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Danielle Piscatelli, a machine operator, loads primary election ballots into a processing machine at the Denver elections office on June 17, 2020. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

This year, the typically ho-hum primary election is no sleeper in Colorado.

A high-profile U.S. Senate race exploded with controversy, the streets erupted in demands for racial justice and political change, and nasty internal party rifts roiled down-ballot races.

Tuesday’s primary is a microcosm of the huge stakes and heightened tensions of the 2020 election cycle, and it will offer key insights into the dynamics in both major political parties and what to expect in November.

A wildcard is the coronavirus. Colorado’s mail-ballot system lessens concerns about long lines at polling locations, but it remains to be seen whether a virtual campaign can cut through concerns about public health. In addition, social distancing measures may slow the ballot count and leave any close contests in limbo.

Voters have until 7 p.m. Tuesday to voter in person or turn in their ballots at one of their county’s designated drop-off sites. It’s too late to mail back a ballot. Colorado is a same-day registration state, so voters can register to vote up until the polls close. 

Here’s a look at what to watch in the Colorado primary election — and what it means for November.

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, left, and former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, right, attended the final televised debate on Denver7 June 16, 2020. (Screenshot)

The Democratic U.S. Senate race looks closer than first imagined

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner is one of the most vulnerable Republican incumbents in the nation as an ally of President Donald Trump in a state trending blue. And the national Democratic Party managed to lure its preferred pick into the race, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. 

But now, after a series of miscues, the once-confident Hickenlooper is just hoping to survive the Democratic primary against Andrew Romanoff.

In the final month, Hickenlooper refused to comply with a subpoena and court order to testify before the ethics commission, drawing a contempt citation before being found in violation for accepting corporate gifts on two occasions, and made a series of missteps on race that raised questions about his electability.

Romanoff criticized Hickenlooper for his cozy relationship with corporate leaders and special interests as he drew sharp contrasts on policy and touted “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal proposal. His attempt to tap into a national progressive trend within the party never materialized in full as his centrist past and modest campaign undercut his message and led liberal leaders to not endorse in the race.

“Given the protests, given the resurgence nationally for some of the progressive candidates, it may benefit Romanoff to some extent,” said Rob Preuhs, a political science professor at Metropolitan State University in Denver. “But the doubt I have in my mind is whether that’s going to be enough to close what has been a really wide gap.”

Big money influences contests at the top and bottom of the ballots

A whopping $3.7 million in television advertising related to the U.S. Senate race came in just the final week before the primary election, according to Advertising Analytics.

Much of the last-minute spending is designed to lift Hickenlooper out of the trouble he created. All told, Hickenlooper’s campaign put more than $1.7 million into TV advertising, compared to $780,000 from Romanoff, according to a Colorado Sun review.

Even more came from outside groups that reported spending more than $9.5 million to support or oppose candidates through June 24, according to data from the Federal Elections Commission and TV ad contracts filed with the Federal Communications Commission. 

About $2.7 million came in support of Hickenlooper from national Democrats through Senate Majority PAC. A super PAC called Let’s Turn Colorado Blue that backs Hickenlooper spent an additional $1.4 million attacking Romanoff.

Hickenlooper came under fire from another $1.9 million in TV ads. Most of it came from Republican-backed political groups that support Gardner and spent money to influence the Democratic primary.

Down-ballot races hold huge import for November contests

While the U.S. Senate primary is getting most of the attention, a pair of primaries in the 3rd Congressional District race and a host of intra-party legislative contests Tuesday hold major implications. 

Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, is trying to fend off a challenge from Lauren Boebert, an outspoken first-time candidate who tried to convince voters she is the more conservative choice. Tipton is seeking his sixth term and has the backing of President Donald Trump.

On the Democratic side, it’s a toss-up race between former state Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush, who failed at her attempt to unseat Tipton in 2018, and political newcomer James Iacino, whose family owns and operates the Denver-based Seattle Fish Co. Mitsch Bush is seen as the more progressive of the pair, though the candidates share many policy positions. 

MORE: Want to understand the state of U.S. politics? Look no further than Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District primaries

The 3rd District is the state’s most competitive U.S. House seat this year, so the primaries will be important in deciding whether national groups pour money into the race for the general election in November. They will also shed new light on the mood of the electorate. 

As for the legislative primaries, the direction of the Colorado House is at stake. 

All eyes are on state House District 22, where feuding factions of the Colorado Republican Party are duking it out in an immensely expensive primary. Rep. Colin Larson, R-Littleton, is trying to fend off a challenge from former state Rep. Justin Everett, who held the seat before he exited to make a bid for state treasurer. 

MORE: 2020 battle for power at the Capitol starts with these big-money Colorado legislative primaries

Larson has shown a willingness to work with Democrats in the statehouse to pass legislation while Everett has touted the “Dr. No” nickname he picked up for opposing most bills.

The race is important because the outcome could help decide if House Minority Leader Patrick Neville stays in power or not amid a challenge from within the party ranks. Larson has been a vocal critic of Neville’s leadership while Everett is an ally. 

There’s been a similar split among Republicans in Weld County, where four primaries for statehouse seats are becoming nasty. And in both Weld and Jefferson counties, outside groups are spending significant sums because the winner is the favorite in November given the strong conservative districts.

On the Democratic side, the most interesting race is the Democratic primary in House District 62, which covers southeast Colorado. State Rep. Donald Valdez is facing Matthew Martinez, director of the prison college program at Adams State University.

Valdez is facing opposition from fellow House Democrats with whom he’s clashed during his legislative tenure. Several sitting Democratic lawmakers are actually supporting Martinez in the contest

The polling center at the Denver elections office downtown includes signs encouraging voters to maintain social distancing on June 17, 2020. The poll workers are also sitting behind plexiglass dividers. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

Turnout is a question mark amid coronavirus and increased activism

The coronavirus upended the campaign and moved the campaign trail to the virtual realm — all but eliminating traditional canvassing efforts to turn out voters. It left a question mark about how many people would pay attention amid a pandemic.

“Turnout will be really interesting … because of coronavirus and all the political turmoil,,” said Faith Winter, a state senator and Democratic strategist. “Turnout won’t be driven by normal strategies, like door knocking and voter contact.”

So far, turnout is exceeding comparable levels from 2018, the first statewide election when unaffiliated voters could participate in either primary. Both Democratic and Republican ballots are seeing significant boosts in early returns. “Turnout is a tornado right now,” said Ian Silverii, who leads the liberal group ProgressNow Colorado. “I’ve never seen anything like this.” 

Silverii hypothesizes the higher turnout is a result of people staying home because of the pandemic. He’s interested to see if there’s a traditional last-minute increase in returns or whether voters just opted to make their decisions earlier this time around.

It also remains unclear whether the recent activism and protests are driving interest in voting. Paul Lopez, the Denver County clerk, said he was “hoping for a flood of young folks that are not just marching to the streets but also to the ballot box.”

“I do want to see if it gives Romanoff a boost that we were not anticipating,” said state Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat, who has participated in the demonstrations but hasn’t picked sides in the primary.

Herod pointed to Hickenlooper’s stumbles on race-related questions in recent weeks, such as when he bobbled a question on what Black Lives Matter means, as something that could turn activists toward Romanoff.

At this point, turnout among voters under age 35 remains at its typically low levels, well behind older voters, according to the latest ballot returns. And a voter registration increase near 30,000 this month is on par with the 2016 election, according to figures from the Secretary of State’s Office.

Tyler Sandberg, a Republican political strategist, said he thinks the attention on the Democratic race for U.S. Senate is leading to the increase. “I think the most determinant factor in turnout is the fact that $10 million is being spent in the U.S. Senate race,” he said. “I think you’re seeing a very clear skew toward voting in the Democratic primary because they are being bombarded on TV, radio, digital and mail.”

Looking for clues to November election

What the final turnout numbers show will offer clues about enthusiasm heading into November.

It’s particularly important in the U.S. Senate race for Hickenlooper to demonstrate a strong showing of support after he lost the March caucuses. Republicans are looking to capitalize on a fractured Democratic Party to improve Gardner’s reelection chances in November. “Margin, I think, matters,” Silverii said. 

Likewise, a modest showing by Hickenlooper — who at one point was expected to win by a 2-1 margin — could suggest the ethics violations are creating concern among voters.

A recent SurveyUSA poll among people who said they planned to vote in the race found that 57% of Hickenlooper’s supporters say they will vote “enthusiastically” for him with 33% expressing “reservations.”

Regardless of the margin, Republicans said Hickenlooper enters the general election as damaged goods. And they feel better about their chances in the Senate race come November. 

“I think they’ve never been more optimistic than they are right now,” Sandberg said. “Republicans are absolutely feeling better about the race.”

Sandra Fish has covered government and politics in Iowa, Florida, New Mexico and Colorado. She was a full-time journalism instructor at the University of Colorado for eight years, and her work as appeared on CPR, KUNC, The Washington Post, Roll...

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....

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