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From left: Ana Lemus-Paiz, Tezcatli Dias and Ian Gaskins watch a newscast of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders give a speech in Vermont. (Moe Clark, The Colorado Sun)

Bernie Sanders won the Democratic presidential primary in Colorado on Tuesday, building from his dedicated fan base in the state. But an 11th-hour surge in ballots may help former Vice President Joe Biden close the gap and split the race for delegates.

The Associated Press called the race for Sanders a moment after voting ended at 7 p.m., making the state a bright spot amid a series of Biden wins elsewhere across the nation.

The Vermont senator won Colorado in the 2016 caucuses and polling showed he was the clear favorite this year. But the size of his victory in the state may not meet expectations.

Thousands of voters — Democrats and unaffiliateds — waited until the last minute to make their pick from a winnowed field, leading to lines at polling places and a deluge of ballots that could result in counting delays and push definitive results late into the night or next morning. 

MORE: Colorado Democratic primary delegate count: A look at who won the state’s 67 delegates

In Denver County, the state’s Democratic stronghold, elections officials were expecting roughly 100,000 ballots to arrive on the day of the primary election, but announced they would stop counting at midnight and resume again Wednesday. Statewide, more than 250,000 ballots were turned in between Monday afternoon and the same time Tuesday. State election officials reported turnout hit 43% at 3 p.m.

“People were aware of the nuances with the Democratic primary and held onto their ballot until the last minute and have been showing up in droves, according to our clerks, really all over the state,” said Steve Hurlbert, a spokesman for the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office. “I think it’s safe to say we are going to reach record levels of participation for a primary in Colorado.”

The early results through 6:30 a.m. Wednesday showed Sanders in the lead with 36% of the vote, according to preliminary totals with no counties finished tallying their results.

MORE: How Bernie Sanders became the favorite in Colorado: A look inside the campaign

At Sanders campaign headquarters on East Colfax Avenue in Denver, where the refreshments included a cake with the candidate’s likeness on it, the crowd erupted when the race was called in their favor.

“This is a purple state owned by the establishment,” proclaimed David Sirota, a top Sanders adviser who lives in Colorado. “And we won this state despite that ownership. This sends a powerful message to the Democratic Party.”

A cake at the Bernie Sanders watch party on Super Tuesday in Denver. (Moe Clark, The Colorado Sun.)

His rivals were tangled in a contest below him. Biden held 23% of the vote, with former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg following at 21%. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren sat just over the viability threshold with 17%.

Biden’s tally represents a boost compared to polling a week ago, particularly given that he didn’t host a public stop in Colorado. At a campaign watch party in Denver on Tuesday night, his supporters ignored bad karaoke in the bar where they celebrated his Colorado gains.

“I think the reality of what we’re seeing is he’s got a ton of momentum,” Colorado Senate President Leroy Garcia, a Pueblo Democrat and top Biden supporter in the state, said in an interview. “He needed a little bit of time to prove that in several of these states. I think it’s great that he’s picked up delegates. We’re going to continue to build on this momentum that he has.” 

Bloomberg looks strong in a state where he spent upward of $9 million on TV and digital advertising. His Colorado campaign offered no comment on the results, but national reports suggested Bloomberg will reassess his candidacy on Wednesday after disappointing results nationally.

The candidates need at least 15% of the statewide vote to pick up a portion of the 23 delegates available from Colorado’s popular vote. An additional 44 delegates are divided among the state’s seven congressional districts, where candidates need to meet the same threshold.

The delegate projections could remain unsettled until days after the election, and the Colorado Democratic Party’s website — where the results will be reported — went down for more than two hours Tuesday evening. A party spokesman told The Colorado Sun that it was a server problem.

MORE: Colorado may name two Democratic primary winners as field tightens ahead of Super Tuesday

On the Republican side, President Donald Trump easily won the party’s presidential primary in Colorado. The Associated Press called the race in his favor in minutes.

Colorado is one of 14 states that held presidential primary elections on Super Tuesday where 1,357 delegates — or a third of the total — are at stake. Colorado’s presidential primary was the first that allowed mail ballots and voters unaffiliated with a political party to participate. It came after two decades in which the state parties picked their candidates through caucuses.

Bernie Sanders fans gather at Colorado’s Sanders’ campaign headquarters in Denver on Super Tuesday. (Moe Clark, The Colorado Sun)

The Democratic shakeup and its Colorado effect

Entering Tuesday, a major Colorado poll showed Sanders with a sizable statewide lead, but it’s unclear how the primary’s enormous shift over the past three days will affect that advantage and could cut into his eventual delegate total.

Biden’s sweeping victory in South Carolina, and the subsequent decisions by former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar to drop out of the contest, gave him a boost in the closing days.

MORE: Ahead of Super Tuesday, TV ad spending tops $9.4 million in Colorado thanks to one big spender

At voting centers and ballot drop-off locations throughout the state, many of the nearly two dozen voters interviewed by The Sun said they turned out to support Biden after Buttigieg and Klobuchar endorsed him. The other major concern on voters’ minds was electability and who could beat Trump in November.

Austin Caron, a 24-year-old woman who voted in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood with her coworker, said she was undecided until Monday night but picked Biden after the backing from his two former rivals. “I feel like Biden kind of fell off the radar for a while there, and he came out of left field when he won South Carolina,” she said.

Voters cast their ballots in downtown Denver on Tuesday. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Sean Rowe, who voted in downtown Denver, looked to which Democrat could win in November as he backed Biden. “I like Bernie,” he said. “But I just want someone who actually has a good chance. I feel like Bernie probably alienates some people, and I want the person who is going to win.”

Steve Blakely, an unaffiliated voter and graphic designer who voted in Denver, said he loves Sanders, “but I’m voting in favor of the person I think has the best chance of getting Trump out of office.” He cast his ballot for Bloomberg after his Republican brother told him the former New York mayor is someone he would support.

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Others felt Sanders’ message was a winning one and weren’t worried about his chances against Trump. “I think he has a better shot than Biden,” said 19-year-old Rachel Shea as she voted on campus at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Shea said she’s been a long-time supporter of Sanders and that she supports “all of his positions,” including “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal.

In Colorado Springs, Aidan Vessel, 27, who is in between jobs and is uninsured, voted for Sanders. “I’ve never seen a candidate with that affection for the working class, and without compromise,” he said.

Voters cast their ballots in downtown Denver on Tuesday. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Other voters were excited about Warren’s campaign, which built a significant presence in Colorado and spent money on TV advertising in the days before the vote. She was in a good position Tuesday night to pick up delegates in the state. 

Caitlin Narum, a 33-year-old data analyst from Denver, said she voted with her heart when she turned in her ballot for Warren. “I just like her. It would be great to have a lady president with progressive values,” Narum said while standing next to her bicycle outside a voting center at Denver’s Blair-Caldwell Library.

The ballots of many early voters won’t count

It was obvious that the decision by Buttigieg and Klobuchar to drop out just before Super Tuesday would have some effect on Colorado’s race. Exactly how big of an effect wasn’t immediately clear on Tuesday night.

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg speaks to 9-year-old Zachary Ro, center, of Lone Tree, as Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold looks on at a campaign rally Feb. 22 in Aurora. The boy questioned Buttigieg on how to tell people that he is gay. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Since both formally ended their candidacies with the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office, county clerks across the state did not tally their votes. But based on the number of ballots that were turned in and not counted — nearly 150,000 as of 9 p.m. — it appeared the impact could be sizable. 

That number, which also includes improperly filled out ballots, represented about 10% of the total ballots processed by that point. 

Buttigieg and Klobuchar had been expected to take a sizable chunk of the votes in Colorado’s primary, according to polling, another indicator of how many voters likely returned early ballots for them. 

Klobuchar and Buttigieg are among eight candidates on Colorado’s presidential primary ballot who are no longer in the race and it appears all of them drew votes. The others include Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, businessman Andrew Yang and billionaire Tom Steyer.

More than 500,000 voters had turned in their ballots in the Democratic presidential primary before Buttigieg and Klobuchar dropped out of the race in the last few days. 

President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the World Arena in Colorado Springs Thursday, February 20, 2020. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Trump easily wins Colorado’s Republican primary

On the Republican side, Trump swept the Republican presidential primary in Colorado. The Associated Press called the race in his favor by 7:15 p.m. 

He was one of six GOP candidates on the Republican ballot. None of Trump’s challengers, however, gained any traction in their long-shot bids.

MORE: A look at the Coloradans supporting Donald Trump and why they adore the president

Trump had 92% of the vote after the first batch of results were released.

“Colorado Republicans … sent a message tonight that they are united behind President Trump and his record of success,” Kyle Kohli, Colorado spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said in a written statement.

Colorado Sun staff writer Tamara Chuang and editor Dana Coffield contributed to this report. Chuang reported from Colorado Springs and Coffield from Boulder.

Moe K. Clark

Moe Clark is a former Colorado Sun writer. She left the publication in June 2020. Email: Twitter: @moe_clark15

John Frank

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.

Jesse Paul

The Colorado Sun — Desk: 720-432-2229 Jesse Paul is a political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is...