GOP State Sen. Priola switching to Democrats, cites Jan. 6, climate change

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Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
State Sen. Kevin Priola in the Senate chamber March 24, 2022.

Colorado’s most moderate Republican state lawmaker has switched his party affiliation to become a registered Democrat. State Sen. Kevin Priola is serving his second and final term in the Senate after previously serving in the House.  

In a written statement released Monday morning, Priola said he has been waiting for the GOP to distance itself from former president Donald Trump after the Jan. 6 insurrection,  but "it never came."

"I cannot continue to be part of a political party that is okay with a violent attempt to overturn a free and fair election and continues to peddle claims that the 2020 election was stolen," he wrote.

“Simply put, we need Democrats in charge because our planet and our democracy depend on it.”

Priola said he didn’t expect to vote differently in the future, but would simply have a D by his name instead of an R. He noted he will continue to support Second Amendment rights and oppose legal abortion.

Democratic Senate President Steve Fenberg said he welcomes Priola into the caucus. 

“Senator Priola and I have been talking for about a year and a half about his place and his role in his party and the direction of his party and our party. It’s been about his principles and where they fit best,” Fenberg told CPR News.

Priola highlighted climate change as another major issue driving his decision. “Today my Republican colleagues would rather deny the existence of human-caused climate change than take action,” he wrote. “I increasingly believe that inaction is counter to our responsibility as political leaders.” 

An election-year curveball

In his letter announcing the party switch, Priola alluded to the fact that the midterm elections are just around the corner and made it clear that trying to prevent the GOP from gaining control of a legislative chamber was part of his calculus. 

“Even if there will continue to be issues I disagree with the Democratic party on, there’s too much at stake right now for Republicans to be in charge,” he wrote. 

Before Monday's news, Democrats held 20 Senate seats to the GOP’s 15. Republicans had hoped redistricting and a potential ‘red wave’ this fall would net them three seats to take back the majority.

Now the math for Republicans will be harder. They will have to hold two vulnerable seats, and win four out of the five competitive districts up for election this year, according to state Sen. Paul Lundeen who is in charge of caucus's election efforts. 

And in the bluest of those must-win races, the GOP candidates will have to overcome a six to seven point disadvantage, based on recent past election results.

“There’s no doubt that it makes it tougher to win the state senate, but it’s definitely doable,” said Michael Fields, a senior advisor for Advance Colorado Action who is involved in trying to flip the state senate to Republican control. “Democratic politics are unpopular and our polling shows that these swing races are really close.”

That note of confidence aside, Fields and other Republicans said it was unconscionable for Priola to switch parties like this, whatever his personal politics are.

“I think Sen. Priola has been voting like a liberal for years so it’s not that surprising. I don’t think he fits his new district well and I think he should be recalled,” said Fields.

The head of the State GOP Party Kristi Burton Brown also denounced the move.

“After lying to his constituents and routinely voting for tax increases that hurt the everyday working families of his district, he’s now admitted his true affiliation: a pro tax-increase Democrat.”

A long-time moderate in a conservative caucus

At the state capitol, Priola has long been known for bucking the GOP on numerous issues, an approach which has brought him a lot of grief from the more right-leaning members of his party.  

In recent years Priola supported a safe injection site in Denver for drug users and signed on to a ballot proposal to let Colorado keep extra tax money for education and transportation. Both of those ideas did not come to fruition, but did allow backers to make the case that they had bipartisan support.

Jim Anderson/AP
Colorado Republican Sen. Kevin Priola, left, Democratic House Speaker KC Becker, center, and Democratic Sen. Lois Court discuss a proposed ballot initiative to let the state keep excess tax revenue in Denver on Wednesday, March 20, 2019.

He’s also worked with Democrats on measures aimed at preventing opioid abuse and simplifying health care billing. He’s been a strong proponent of banning flavored tobacco and has talked about the struggles his son has faced with vaping.

Democratic State Sen. Faith Winter has worked closely with Priola in the past on climate legislation, recycling, mental health care and addiction and transportation. She said she wasn’t surprised that he switched parties. 

“He has always been driven by values and how best to represent his constituents and I think that’s increasingly becoming harder for him to do in the Republican party,” she said. “And I think he saw that the majority of my caucus was willing to work with him and be flexible and embrace his values when we could.”

But just two years ago, it was Democrats who were targeting Priola,  when he sought reelection to his seat in a district that had shifted increasingly blue prior to redistricting. He ended up winning in a district that Donald Trump had handily lost.

Priola was born and raised in Adams County and has served in the state capitol for a dozen years, first as a Representative before term limits led him to move over to the Senate four years ago. Term limits now bar him from running again for his seat. He married his high school sweetheart and they are raising four children. 

But Priola said political affiliations have become too much of a litmus test and he warned that even though he is officially a Democrat, that doesn’t mean he will be voting in lock step with the party. 

“For instance, my pro-life position, school choice, and pro-second amendment stance often run counter to the Democratic Party Platorm,” his statement noted.