Skip to contents
Opinion Columns

Nicolais: Choppy waters ahead for Colorado Democrats?

After years benefiting from good fortune and favorable electoral environments, Colorado’s latest election should be a warning for Democrats looking beyond 2020

Nothing makes me geek-out quite as quickly as election returns. From the anticipation of the first wave to be posted through talking heads trying to determine when to call a race, the numbers always tell a story.

So fair warning for anyone reading this column whose eyes cross over data analysis.

The story told by this year’s coordinated election in Colorado should serve as a warning to the most progressive policy makers in the state.

Mario Nicolais

Don’t get me wrong; Colorado is still a blue state. Democrats hold both houses of the state legislature, all four statewide offices and a majority of the state’s congressional seats. And it will take an upset for Sen. Cory Gardner to hold onto his U.S. Senate seat.

However, a year after Coloradans rejected new oil and gas setbacks and transportation funding, voters dealt a withering defeat to anti-TABOR activists and Proposition CC.

While Republicans will claim any victory they can at the moment – and certainly the death of CC came in part due to their unified opposition – some blame has to be placed on progressives who have misread their overwhelming control of public offices as proof of overwhelming support for their most liberal policies.

To the contrary, Democrats have benefited immensely over recent years from an electoral perfect storm. First, the Trump toll is real in Colorado and a major drag on anyone on the ballot with an “R” behind their name.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

I’d be shocked if President Trump’s disapproval rating hasn’t eclipsed 60% in Colorado; it already stood at 57% in July before the Ukraine investigation and impeachment proceedings.

Second, Republicans seem hellbent on nominating the most conservative candidates in every race regardless of the district. That makes it easy for Democrats to roll to victory in competitive races. Look no further than the walloping Republicans took last year in Jefferson County, home to multiple formerly competitive districts.

Third, Democrats have built and maintained a robust political structure outside the party system that Republicans have been unable to emulate. Over the past two decades that structure has allowed Democrats to take advantage of favorable electoral environments while weathering more challenging times.

Finally, and arguably most importantly, Democrats have maintained a structural edge due to gerrymandered legislative lines over the past decade. And this where their current disconnect may be most evident.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

In 2016, Republicans received 1,238,154 votes for state House candidates, or 50.74% of the ballots cast for either major party candidates. Democratic candidates received 1,201,939 votes, or 49.26%. Yet Democrats exited the election cycle holding 37 of the state’s 65 House seats (56.92%) against Republicans’ 28 (43.08%).

In 2018, Republican votes dropped to 1,045,199 for House candidates (44.18%), while Democrats saw a spike to 1,320,549 votes (55.82%). So much for the tired trope that Democratic turnout drops in non-presidential years. But Democrats’ control of state House seats still outstripped the number of votes they garnered. Holding 41 seats, Democrats currently control 63.08% of the state House compared to Republicans and their 24 seats for 36.92%.

A similar pattern exists in the state Senate, though it is complicated by the overlapping four-year terms served by senators.

The difference between the votes Democrats received and the control they exercise goes a long way toward explaining why Coloradans aren’t as excited about their most progressive proposals.

The state is far more balanced than the legislature. Voters aren’t interested in adopting the most progressive proposals of liberally skewed legislative bodies.

The real question moving forward will be whether Democrats take heed of the implications derived from this analysis. The immediate aftermath suggests they’ll insist on tilting at windmills.

The winds in Democratic sails should continue to see them through the 2020 election. Trump will still be on the ballot, their non-party infrastructure will keep humming, and their favorable legislative lines will still be intact. 

But by 2022 and 2024, without a little more introspection, they may find themselves far out to sea in very choppy waters.


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.