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State Sen. Kevin Priola, a Republican from Henderson, walks the neighborhoods of Adams County as he works to get reelected. (Provided by Priola campaign)

State Sen. Kevin Priola was the most bipartisan lawmaker in Colorado last year, a moderate Republican who sided with Democrats more often than any of his GOP colleagues. 

He was the lone Republican senator to support state tracking of greenhouse gas emissions, and the only one to join Democrats in a failed attempt to get voters to forgo constitutionally required tax refunds to generate money for schools and roads. 

At the Capitol, Democrats consider the Adams County lawmaker a genuinely good guy, a thoughtful policymaker, and a friend, even. 

But this is politics. And at election time, the size of the majority in the state legislature is purely a numbers game.

That’s what puts the moderate Republican in the Colorado legislature at the center of the most expensive legislative race in the state, one in which dark-money funded super PACs are pouring cash into both sides in a district that can swing either way. 

Outside spending on the race exceeds $3.8 million, making it the most expensive legislative race in the state, a Colorado Sun analysis showed. Of that, 44% is going to TV spots, digital ads and mailers opposing Priola. The amount towers over the $49,000 spent by Priola’s campaign by mid-October and the $80,000 spent by his Democratic challenger, kindergarten teacher Paula Dickerson.

State Sen. Kevin Priola, center, is competing in the most expensive legislative race in Colorado in the 2020 election. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Priola, 47, has been knocking on doors from morning until sundown, while political newcomer Dickerson is teaching kindergarteners by day and dropping literature on doorsteps on evenings and weekends. At least, she was until she was exposed to COVID-19 by one of her students and went on a two-week quarantine that ends this weekend. 

Nasty television ads and mailers funded by a Republican super PAC are highlighting Dickerson’s two bankruptcies, claiming she isn’t fit to spend taxpayer dollars. Democrats are attacking Priola’s record on health care and efforts to restrict abortion access. They’re also calling on Adams County’s old-school, blue-collar party loyalists — who may have been turned off by the current, more liberal version of the party — to stand behind a school teacher who is married to a roofer. 

Paula Dickerson, Democratic candidate for the state Senate, attends a rally at the Denver headquarters of the American Federation of Teachers. (Provided by Dickerson campaign)

By all accounts, the race is intense. But for Priola, it doesn’t feel that much different than four years ago, when he defeated a Democrat to take the Senate seat in a race that also ranked as one of the most expensive in the state. The Henderson resident did it by hitting the sidewalks, by knocking the same doors three or four different times until someone opened up to chat. Often, they asked him about his father or his grandfather or the family business, a flower-growing operation called Priola Greenhouses Inc, which the family sold a few years back. 

The main goal this time around, though, is to keep Priola from getting swallowed by a blue wave — to get voters to see him for him instead of a Republican in a county where a majority voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Adams County is one of the last swing counties left in Colorado, a split of 33% Democratic, 22% Republican and 43% unaffiliated. 

“Most candidates get caught up in waves, a red wave or a blue wave,” said Priola’s campaign manager, Ryan Lynch. “But not Kevin, because Kevin actually has relationships with a large number of the voters.”

Priola estimates he’s talked to more people at their doors than he did four years ago — because during the pandemic, people were at home instead of at soccer practice or out for dinner. “They were dying to have actual human contact,” he said. “It’s a wealth of people being willing to let me ask them what was on their minds. In the past, I could count on one out of 10. Now it’s five out of 10 or more.”

The senator wears a glove, offers to put on a mask, and stands 10 feet away. Mostly, people want to talk about how overwhelming life is this year — from job loss to managing online school from home. 

Priola, a real estate developer, tries to separate himself from national politics the same way he politely explains to constituents that the legislature isn’t in charge of whether schools are open or that they should call their city officials to complain about local issues. When folks gripe that he is sending them way too much mail, Priola explains that it’s not actually him, but the political action committees pouring money into the race. 

“It wasn’t me, sorry,” he tells them. “It’s just the nature of the beast.”

The fact that state Democrats would rather widen their majority in the Senate than have him around is no surprise to Priola.

“I’m a big boy. I understand politics,” he said. “It’s a numbers game.”

Dickerson, backed by teacher’s union, wants more school funding

For Dickerson, a political newcomer, the ugliness involved in the race has been a bit shocking. She knew she would have to explain her two bankruptcies, but didn’t realize how it would feel to see the attack ads blasting her credit card debt. 

Dickerson, 51, said her family dug themselves into credit card debt after years of taking care of her mother, a three-time cancer survivor who lives just down the street in a house that Dickerson inherited from her grandparents. Dickerson and her husband helped her mother with her bills, including copays for medical treatment, and when they had tapped out their funds, she said, they began charging credit cards for food and other necessities.

She is on a payment plan to pay off her debt, and is scheduled to make 100% restitution in 2022, she said.

Priola, Dickerson said, “has never had to worry about money and he has never had to make tough decisions.

“It definitely feels like there is a lot at stake, that they are fighting really hard to keep his seat,” she said. “They know this seat can be flipped to blue.”

A mailer sent in Adams County calls out Paula Dickerson, Democratic candidate for the Colorado Senate, for buying a vehicle before she declared bankruptcy.

In a story that’s become familiar among suburban women, Dickerson said she felt motivated after President Donald Trump’s election to get into politics. She felt a “sinking feeling” after the 2016 election and knew “we had a lot of work to do,” she said. A kindergarten teacher for 25 years and active in the teacher’s union, Dickerson enrolled in Emerge, a program that trains Democratic women to run for office. 

Her top issues are health care, gun safety and — as a teacher who sometimes spends her own money on classroom supplies — school funding. She has the support of Moms Demand Action, which fights for tougher laws on gun safety, and the American Federation of Teachers. Dickerson speaks often about the disparity among schools in Adams County, from Commerce City to Brighton and Thornton. 

“Our schools are not failing,” she said, “they’re starving.”

“I know the people of this community,” said Dickerson, who lives in Thornton and works for Adams 12 Five Star Schools. Her husband is a roofing specialist for Jefferson County School District. “I have taught generations of children in this community. I am your neighbor and your public school teacher.” 

Dickerson’s campaign manager, Claire Johnson, is an English language acquisition teacher, helping students understand math and chemistry when English isn’t their first language. She said one of the toughest parts of the campaign has been managing their day jobs along with the campaign. “From our side as educators, it’s been pretty tough knowing everything that is happening out of class but still being present for kids and engaged in teaching all day,” Johnson said. 

“Is the blue tsunami so powerful that there is nothing he can do?”

Democratic super PACs, including Leading Colorado Forward, have spent $1.93 million on the Adams County race, while Republican counterparts, including Unite for Colorado Action, have spent $1.8 million 

Dustin Zvonek, who runs Unite for Colorado Action, said the race is a target because Adams County is shifting. The area was once a Democratic stronghold, but Democratic voters have been soured by what Zvonek called “job-killing regulations,” particularly in the oil and gas industry. Based on the partisan makeup of the county, a Democrat should have won in 2016, but instead it was Priola. 

A mailer from a Democratic super PAC criticizes state Sen. Kevin Priola’s record on health care.

Democrats are spending big to take out Priola, he said, because they see an opportunity, especially in a year when blue wins are predicted. Democrats are hoping Adams County holds its trend lines favoring them. Since 2014, their margin of victory at the top of the ticket races for governor and U.S. Senate have only grown.

“At the end of the day, it’s partisanship,” Zvonek said. “The Democrats who control the state Senate today would much rather have another Democrat than Kevin Priola.”

Tyler Sandberg, a Republican operative who has run various GOP campaigns, said Republicans can still win in working-class Adams County, a place where old-school Democrats don’t fit the “Boulder-Denver identity that is increasingly taking over the Democratic Party.” The union supporters and blue-collar workers of Senate District 25 don’t fit in with the “far left-wing of the party” that doesn’t mind the term Democratic socialist, he said. 

“If candidates and campaigns matter, then Kevin Priola is the best chance of winning his race,” Sandberg said. “He’s the hardest working man in show business. He fits the district really well.”

Priola’s maverick voting record is a selling point to voters, a good fit in a county that is a “stew” of all types of voters and economic classes, Sandberg said. But in 2020, when even Sandberg is predicting a Republican bloodbath, will it matter? 

“Is the blue tsunami so powerful that there is nothing he can do?” Sandberg asked.

For Democrats, who hold a 19-16 majority in the Senate, taking out Priola is nothing personal, though some of them feel a cognitive dissonance as they square their thinking about dark-money PACs trying to boot out their GOP friend. 

But in the end, “picking off Priola is just a core factor of the math,” Sandberg said. 

This is true, Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg said. 

“I like Kevin. We work well with him. I consider him a friend,” Fenberg said. But elections, even local ones, rarely happen on an island, and there is no escaping the national conversation in 2020, he said. 

Fenberg said he didn’t realize Priola’s race would end up this “hotly contested,” but now the Democrats have their sights on increasing its majority. If history is a good indicator, and if there is a Democrat in the White House, the party doesn’t expect to fare as well at midterm elections in 2022. The long-game strategy is to increase the majority this year in the hopes of hanging onto it in 2022. State senators serve four-year terms, so this seat won’t be in contention in two years.

“It’s in our interest in trying to run up the scoreboard this year,” Fenberg said. 

He questions whether GOP attacks on Dickerson’s personal financial struggles will backfire, especially at a time when many families are coping with job loss and faltering businesses. Fenberg said health care is top of mind during a pandemic, and while President Trump wants to disband the Affordable Care Act, he notes that Priola typically voted with his own party on health care bills. Priola was among several Republicans to vote against the 2019 reinsurance legislation to help health insurers pay some of their highest-cost claims, for example. 

“Yes, Kevin Priola is the most moderate Republican in the Senate,” Fenberg said. “I would argue that’s a relatively low bar.” 

Sun correspondent Sandra Fish contributed to this report.

Updated 10 a.m. Oct. 30, 2020: An earlier version of his story misstated the voter registration numbers in Adams County as of Oct. 1. The county is 31% Democrat, 24% Republican and 43% unaffiliated, according to state figures.

Jennifer Brown writes about mental health, the child welfare system, the disability community and homelessness for The Colorado Sun. As a former Montana 4-H kid, she also loves writing about agriculture and ranching. Brown previously...