Despite Colorado’s increasingly blue landscape, Republicans hope to ride backlash against President Joe Biden and state-level Democrats to victory in 2022.
And their best chance to do that appears to be the state Senate. If Republicans can win a handful of close seats, they could retake the majority in the upper legislative chamber, allowing them to stop or slow Democrats’ plans in the years ahead.
“I'm really worried that this state could become a one-party state, and I don't think that's good for us,” said former GOP chairman Dick Wadhams, echoing the sentiments of many Republican political consultants when they discuss the upcoming election.
“One of the great hallmarks of our state over the last decade is we were considered a toss-up … That's good for a state.”
The Republican Party today is the least powerful it’s been for decades in Colorado. In addition to controlling both chambers of Colorado’s legislature for the past four years, Democrats also hold all of the major statewide offices and both U.S. Senate seats.
To try to reverse that blue tide, Republicans in key battleground districts are focusing on the cost of living, crime and education — issues voters have identified as major concerns — while generally avoiding more polarizing topics like election conspiracy theories, gay rights and abortion.
Republicans also may benefit from the state’s redistricting process, which aimed to create more competitive electoral districts, among other priorities.
“They have one issue where they probably beat us on, and that's abortion. And in this election cycle, literally every other issue is going our way,” said Republican state Rep. Colin Larson who has tried to recruit a more diverse slate of Republican candidates. He said he tells candidates to keep their message local and personal.
“‘You just need to talk about the reasons why you ran for office, and if you do that, then I think that's going to resonate because you're members of your community. You’re probably a pretty good reflection of what people are actually caring about on the ground,’” he said.
The Senate is generally seen as more winnable for Republicans, since Democrats hold a larger advantage in the state House. It also may be easier to take the Senate than to beat Gov. Jared Polis, who is running for reelection with the advantages of incumbency and his huge personal fortune.
But Republicans face mounting challenges in the Senate, too. Sen. Kevin Priola recently switched from Republican to Democrat. His move boosted the Democratic margin in the chamber to 21-14 and means that Republicans will have to win yet another race to retake the majority.
“I felt we were going to stay in the majority already this fall, but I think (Priola’s switch) makes it even more likely,” said Democratic Senate President Steve Fenberg.
A game of numbers
To take the majority, Republicans would need to have their best performance in years, winning at least six of the most competitive races and in some cases, beating the party’s recent average performance by up to 9 percentage points.
Of the seven seats most in play, only two have incumbents in the race. The first is Senate District 15, covering Loveland and rural parts of western Boulder and Larimer counties. Woodward’s district was redrawn to be the most politically competitive in the state, but Republicans feel like they have a good chance of holding it.
The other six competitive districts cover terrain that has largely been held by Democrats in recent years. One of those, Senate District 3 in Pueblo, has an incumbent — state Sen. Nick Hinrichsen, who was appointed to represent the area earlier this year.
In all, Republicans would likely have to keep Woodward’s seat while also capturing at least five of the six vulnerable Democratic districts.
“Some people call them vulnerable,” said Democratic state Sen. Julie Gonzales, co-chair of the party’s Senate election operation, of the candidates in races targeted by Republicans. “I call them frontliners, because they’re on the frontlines of flipping those seats blue and keeping them blue.”
The results could also show whether Colorado Republicans can move past Trump’s deep unpopularity in Colorado. Voters in 2020 swung heavily against the former president, breaking against him by 10-plus points in most of the competitive Senate districts.
Wadhams said he thinks Republicans will get a boost simply because Trump is out of office and off the ballot.
“There's no doubt that Trump was a big liability to Republican candidates in 2020 and 2018,” he said.
Sen. Paul Lundeen, who is leading the reelection effort for the GOP, said crime and the economy will be the winning issues for his party.
“It's just the affordability of life, and everything that Biden and the Democrats in the state of Colorado have done to make life unaffordable,” he said. “That's what's driving the conversation right now … When I'm on doorsteps, that's the only thing people wanna talk about."
But Gonzales said the last few months have improved the outlook for Democrats.
“At the beginning of summer, there were all of these doomsday reports about the end of the Democratic trifecta, and ‘The red wave is coming,’” she said.
That’s changed, she argued.
The Supreme Court decision overturning Roe vs. Wade has motivated some Coloradans to vote against Republicans, citing their opposition to legal abortion. And Gonzales said Democratic candidates will also drive home the party’s gains for working families, such as the Polis administration’s moves to offer free all-day kindergarten and expanded preschool, as well as health care reforms.
Northwestern Colorado is its own battleground
The state Senate battlegrounds are arrayed across the state. In the northwestern quadrant of Colorado, state Rep. Dylan Roberts is running to replace state Sen. Kerry Donovan, a fellow Democrat who is term-limited, in a district that has leaned toward Democrats recently.
About 48 percent of voters within the new borders of Senate District 8 favored Trump in 2016, but that support dropped to 44 percent in 2020. The vast district includes ski towns like Vail and Steamboat Springs, coal mining communities like Craig, and remote swaths along the Wyoming and Utah borders.
Roberts is close with the Polis administration and sponsored the “Colorado option” — a new program aimed at reducing health care costs, especially in rural and mountain areas. It has not yet gone into effect.
“I absolutely believe it's a competitive district — the way that it was drawn, and just given the environment this year,” Roberts said.
He’s running in part on Democrats’ recent legislation on health care and housing.
“Not everything happens overnight, but we are making really good headway on the biggest challenges facing this district,” he said. “I think I offer somebody who's willing to compromise and get things done rather than stick to a hard-line political position.”
Opposing Roberts is Republican Matt Solomon, who’s resume includes stints as a paramedic, deputy coroner and a council member for the town of Eagle, as well as a gun shop owner, among other gigs. His website highlights traditional conservative priorities — “fighting tax increases, defending freedom, protecting gun rights.”
“Colorado has traditionally been a balanced state. It forces conversation, and when we force conversation, better policy comes about,” said Solomon, who was urged to run by party officials and friends. He wants to slow the growth of the state budget while also increasing education funding, though he said he wasn’t sure yet what cuts he would push for to achieve that.
The battle in Denver’s suburbs
Economic issues are the focus for business consultant and first-time Republican candidate Tom Kim, who is running in Senate District 27 in Centennial against Democratic state Rep. Tom Sullivan.
“I really want to focus on the economy and affordability as the number one issue. Crime and public safety is a very close second for me, because without safe communities, it's hard to live the rest of your life,” Kim said.
His opponent, Sullivan, has been a champion of stricter gun laws during his time at the state capitol. He decided to get into politics after his son Alex was killed in the Aurora theater shooting. And Sullivan is no stranger to competitive races; in 2018 when he first ran for the House he unseated an incumbent Republican to win his seat.
Candidates and political parties are pouring money into the elections already. In the top Senate battleground districts, Democratic candidates have raised about $875,000 in donations, compared to about $749,000 for Republicans.
Meanwhile, independent Republican groups have spent an estimated $844,000 on the battlegrounds, almost twice the $470,000 spent on the Democratic side.
But some of the biggest money is still to come. The Senate Democrats’ spending group had nearly $3 million in reserve as of Aug. 31, and Republicans could have more waiting in other accounts, too.
The races that will decide the Senate
Because Senators serve four-year terms, only 17 of the chamber’s 35 seats are up for election this year. Six are considered to be easy victories for Republicans and another four are solidly Democratic, leaving seven for the parties to fight over.
A note on the “partisan lean” figures shown below: When the Independent Legislative Redistricting Commission set out to determine the political leanings of redrawn districts, it relied on an analysis of eight recent statewide elections — including the 2016 races for U.S. Senate and president, the 2018 results for governor, secretary of state, CU Board of Regents, and treasurer, and the 2020 U.S. Senate race.
The goal was to determine the general political inclinations of voters while averaging out the effects of individual candidates.
Senate District 15: +0.0%
This district covers the city of Loveland and western Larimer and Boulder Counties. It’s the most closely divided district in the Senate, but it’s swung left recently. Trump won the area by 5 points in 2016, but he lost it by more than 5 points in 2020. Still, other Republican candidates in the district have kept their races closer in recent years.
- Republican candidate: Sen. Rob Woodward (Incumbent)
- Democratic candidate: Janice Marchman
Senate District 11: +2.4% Democratic
This district is based in southeast Colorado Springs. Similarly to District 15, the area voted for Trump in 2016 but against him in 2020. Other Democratic candidates also won the area by 5 percentage points in 2018 and 2020.
- GOP: Sen. Dennis Hisey, who currently represents Senate District 2
- DEM: Rep. Tony Exum, who currently represents House District 17
Senate District 3: +5.1 Democratic
This seat includes Pueblo, which used to be a Democratic stronghold, but is an increasingly up-for-grabs part of the state. Pueblo narrowly voted for Trump in 2016, but it also gave a 10-point victory to Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet that year. It’s swung back toward Democrats in several elections since, but Democratic Sen. John Hickenlooper only narrowly won it against Cory Gardner in 2020.
The district’s current Democratic candidate, Nick Hinrichsen, was appointed to fill the seat earlier this year when then-Senate President Leroy Garcia stepped down to take a job at the Pentagon.
- GOP: Stephen Varela
- DEM: Sen. Nick Hinrichsen (Incumbent)
Senate District 27: +4.7% Democratic
The seat includes parts of the suburbs south of Denver in Centennial and parts of Aurora. Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet won by only a single point in 2016, while Hillary Clinton beat Trump by 3.4 points, but it’s trended bluer each cycle since.
- GOP: Tom Kim
- DEM: Rep. Tom Sullivan, who currently represents House District 37
Senate District 8: +6.6 Democratic
A district covering northwestern Colorado, including Steamboat Springs and parts of the I-70 corridor, from resort towns to coal communities. Trump nearly won the area in 2016, but Democrats have built their advantage in the years since, with Sen. John Hickenlooper taking the area by nearly 9 percentage points in 2020.
- GOP: Matt Solomon
- DEM: Rep. Dylan Roberts, who currently represents House District 26
Senate District 20: +7.1 Democratic
A district that includes some of the more rural and low-density regions just west of Denver in Jefferson County, including Evergreen and Genesse, as well as parts of Lakewood and Arvada. The seat went for Polis by roughly 10 points in 2018 and two years later Sen. Hickenlooper won by close to 11 points.
- GOP: Tim Walsh
- DEM: Rep. Lisa Cutter, who currently represents House District 25
Senate District 24: +9.1 Democratic
A densely populated district that overlaps Adams County, including parts of Federal Heights, Thornton and Northglenn. The district went for Gov. Jared Polis in 2018 and President Joe Biden in 2020 by more than 10 points, but Republicans are spending in the area and think they can attract Latino voters.
- GOP: Courtney Potter
- DEM: Rep. Kyle Mullica, who currently represents House District 34
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