Colorado’s political landscape shifted significantly in the past year — and decade — as Democrats moved more firmly into power, backed by a transformed electorate.
The new political reality led to major changes in policies and birthed a new generation of leaders on both sides of the political spectrum.
To capture this scene, The Colorado Sun surveyed dozens of politicians, strategists and observers — split evenly between partisans — for their reflections on 2019, the end of the decade and the year to come in politics.
The responses found broad agreement about the political currents shaping the state and offer a look at what’s to come in 2020. Here’s what we found.
Top Colorado political story in 2019
The 2019 legislative session
The Democratic takeover at the state Capitol did not go unnoticed. More than half of the two dozen responses mentioned the legislative session, Gov. Jared Polis, the legislative power brokers or the policies the party enacted.
The one-party control allowed lawmakers to outline and accomplish an ambitious agenda, including tougher regulations on oil and gas, a public health care option, state funded full-day kindergarten and more.
Likewise, the aborted recall election attempts against Polis and Democratic lawmakers after the session drew plenty of notice, too. “Two stories that go hand in hand: Democrats passing significant legislation at the state Capitol and the complete failure of multiple recall attempts,” said Jason Bane, a Democratic pundit. “This was just about the worst possible scenario for Republicans after getting trounced in 2018.”
The runner-up: Proposition CC
Top Colorado political story of the decade
Political shift toward blue from red
So much happened in Colorado politics from 2010 through 2019. John Hickenlooper won his first statewide office at the start of the decade and he now finishes with a U.S. Senate bid. The state legalized marijuana. Colorado moved to all-mail ballots. The 2013 recall elections. Cory Gardner’s upset victory in the 2014 U.S. Senate race. And Democrats claimed historic wins in the Donald Trump era.
(Our question even inspired Ben Engen, a Republican strategist, to find the stories that dominated the headlines in the past decade.)
But the story of the decade picked in the survey hit a broader trend: the political shift from Republican toward Democratic. One of the underlying reasons is a demographic shift, as Democratic strategists Alan Salazar and Jim Carpenter noted.
“The shift in Colorado from Republican to solid Democrat,” Salazar said, is “largely reflected in the suburbs and changing demographics.”
“Demography is destiny, and Colorado this decade has continued a trend (that really started in 2004) and transition from swing state to lean Democratic, as a result of younger voters flocking here, stronger and larger Latinx turnout and participation, and our continued high level of education among voters,” Carpenter added.
This pairs with another dynamic that others recognized: “The continued downhill slide and ever-diminishing viability of the Colorado Republican Party,” as political analyst Eric Sondermann put it
But others argue the new landscape is not cemented. “In the mid-2000s, the elected positions held by Democrats looked similar to what it looks like now, if not even stronger. That quickly shifted back the other way and could easily shift again,” said Jeff Bridges, a Democratic state lawmaker. “Taking for granted that Colorado is trending hard to the blue is, I think, not supported by the evidence and could lead to some folks pushing policies that just don’t fit our state.”
The runner-up: The 2013 legislative session and recall elections
Top Colorado political story to watch in 2020
The U.S. Senate race
The story to watch in 2020 is no surprise. The U.S. Senate race in Colorado was the clear pick in the survey. The contest will draw widespread attention with a contested Democratic primary that pits the national party against its more liberal base and one of the most vulnerable Republican incumbents on the ballot with President Trump.
“A Cory Gardner victory will demonstrate that a Republican candidate can still win in Colorado, despite voter registration and turnout trends that benefit Democratic candidates year after year,” said David Flaherty, a Republican pollster and strategist. “If Cory Gardner is defeated, Democrats will occupy every statewide office in Colorado, and likely retain control of the state legislature, completing total political dominance of the state.”
Democrats are bullish on a Gardner defeat. “Gardner loses while (and because) the Democratic nominee wins the Colorado presidential vote by 8-10%,” said Steve Welchert, a Democratic strategist.
But Republicans believe Hickenlooper, the 67-year-old Democratic frontrunner, has weaknesses that will give Gardner, 45, room to maneuver. “Democrats have already written off Gardner as a sure loser,” said Dick Wadhams, a Republican. “I predict by the end of this campaign Cory Gardner will once again be in the role of the dynamic, young challenger while Hickenlooper will be the tired, old incumbent.”
The runner-up: 2020 election
Top Colorado political player to watch in 2020
Colorado Republican Party
The Democratic shift and the 2020 election naturally point to the Colorado Republican Party as a player to watch in the new year as it battles for power.
The question for the party is “whether in the age of Trump it’s capable of adapting to Colorado’s changing demographics,” wrote Tyler Sandberg, a Republican strategist. “Will the Colorado GOP grow beyond simply running old white men as candidates? Will there be smart female Republicans or smart Republicans of color that run in competitive seats? This is not about tokenism, it’s about whether the GOP will empower strong female and minority candidates to become elected officials.”
He wasn’t the only one to highlight the dynamic. Rob Witwer, a former Republican lawmaker, pointed to a handful of women candidates in his party who are expected to step into greater roles in coming years, such as CU Regent Heidi Ganahl and Mesa County Commissioner Rose Pugliese. He listed them alongside other new GOP leaders, like state lawmakers Colin Larson and Paul Lundeen.
“If the GOP is to become relevant again in Colorado, it needs fresh young leadership,” Witwer said. “The party needs people who are independent, smart and not beholden to certain groups that have been a millstone around the necks of too many Republican candidates in recent years.”
The question generated the most diverse set of answers. The runners-up (tied for second): young voters, Gardner and Polis.