For losing Republicans, a silver lining: They pushed the conversation on crime and public safety during the election

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Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Colorado Republican candidate for Attorney General John Kellner, with his family, concedes defeat on Election Day night, Nov. 8, 2022, at the Hilton DoubleTree hotel ballroom in the Denver suburb of Greenwood Village.

In conceding his Republican bid for state attorney general, Arapahoe County District Attorney John Kellner said that despite his party’s losses last week, they single-handedly forced state leaders to pay attention to public safety in a way they weren’t before.

“Throughout this campaign, which was so focused on public safety, we charged a lot of hearts and minds,” Kellner told a crowd of supporters. “We convinced Gov. Polis to get behind a bill that says, hey I want to increase the penalties for car thieves. That happens because of campaigns like this.”

Colorado’s crime rates, particularly around auto theft and fentanyl overdoses, were an omnipresent theme on the campaign trail. 

And statewide elected Democrats, including Polis, did not ignore them. 

In his state of the state speech earlier this year, Polis said that he wanted to make Colorado among the top 10 safest states in the nation. He often characterized fentanyl as one of the biggest threats posed to Coloradans and told CPR News he would support criminalizing possession of any amount of the drug —  a departure from others in his party who believe criminalizing possession of drugs only punishes addicts.

Then in September, Polis wrote a letter to the state’s bipartisan Colorado Criminal and Juvenile Justice commission saying that he wanted to strengthen the penalties for car thefts.

In his proposed budget, there is more money funneled toward local law enforcement than in previous years and an overall 26 percent increase devoted to public safety.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Gov. Jared Polis takes a phone call at a gathering of supporters in Boulder on Monday evening, Nov. 7, 2022, the day before Election Day.

A policy priority, or a cynical position for political gain?

Despite all that, many Democrats say the GOP mantra throughout 2022 that Colorado is crime-infested was a cynical position to promote for political purposes. 

“The public-safety issue raised in this campaign was basically a fear tactic,” said Maureen Cain, legislative and policy director for the Colorado State Public Defender. “It didn’t work. I think voters rejected their fear tactics. But has there been a fear-based response in the Democratic party to this political message? Yes, I think so.”

Cain said that the language on the campaign trail —  from 8th Congressional District Republican candidate Barbara Kirkmeyer falsely accusing her Democratic opponent of “legalizing” fentanyl, to attacks on a bipartisan-supported misdemeanor reform bill that Republicans attribute to increasing auto theft rates — did not actually advance public safety. 

“I don’t think it helps the public's understanding,” she said. “One side is fear-mongering, are we going to say: too bad, so sad, we’re not going to talk about it?”

For outgoing Colorado House Speaker Alec Garnett, a Democrat, the high-profile conversations about public safety, and who launched them, is a kind of chicken-egg question.

“The governor has said he wants Colorado to be one of the safest states in the country. That’s not because Republicans brought the issue up on the campaign trail, it’s because communities want to see crime go down,” said Garnett, who is about to become Polis’ chief of staff. “Republicans are stretching to figure out some silver lining in what ended up being a historically bad night.”

On the campaign trail throughout the state, Kellner said he heard from people concerned about crime rate increases — not only violent crime, but also catalytic converter thefts and business break-ins. He thinks the attention paid on that, including attention driven by some media coverage, was effective in elevating the policy issue for Republicans.

“It’s durable and it will stick with people going into the next legislative session. This is really not a Democrat or Republican thing,” he said. “It cuts across party lines and it’s something I’m really proud of that we were able to elevate that conversation … and put it on the media’s radar, the statistics around our state.”

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Republican Colorado Attorney General candidate John Kellner at a campaign event Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022, in Denver.

What's next for John Kellner and other Colorado politicians

Heading into the legislative session, where Democrats have large majorities in both chambers, Kellner said he hopes to keep the importance of crime relevant — even though he is returning to his day job as elected district attorney for Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties. 

He plans to urge lawmakers to strengthen penalties for additional possession of illegal drugs, not just fentanyl, and get rid of the system that doles out varying sentences for auto theft depending on the value of the car. Kellner also wants to strengthen laws around people with criminal records possessing firearms.

“We recognize that legislators are not subject matter experts,” Kellner said. “We’ve gotten more feedback that there is more engagement."

Kellner said even Democratic legislators have reached out to him. 

In a statement from Polis’ spokesman Conor Cahill, he said the governor’s overwhelming victory last week showed that “the people of Colorado, regardless of their political party, support the governor’s work to improve public safety in Colorado.”

“It’s clear the governor’s commonsense approach in support of improving public safety resonated with Coloradans from across the spectrum,” Cahill said.