Skip to contents
Opinion Columns

Nicolais: Will political purity tests catch up to Colorado Democrats?

Democrats have already begun to show the same type of intra-party strife that cost Republicans their political power in the state

Before President Trump’s latest incendiary comments diverted the attention of the political media, Democrats in Washington, D.C., appeared to be barreling toward an intra-party showdown between traditional powers and upstart progressives.

What happens if Colorado Democrats follow suit?

For most of the past two decades, Colorado Democrats have been unified in a sole, all-encompassing mission: turn Colorado from red to blue. That type of unifying direction generally quells serious dissent within a party. Any deviation in ideology takes a back seat to obtaining power.

Mario Nicolais

But you don’t need to look too far into Colorado’s history to see what happens when that party unity fades. The Republican Party collapse over the same time period should serve as a good lesson for Democrats now firmly entrenched as the state’s dominant political party.

Republicans controlled the state legislature for much of our state’s history, generally winning majorities in both the state Senate and state House. However, two Democratic governors, Dick Lamm and Roy Romer, checked those majorities for a quarter century.

When Gov. Bill Owens took office 20 years ago, it ushered in a trifecta of control for Republicans. It didn’t take long for the knives — or more appropriately, the guns — to come out.

Political purity tests began to dominate Republican primaries, not just in safe Republican seats, but across the entire state. Groups like the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners and the Colorado Christian Coalition fomented party division through ever more strident policy positions and a demand for absolute fealty. Any sublte dissent often cost incumbents their seat.

The division quickly cracked the fragile alliance that allowed Republicans to control state political power. Republicans lost the state Senate in 2000 before winning it back in 2002. 

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

But in 2004 the extent of the sinkhole created under the Republican Party became evident; their majorities were swallowed by Democrat wins in both houses of the legislature. Since then, Republicans have managed only a few one-vote majorities in either chamber.

The full collapse occurred last year when Democrats swept to historic levels of control in Colorado

As Democrats bask in their newfound power, nearly unassailable from challenges by Republican on the right, could they be in danger of seeing their own slow collapse into internal strife?

Even as Democrats were marching toward their ultimate coronation, fault lines have begun to emerge. 

At the end of 2017, state Sen. Cheri Jahn left the Democratic Party to serve as an unaffiliated legislator. A respected centrist whose ability to capture and retain a Jefferson County seat represented a critical victory for Democrats over the past decade, Jahn no longer felt comfortable in a caucus moving further to the left. 

Jahn’s decision did little to dissuade or even slow the progressive drift of the Democratic Party in Colorado, though. To the contrary, the City of Denver recently elected its first democratic socialist, Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca. She won a runoff election against the more traditionally Democratic Councilman Albus Brooks, attacking him from the left on a series of issues, including development, housing and wages.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

New battle lines could be set within the next six to 12 months in the run-up to Democratic nominating caucuses, assemblies and primary elections. Progressives no longer content to hep the party hold seats may begin to demand candidates meet adopt and support positions in line with their beliefs, even if they don’t particularly align with the districts Democrats fought so long and hard to win.

As national figures such as U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez continue to publicly lambast moderate Democrats from red-leaning districts, it shouldn’t come as a shock if a few Colorado incumbents find themselves under similar pressure at the state Capitol.

Now that Democrats have finally achieved the power they sought for nearly two decades, will they risk losing it to the political purity tests of those who helped get them there?


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


The Colorado Sun is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not reflect the opinions of the newsroom. Read our ethics policy for more on The Sun’s opinion policy and submit columns, suggested writers and more to opinion@coloradosun.com.

The Colorado Sun has no paywall, meaning readers do not have to pay to access stories. We believe vital information needs to be seen by the people impacted, whether it’s a public health crisis, investigative reporting or keeping lawmakers accountable.

This reporting depends on support from readers like you. For just $5/month, you can invest in an informed community.