Four years ago, Pueblo County, long a blue stalwart in Southern Colorado, stunned the state’s political watchers when voters narrowly went for President Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton.
While Clinton won statewide by 5 percentage points, the heavily Latino county, which has more registered Democrats than Republicans, behaved more like it belonged in the rust belt. And the effect trickled down the ballot; Pueblo voted in line with more conservative parts of the state’s vast 3rd Congressional District to send Republican Rep. Scott Tipton back to Washington D.C.
Flash forward to 2020 and local Democrats said they were determined not to be blindsided again. They weren’t.
But if they were looking for the resounding sort of victories Democrats used to rack up here — in 2012 Obama easily carried Pueblo by 14 points — they came up short. Instead, this year may have cemented Pueblo’s status as one of Colorado’s most evenly politically-divided counties.
Biden edged out Trump in Pueblo by 1.8 percentage points in preliminary returns. If that outcome holds, it means the county swung 2.3 points in the Democrat’s favor. It’s a much narrower margin than the Democratic president-elect achieved statewide; Biden is now on track to win Colorado by more than 12 points, the largest margin of victory in a presidential race in Colorado since Ronald Reagan won reelection in 1984. But Pueblo Democrats are still hailing it as a victory.
“Joe Biden, I think was a better candidate than Hillary Clinton and didn't bring some of the animosity out that Hillary Clinton did, for whatever reason,” said Pueblo Mayor Nick Gradisar, a Democrat.
He added that he also thinks that after four years of President Trump, more conservative Democratic and unaffiliated voters in Pueblo had a better understanding of what a second term would mean.
“I've sort of viewed this as Pueblo's chance for redemption from four years ago when it supported Donald Trump,” he said. “And I'm glad to see that people recognized that what had been promised to them in terms of bringing back the manufacturing sectors, those kinds of things, just weren't going to happen.”
However, Pueblo’s Republican leadership has a very different view of the county’s shift. Local GOP party chair Marla Reichert believes Biden’s victory in Pueblo does not signal a movement against Trump, especially since Biden won by just over 1,500 votes.
“It’s been a steady four years of relentless non-stop attacks on the president. I think some people don’t follow the issues or the economic impact the president has had. They just listen to what they hear on CNN and MSNBC. It has been an all-out war on the president. It has been vile. People are tired of the lockdowns, they’re like, ‘I don’t like what’s happening’ and they wanted a change.”
Echoing the president’s stance, Reichert also emphasized she doesn’t consider the presidential election to be over.
“It needs to play out. People need to stay calm,” she said. “If there’s fraud we need to get to the bottom of it. We’ve got to be able to trust the election process, digging into at least the appearance of impropriety.”
There is no evidence of widespread fraud in the presidential election and so far Trump’s legal challenges to vote-counting processes in key states have gotten little support in the courts. For her part, Reichert said she does think if ultimately the count is shown to be a fair process Republicans will accept a Biden win.
“We’re just as mad as they were in 2016 but we don’t riot in the streets and burn things down,” she said. “I don’t understand the destructive tantrum throwing.
Tight margins further down the ballot too
Similar to many other parts of the state and country, the Democratic ground game got off to a bit of a late start in Pueblo due to the coronavirus. But the county’s Democratic party tried to make up for that with new strategies, such as handwritten personalized letters to nudge infrequent voters to turn in ballots. Other groups focused on traditional face-to-face get out the vote efforts within the Latino community.
The official efforts got some grassroots help too. Theresa M. Trujillo, the Southern Colorado director at the Colorado Progressive Coalition, continued her family’s long-standing tradition of creating and distributing a ballot guide to hundreds of friends and family.
Trujillo said she believes new voters and Latino voters put Biden over the top in Pueblo, but she said the Latino community still wasn’t as engaged as she would’ve liked. She points to the 3rd Congressional District race, where preliminary results show Democrat Diane Mitsch Bush winning the county by 265 votes.
“Obviously, people were super motivated to vote out Trump but that enthusiasm didn’t entirely carry over to CD3. More than 2,000 people just skipped over that race and didn’t vote,” Trujillo said. “We need to see all candidates engaging more with Latino voters and focus more on the disparities and systemic failings that impact us.”
Pueblo Democrats had hoped a big blue turnout in Pueblo would help flip the congressional seat from red to blue. However, Mitsch Bush’s tiny margin in Pueblo did little to make up for her showing in the rural and conservative parts of the district. Republican newcomer Lauren Boeboert won the seat by almost six points.
“You need to be able to get a really strong margin in Pueblo in that district, as a Democrat,” said county commissioner Sal Pace, a Democrat who lost his own bid for the same seat in 2012. “The last really competitive open race for the third was in 2004. [Democrat] Jon Salazar, won that 62 to 38 in Pueblo. And he eked by in the third district overall.”
In the other federal race in the county, Democrat John Hickenlooper beat incumbent Republican Sen. Cory Gardner by 779 votes. That margin is closer than Biden and Trump, but wider than the House race. Gardner also narrowly lost Pueblo county six years ago.
The results in Pueblo have one Democratic political consultant urging his party not to focus its resources on the increasingly competitive county.
“The romance D’s (and I) have for the old days in Pueblo are officially over,” said political consultant Steve Welchert. “Trump narrowly won here in 16 and Biden barely won it back in 20. It’s a permanent coin-toss and to hope for much more is a fool’s errand. There are more Dems in [Douglas County] than there are total people in Pueblo. A statewide or congressional candidate is better off spending time in Durango because it yields 6 times more net votes.”
Another disappointment for Democrats was first-term Rep. Bri Beuntello’s defeat. Her seat, House District 47, takes in a bit of Pueblo county as well as more rural and conservative areas in Fremont and Otero counties. She lives in Pueblo and was the only incumbent Democratic state lawmaker to lose re-election this year.