential year,” Van Winkle said. “If they want to throw their money away that’s fine by me.”
Douglas County is a powerhouse for the current Colorado Republican party; most of the top Republican leaders at the statehouse live there. And whatever the outcome, this statehouse race won’t affect control of the legislature. Democrats have a wide majority in the House, with Republicans holding the fewest seats they’ve had since 1965. But Republican political consultant Tyler Sandberg said it’s still an important barometer, and losing a seat in Douglas county would be a bad sign for the party.
“Republicans have to prove that we want to be a long-term governing party. We want to be back in the majority and that's going to come down to, can we field good candidates like Kevin Van Winkle on a regular basis out of Douglas County.”
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Democrat Barrett Rothe lost to Van Winkle in 2018 but said the party’s many other wins that year make him more optimistic about his party’s chances this time around.
“If we go on the offense here, we don't need to be on the offense in Arapahoe County or Jefferson County or Weld or Larimer or El Paso or Pueblo, or some of these other places; we can force them to defend this last stronghold and try to take it.”
Van Winkle’s opponent this year, Democrat Jennifer Mitkowski, is a physician assistant. She’s seen the firsthand effects of the coronavirus pandemic and is running on a platform to lower health care costs and increase teacher pay. She said she’s heard from fiscal conservatives who have left the Republican party because they feel it isn’t inclusive enough.
“I believe in LGBTQ rights and immigrant rights. And that was the sole heart of me becoming a registered Democrat in the first place. But in the essence of things, I believe in not being political and being open to looking at things from both sides of the table,” said Mitkowski.
'I wish they'd leave their politics there'
Not surprisingly, with a pandemic and a presidential race, most Highlands Ranch voters CPR talked to weren’t thinking much about the statehouse seat. For many, their votes in the state House race will likely mirror the choices they make higher up the ballot.
Amy Carlson lost her job due to the coronavirus. The Republican mother of two said she believes President Trump gets blamed for things that are not his fault. And once she’s voted to reelect the president, she said she plans to support local Republicans like Van Winkle too.
“You'll see a lot of voices like mine, but we're silenced because of all these crazy, over-the-top, out-outspoken far-left people. And that doesn't mean we don't vote. And that doesn't mean we don't win things. We just don't always voice our opinion because we're not as, you know, hateful,” she said as she was sitting outside of a Jimmy John’s restaurant while her son was getting his hair cut next door.
Another longtime Republican voter, Kathleen Heller, said she has seen a shift in Highlands Ranch politics in the twenty years she’s lived there, as more Democrats have arrived from Denver and other parts of the state and country.
“It's fine if people move in, but I wish they'd leave their politics there. Don't bring it with you,” she said. “Unfortunately, that's what's happened.”
If that trend continues, those politics could eventually become the new face of Highlands Ranch.