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Barbara Kirkmeyer, running for 8th Congressional District in Weld County, on June 13, 2022. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Nearly a decade ago, when she was still a Weld County commissioner, Republican state Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer was an outspoken leader in the attempt by 11 northern Colorado counties to pursue secession and form a 51st state. 

The proposal was fueled by rural Colorado’s frustration about how Denver-centric environmental and economic policies were thrust on them by statehouse politics. So commissioners in the 11 counties asked their residents: Should we try to leave and form our own thing?

The 51st Initiative failed in six of the 11 counties, including in Weld. But Kirkmeyer, now running to represent the new, highly competitive 8th Congressional District, believes the work — which made national headlines — was worth it for the clear message it sent to state leaders. 

That’s even as the Brighton lawmaker faces intense criticism from Democrats who have labeled her “extreme” because of her involvement in the secession push.

“I think it was successful,” Kirkmeyer said, pointing to how Democrats, including then-Gov. John Hickenlooper, vowed to try to make rural Colorado a bigger part of the policy conversation in response to the initiative. “It made us stronger. It made us better.”

Still, Democrats see Kirkmeyer’s role in the secession movement as a vulnerability in the 8th District. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, for instance, has labeled her a “secessionist.” 

Colorado state Rep. Yadira Caraveo, D-Thornton, who is running against Kirkmeyer, called the movement “fringe” and “unpatriotic.”

“I don’t know how state Sen. Kirkmeyer will effectively fight for Coloradans when she doesn’t want to be a part of our state in the first place,” Caraveo told The Sun.

How the 51st State Initiative appeared on the ballot in 2013 in Weld County. (Screenshot)

So far, however, Kirkmeyer’s ties to the secession push, which were well publicized at the time, haven’t dragged down her congressional campaign.

A poll conducted in June by Global Strategy Group, a Democratic pollster working for Caraveo’s campaign, showed Kirkmeyer beating Caraveo 44% to 36% in a hypothetical matchup, with 20% of those polled undecided or refusing to answer. The top issue for those surveyed was “inflation/cost of gas/cost of housing,” followed by “crime/public safety/fentanyl/drugs/law and order” and “shootings or mass shootings/pro-gun safety laws.”

The survey was conducted from June 9-13 — before the June 28 primary and before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, two big factors that likely would have narrowed the gap — among 500 likely voters with an oversampling of 167 additional Hispanic voters. 

The 8th District runs from the northeast Denver suburbs in Adams County, which lean toward Democrats, up into the heart of Weld County in Greeley , which is ruby red Republican territory, along the U.S. 85 corridor. A sliver of Larimer County is also in the district. 

A map of Colorado’s 8th Congressional District. (Screenshot)

 As a result of the political split, the 8th District is a tossup that’s expected to favor Republicans in 2022. The party that holds the White House typically loses congressional seats in the first midterm after they take power, and the 8th District is the kind of place where that phenomenon takes full effect.

Kirkmeyer, whose 2022 campaign is trying to tap into discontent over consumer costs, says her critics don’t understand the frustration in rural Colorado at the time of the secession movement, namely over new oil and gas and renewable energy regulations. She says she was listening to her constituents when she became a leader in the secession push.

(The Colorado legislature’s decisions on civil unions for same-sex couples and gun regulations were also among the issues that drove the secession push.)

“When a group of largely urban lawmakers pass laws that embody a narrow political agenda serving special interests and foists costly mandates on rural economies and agriculture — it’s called tyranny,” she wrote in an editorial at the time. “It’s past due time to send the message: start listening to all the citizens in this state and do what is in the best interest of the state as a whole.”

Kirkmeyer, who was a Weld County commissioner for two decades, says the people at the DCCC who have called her a secessionist are “ignorant” and says the label is an indication that they don’t understand the political dynamics in the 8th District.

“I think it’s actually an ignorant statement,” she said. “They weren’t here. They don’t understand.”

Colorado state Rep. Yadira Caraveo, D-Thornton, who is running against Kirkmeyer in November. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Cathy Shull, executive director of Pro 15, an organization representing counties in northeast Colorado, said the 2013 secession movement isn’t a frequent topic of conversation in her part of the state nowadays.

“I don’t think it is a big issue for the region that Barbara is running in,” said Shull, who lives in Morgan County, whose voters did not vote on the 51st state initiative. 

A decade ago, when the initiative was on the ballot, very few people thought a 51st state could or would actually be formed. The fervor was all around the message it aimed to send, Shull said.

“It sure did wake everybody up,” Shull said. “(But) I don’t think most people thought it had a chance of ever becoming anything.”

The 11 counties colored in red voted on the 51st State Initiative. Only five of them approved pursuing secession. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The secession movement was always a longshot.

To be successful, northern Colorado would have had to win approval from the state legislature and then Congress to break off and form a 51st state. Similar efforts elsewhere, such as in California and Maryland, have failed. 

Greg Brophy, a Republican from the Eastern Plains who in 2013 was a state senator with ambitions of becoming Colorado’s governor, doubts voters in the 8th District will hold Kirkmeyer’s secession push against her. 

“If that’s the best attack that Democrat special interests have against Barb Kirkmeyer, she is going to win by 12 points,” he said, “because nobody cares about that now. Period.”

(Caraveo’s campaign and national Democrats are also attacking Kirkmeyer over her stances on abortion and climate change.)

Brophy added: “The whole idea was to try to do something to get Hickenlooper’s attention.”

In that sense, the secession movement may have been successful. 

Hickenlooper said after the vote that his administration understood “some rural areas still feel underrepresented and are not being heard,” vowing to listen and work more with communities across the state. 

But the initiative didn’t change the perspective of every Democrat at the Capitol, including Mark Ferrandino, a Denverite who was the House speaker leader at the time.

“You look at where our budget was going at the time and still today, rural Colorado gets a much higher per capita spending than the metro areas,” said Ferrandino, who is now head of the Colorado Department of Revenue. “They made a lot of noise and maybe highlighted that we needed to do a better job messaging, but it didn’t change policy.”

A view of the wheat harvest in Yuma County. (Lucas Lubbers, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado Treasurer Dave Young, a Greeley Democrat who in 2013 was a state representative, called the initiative unserious given the signficant water and budget implications seceding would have had on Colorado and the new state. He also argues commissioners who worked on the effort were violating state laws prohibiting state dollars from being used for political activity. 

Young said rural Colorado certainly doesn’t feel heard at times, but he doesn’t think the 51st state initiative made a dent in addressing that. “I can’t point to that particular initiative as being something that highlighted” the rural-urban divide, he said.

If she’s elected to Congress, Kirkmeyer may have the chance someday to vote on whether to let a region secede from the state or state’s they’re in. 

How would she decide what to do in the unlikely scenario Congress would get to chime in?

“I would follow the will of the voters,” she said.

Jesse Paul

The Colorado Sun — jesse@coloradosun.com Desk: 720-432-2229 Jesse Paul is a political reporter and editor at The...