Republicans hoped that 2022 would be the year that Colorado’s political pendulum would start to swing back toward the center after four years of Democratic rule. The opposite happened.
Democrats saw their influence in the state grow. They are set to gain even more seats in both the state Senate and the House. Races that Democrats were expected to lose are too close to call.
And at the top of the ticket, Gov. Jared Polis rolled to re-election by a crushing 16-point margin over Republican Heidi Ganahl. Polis was even winning by a few hundred votes in historically conservative Douglas County — Ganahl’s home — as of Wednesday afternoon.
“That was exciting to me personally, to be able to be the first Democrat to win in Douglas County in over 30 years,” Polis said in an interview.
“And it really shows that our message of protecting our freedom and saving people money works in all parts of our state, in rural Colorado, in traditionally conservative suburban areas and in our cities. And we have a lot of plans to back that up.”
The results leave Republicans at the brink of political irrelevance — losing ground when they were already on their heels. If the preliminary results hold true, they may hold less than a third of the seats in the state legislature.
Meanwhile, the dramatic Democratic victories brought renewed national attention to the state and its governor. Colorado, once a swing state, seems to be solidly blue — going in the opposite direction of the former purple state of Florida.
In the late hours of election night, drinks were flowing at the Art Hotel and Democrats could hardly seem to believe their good fortune.
“It was this sense of jubilee in the room,” said Deep Badhesha, a former Democratic political staffer who remains active in progressive politics. “We’ve done it. Colorado’s an actual blue state.”
But just as they contemplated a new political era, Democrats throughout the state and beyond were debating who to credit for the victory, and what to do next.
The wins put renewed national attention on Polis
Colorado's governor has been the subject of occasional rumors about a presidential run, including after the election. (He’s generally brushed aside questions of presidential ambitions.)
“Jared Polis seems underhyped to me,” wrote the centrist pundit Matthew Yglesias, citing Polis’ “vaxed and relaxed” approach to the pandemic and his accomplishments on his legislative agenda.
Some in the state held that view, too. House Majority Leader Alec Garnett, a Democrat, credited the Polis campaign with boosting Democrats across the state.
“There's no doubt that his coattails were probably as long as any statewide Democrat we've seen in a long time,” he said.
Polis’ strong presence “prevented national money from coming into this state, and I think essentially helped the Democratic message statewide.”
Some moderate and Republican voters were also attracted by Polis’ message, which framed Democratic priorities like health care reform and transit as ways to “save people money,” and portrayed issues like abortion rights as a matter of preserving individual freedoms.
Dean Bagley, a Republican voter from Lakewood, said that he hadn’t voted for a Democrat for Jimmy Carter in the 1970s. But he chose Polis this year because he was impressed by the governor’s handling of the pandemic and by Democrats’ moves to expand public schools funding.
“He was clear and concise … It was clear that he had done his homework. He didn’t come in kneejerk or any of that,” Bagley said. “He was making the decisions and giving his instructions, I thought, for the good of the people that were listening to him.”
But other Democrats contested the idea that Polis’ leadership style was a driving factor in the elections.
For one thing, the party nationwide had a stronger-than-expected night. And Polis himself acknowledged that Donald Trump continues to drag down the fortunes of Republicans in Colorado.
Badhesha, a progressive, downplayed Polis’ margin of victory. Like others, he said Ganahl was a weak challenger who ultimately veered to the right — an ineffective strategy in Colorado.
“Polis did better than Bennet and the other statewide candidates, but he didn’t do that much better,” he said. The governor spent tens of millions of his own money and ultimately only gained about 100,000 extra votes, worth a few percentage points, over the other statewide Democrats, Badhesha pointed out.
Debating margins of victory is a theoretical exercise, of course. It was a big night for Democrats in either case. But the question of Polis’ influence reflects divisions in the party that may become more meaningful in the next few years.
Polis has at times angered progressive members of his party — for example, by using his veto power to shut down a proposal for rent control in mobile home parks, and by supporting reductions to the income tax, which provides most of the state’s general-fund money.
That’s why at least some members of the party don’t want to see “Polis politics” become the dominant message for Democrats.
Badhesha wants to see progressives press a stronger message in the years to come.
“I’m pumped for what January’s going to hold,” he said, referring to the new legislative session. “The Colorado public just wrote Democrats a huge mandate: Be a blue state, be a progressive state. And I really hope Democrats don’t fumble the bag.”
State Rep. Jennifer Bacon, a Democrat from Denver, said that she was ready to work with — and to challenge — Polis.
“I think what this margin makes us really want to do is explore. And so we're gonna have to have the conversations with ourselves as well as with the governor,” she said. She added that lawmakers also have to be mindful of financial limits coming out of the pandemic.
“But this is the time to put our thinking caps on. And this is time to be bold,” she said.
Others, for now, were focused on a message of party unity.
Democratic state Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver progressive, was at the center of the party’s successful campaigns in the state Senate.
“I think that we have demonstrated that by being inclusive, by being willing to listen to the issues that truly matter to people, to working class people, to rural people, to people of color, to immigrants, to queer people, that's how we win majorities,” she said.
New lawmakers will be sworn in, and Democrats will begin their next term in power, when the legislature convenes on January 9th, 2023.
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