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Nicolais: Jefferson County tells us all we need to know about Colorado’s last election

The traditional bellwether county stayed true to its history, and that should terrify Republicans

As goes JeffCo, so goes Colorado.

The old political axiom trotted out every two years held true again in 2018. As Democrats swept to office and almost unprecedented political power in Colorado, the blue wave washed through JeffCo.

Similarly, the county perfectly reflected the preferences of Coloradans on statewide constitutional amendments and statutory propositions, going a combined 12 for 12 and never deviating by more than three points from statewide percentages.

Even if I didn’t agree with all the outcomes, as a born, raised, and still residing member of the JeffCo community, I retain some civic pride in our bellwether status.

Mario Nicolais

At the top of the ticket, JeffCo voted for each of the four winning Democrats by about two points more than the state as a whole.

That’s a pattern that should terrify Republicans going forward. A blue JeffCo makes Colorado unwinnable for Republicans. There simply aren’t enough votes in more reliably conservative areas, such as El Paso County or rural Colorado, to counter-balance a Denver-Boulder-JeffCo axis.

Republicans’ prospects dim further if you throw in Adams and Arapahoe counties.

That’s the type of structural political impediment that will transform Colorado from a swing state to flyover country in presidential elections, potentially by 2020.

We were already on the brink after three successive elections delivered to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, each by about five points or more. Given Trump begins this cycle with about half of Colorado voters disapproving of his job performance, it seems unlikely our state will be a focus for his campaign.

It’s also the reason Sen. Cory Gardner tops the target list for national Democrats two years from now.

As I wrote before the election, Republican success holding and expanding its majority in the U.S. Senate is largely attributable to Gardner, and he will be able to marshal many of those resources to his defense.

But if he can’t make a dent in JeffCo, it likely won’t matter.

READ:Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

If Gardner and other Republicans have any chance, they need to understand their shortcomings in JeffCo. A good place to start would be a little lower on the ballot.

For the first time I can remember, Jefferson County is entirely represented by Democrats in the state Senate. Three of the four districts were up for election this cycle, including Republican incumbent Tim Neville.

When I served on the Colorado Reapportionment Commission charged with drawing the boundaries for these districts in 2011, all three were considered competitive.

I even ran for one in 2014, getting trounced in a primary. When the vote totals rolled in on Tuesday, each Democrat won by nine points or more in JeffCo.

Neville came the closest, losing by “only” 9.51 percent in JeffCo, though he lost by almost 14 percent across the entire district.

Tony Sanchez, who beat me in 2014 and subsequently lost to Democratic incumbent Andy Kerr by 1,336 votes and a little over 2 percent of the vote, lost in 2018 to Brittany Pettersen by more than 11,000 votes and almost 16 percent of the vote. While some of the difference can be attributed to an exceptionally nasty Sanchez campaign flier backfiring, that doesn’t explain it all.

In fact, Sanchez actually received 800 more votes than in his last race; but Pettersen improved Democrats’ vote total by almost 35 percent from just over 30,000 votes to more than 41,000. A similar story played out in what had been trumpeted as the state’s premier race between Republican Christine Jensen and Democrat Jessie Danielson.

Jensen improved upon Republican numbers by more than 5,000 votes, but lost by more than 10 points when Danielson garnered almost 15,000 more votes than her predecessor.

Things didn’t turn out much better for JeffCo Republicans in the state House. Losing multiple seats, only middle-of-the-road candidate Colin Larson will be caucusing with Republicans come January. The rest will be on the other side of the aisle.

Republicans have a serious, potentially uncorrectable, problem in Colorado. But if they have any chance to win again in the future, they will need to learn how to win again in Jefferson County first.

Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, healthcare, and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq