PUEBLO — Mayor Nick Gradisar climbed onto a stage in the heart of Colorado’s steel city on Saturday evening and asked his community not to take a gamble on Donald Trump as it did in 2016.
“This election is our chance for redemption,” the Democrat said during a car rally hosted by former Vice President Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign at the Colorado State Fairgrounds. “Four years ago, a majority of Puebloans decided to take a chance on a gameshow host as president. It should be clear to everyone by now that he’s nothing but a conman and a bully.”
Once a reliably Democratic town and union stronghold, Pueblo is one of five counties in Colorado — and the largest — that voted for President Barack Obama in 2012 and then flipped to support Trump four years later. Observers say Trump’s campaign message about bringing manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. resonated with Pueblo’s blue-collar workforce.
Trump won Pueblo County by a fraction: 0.5 percentage points, or 390 votes. He is the first Republican to do so since Richard Nixon in 1972.
Democrats are expected to easily win Colorado’s nine electoral votes this year with polls showing Joe Biden surging to a comfortable double-digit lead. He’s outperforming Hillary Clinton, who won Colorado by 4.9 percentage points in 2016.
But how Pueblo is going to vote this year is hard to read, making it one of the state’s top battlegrounds in the 2020 presidential election — and a leading indicator for which party wins the 3rd Congressional District, the state’s most competitive top-tier race.
“I think Pueblo is the key,” said Floyd Ciruli, a Pueblo native and the director of the Crossley Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Denver.
Much is different this year compared to four years ago. For one, neither major party candidate made a campaign stop in Pueblo; four years ago, Clinton and Trump held massive rallies here to court voters.
And this year, Trump’s fans are considerably more vocal in their support compared to 2016.
George Rivera, the county Republican Party chairman in 2016, remembers how people would only whisper about their plans to vote for Trump or offer a coy thumbs up when they saw a campaign sign. Back then, people were afraid to show their support in this longtime Democratic bastion.
This year, hundreds of Trump supporters held a boat rally at Lake Pueblo and others participated in car parades.
“Down here in Pueblo, there’s a lot more enthusiasm than last time,” he said in a recent interview. “There is a lot more visibility in terms of signs for the president than there was last time and they came out a lot earlier, as well.”
Democrats see a different landscape, too. They argue the president’s record is littered with broken promises about a blue collar renaissance in Colorado’s Rust Belt.
“He made us a lot of promises here. He really did,” said state Rep. Daneya Esgar, a Pueblo Democrat. “He didn’t fulfill those promises.”
Democrats say Trump’s failed record will reverse their fortunes in 2020
Looking back on the 2016 election, Democrats feel Clinton lost in Pueblo because she didn’t run a campaign that connected with the city’s voters.
“Trump won in 2016 because he talked about the trade issues and the loss of American jobs in a way that really resonated with Pueblo voters,” said Sal Pace, a Democrat who formerly served as a state lawmaker and Pueblo County commissioner. “In Pueblo, you really have to address those blue collar issues.”
The campaign’s failure to win Pueblo is a microcosm that helps explain why Democrats lost major swing states in the Midwest — and the White House — in the 2016 election.
In 2012, Obama won Pueblo with 55.8% compared to 41.9% for Republican candidate Mitt Romney. Four years later, Democratic support fell 10 points. Trump won 46.1% compared to 45.6% for Clinton in 2016, state figures show.
Three of the other four Colorado counties that flipped from Obama to Trump are clustered in southern Colorado: Huerfano, Las Animas and Conejos. The other is Chaffee County in the central part of the state. All are small rural counties.
Colorado Senate President Leroy Garcia, a Pueblo Democrat, says Trump convinced Puebloans that he was going to help the city bounce back from a reduction in steel working jobs. But the revival didn’t materialize — even before the coronavirus hit.
“Four years ago, the way I would describe it is: People — and maybe especially in Pueblo — were willing to take a gamble on Trump with the expectation that things would get better,” Garcia said. “Things aren’t any better. Things are actually worse.”
Garcia says Trump has failed to respond to the coronavirus crisis, drive down health care costs and support veterans. “I think as you look at all of those things, there’s less willingness to roll the dice and say ‘let’s give him four more years,’” Garcia said.
Andy Baca, a 59-year-old Democratic voter who works in construction, said many of his colleagues backed Trump in 2016, but this time around are telling him they won’t do it again.
“They just don’t like him no more,” he said. “They’re going to vote blue. They’re going to vote Biden.”
His wife, Janet, thinks voters in Pueblo were complacent in 2016 and that’s why Trump won. “Hopefully,” she said, “it’s different this time.”
Curtis Radford, a 62-year-old Democratic voter from Pueblo, thinks Trump won’t win this time because Democrats now have a presidential candidate Puebloans are more likely to back.
“I think Biden is not Hillary Clinton,” he said. “It’s hard to dislike Biden.”
Pueblo flipped from Obama and now GOP support is more visible
The county’s voter registration numbers show it is majority Democratic at 37%, compared to 25% Republican, according to state data through Oct. 1. Another 36% are unaffiliated with any political party.
But since 2016, Democratic registration decreased 8%, while the GOP increased 4%, a Colorado Sun analysis found. The portion of unaffiliated voters jumped 18%.
Even if they are outnumbered, the visible support for Trump this year is what gives Republicans hope Pueblo will once again vote for Trump despite the dismal prospects evident in statewide polls.
Republicans are walking door-to-door to turn out voters in Pueblo — unlike the Democratic Party, which is mostly employing a digital outreach strategy amid public health concerns over the coronavirus.
Marla Reichert, the county Republican Party chairwoman, said the canvassing operation is well ahead of four years ago. As was true four years ago, she’s hearing from registered Democrats and union members who are ready to back Trump.
“They just don’t buy into all the radicalism that has taken over the Democrat Party,” she said. “We want the America we grew up with.”
In Pueblo, the Trump campaign is pushing a message focused on Biden’s remarks about the oil and gas industry. Biden has struggled to reassure voters that he doesn’t support a ban on fracking on private land, especially after he vowed in the final presidential debate to “transition away from the oil industry.”
The Evraz steel mill, a major employer in the city that recently announced an expansion after earlier layoffs, makes pipelines for the energy industry. The manufacturing economy didn’t see a rebound, but Reichert said at least Trump is “not going to destroy the fossil fuel industry.”
The local economy is still “off-kilter, struggling,” said Rivera, the former county GOP leader, but he rejected Democratic finger-pointing. It’s the fault of the pandemic and not Trump, he said.
Megan, a 45-year-old Republican voter who owns a small business near Pueblo’s Riverwalk, a promenade along the Arkansas River, said she will vote for Trump again in 2020 “because I’m back in business.”
“I do like his economic policies,” she said, declining to give her last name because of the partisan tension in Pueblo. She said she fears losing customers because of her political allegiance.
She said she doesn’t love Trump, but that she’s concerned about the more liberal influence of Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris, should he win the election.
Caylie Stearly, 25, said Trump “has been great for our nation” and she plans to vote for him. She works in retail and spent part of Saturday hanging out by the riverwalk with her husband, Cody.
Cody Stearly said Trump is “the obvious choice, as far as I’m concerned,” explaining that the Black Lives Matter group has pushed him further toward Republicans.
Pueblo a critical swing turf for down-ballot races, too
The jostling to win Pueblo extends down the ballot. It’s an important swing county in Colorado’s hotly contested U.S. Senate race.
Democrat John Hickenlooper, the former governor, has made several visits to Pueblo as part of his campaign, taking the stage at Saturday’s rally to declare Republican policies bad for southern Colorado. It was one of his final in-person events of the election cycle, aimed at highlighting Pueblo’s importance to him.
“If you’re a Democrat,” he told The Sun after his speech, “you want to do well in Pueblo.”
The final television ad for Gardner’s campaign focuses on Pueblo, touting the senator’s work to secure funding for the Arkansas Valley Conduit and ensure drinking water for the region. His aides say that was intentional — Gardner sees southern Colorado as critical to securing a second term.
In 2014, even though Gardner lost the county by 306 votes, the close margin helped keep him viable statewide. Hickenlooper won the county, beating his GOP opponent by 5 percentage points — a crucial margin that gave him a second term as governor in a strong Republican year.
Pueblo also is critical in the race for the sprawling 3rd Congressional District, which stretches from the city across southern Colorado to the Western Slope.
Former state Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush, a Steamboat Springs Democrat, is running against Republican upstart Lauren Boebert of Rifle, who ousted five-term Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton in the party primary.
Democrats can’t win the district without a solid showing in Pueblo to even out the Republican-heavy vote in Grand Junction.
“It’s impossible without winning Pueblo,” said Pace, the former state lawmaker who lost his bid in the 3rd District in 2012. “And more so you have to win Pueblo by a good margin. I think a Democrat needs to win Pueblo by at least 10 points.”
Mitsch Bush’s campaign knows Pueblo is critical to her success, but it’s not clear if the Democratic support for Biden will help them.
Mitsch Bush ran to unseat Tipton in 2018. She was the only Democrat on the ballot to lose in Pueblo that year, with the exception of the county coroner. Mitsch Bush fell short by about 1,200 votes and lost the broader district by 8 percentage points.
Mitsch Bush is not holding any in-person campaign events because of the coronavirus crisis, but she has appeared on virtual events targeting Pueblo and positioned a campaign staffer in the city. Her campaign says it has spent about $900,000 on television ads in the market, about the equivalent of its total television ad spending two years ago.
Between those efforts and the fact that Boebert is a first-time candidate, Mitsch Bush’s campaign is feeling confident.
“Diane lost the county by a slim, 2-point margin to a well-known incumbent,” said Ashley Quenneville, Mitsch Bush’s campaign manager. “We’re excited about the gap we’re going to close that gap this time around. We also have key validators for Pueblo, one of which is the endorsement of the steelworkers and the endorsement of The Pueblo Chieftain.”
Boebert’s spokeswoman did not respond to a message seeking an interview. But Boebert has made several appearances in Pueblo in recent months, including with the Trump campaign in July and nodded to the city’s electoral importance.
“Pueblo County is very important,” Boebert told local television station KOAA-TV. “Here, there are a lot of registered Democrats, but the Democrats here are blue-collared Democrats. They love life. They love the Second Amendment. They love America.”
Reichert, the county GOP leader, said the congressional contest is a close race and tied to how Trump performs. “I would expect the people who are voting for Trump are going to vote for Lauren,” she said.