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The Senate Chamber at the Colorado State Capitol on Jan. 8, 2020. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Democratic state lawmakers boosted their majority in the state Senate by one seat and maintained their strong numbers in the House after balloting ended Tuesday.

But new House leadership, 16 new lawmakers, a continuing pandemic and the budget fallout from a voter-approved tax cut may make for challenging times in the 2021 General Assembly.

Senate Democrats will hold a 20-15 majority, after Democrat Chris Kolker won an open Senate seat in Centennial vacated by a retiring Republican.

In the House, the Democratic majority will remain 41-24 after the party picked up one seat in the Denver suburbs but lost a district in Pueblo, preliminary results show.

“After a wave year in 2018, we were able to come in govern and be bold and solve problems for people across the state, and people rewarded that boldness by sending the same number of folks back to Capitol,” said House Democratic leader Alec Garnett, a Denver lawmaker poised to become the chamber’s new speaker.

Even though Democrats picked up a seat in the state Senate, Republican strategists and legislative leaders cheered two apparent victories by GOP incumbents who faced costly challenges.

In Adams County, Sen. Kevin Priola led Democrat Paula Dickerson by more than 1,300 votes Wednesday and appeared headed to victory. In western Colorado, Sen. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, held a 986-vote margin over Karl Hanlon, a Democrat from Glenwood Springs.

Both candidates outperformed the level of support for President Donald Trump, who lost Colorado by 13 percentage points. Senate GOP leader Chris Holbert said a message of partisan balance resonated with voters. “We were confident that Republicans would turn out and that we would see an increase … on Election Day,” the Parker lawmaker said.

Democrats targeted the open seat won by Kolker and felt confident in its direction from the start. In the final days, Republicans stopped spending on their candidate, Suzanne Staiert, and Democrats said that gave them an opening to redirect dollars to dislodge Priola and Rankin.

Priola’s race became the most expensive in the state at nearly $3.9 million.

“The bottom-line goal was to get to 20,” said Sen. Steve Fenberg, the Senate majority leader. 

The results suggested the predictions for another Democratic wave election, built by huge margins of victory at the top of the ticket, didn’t materialize for its statehouse candidates down the ballot.

Still, the party managed to hold three of the four battleground districts in the state House that it won in 2018. Reps. Lisa Cutter, Brianna Titone and Tom Sullivan all held their ground. 

But first-year Rep. Bri Buentello appeared headed for a loss to Republican Stephanie Luck in a rural Pueblo district, despite a deluge of spending from Democrats and unaffiliated groups.

In a pick up, disabled veteran David Ortiz defeated incumbent GOP Rep. Richard Champion, in a Littleton-area district.

“I think that the suburbs, especially women in the suburbs, broke toward our Democratic candidates,” said Garnett, the current House majority leader. In Pueblo, he said, the voter makeup of the district made it a harder seat to win.

Rep. Hugh McKean, a Loveland Republican and contender for House minority leader, said the final tally shows that “Colorado is not nearly as blue as people like to say it is.” He added: “But it’s not as red as we wish.”

Much will change heading into 2021 session, including the leaders

Plenty of open questions mark the legislative session that starts Jan. 13. Term limits account for four new senators and nine new representatives.

Women will hold a majority of seats in the state House in 2021, according to Michal Rosenoer, executive director of Emerge Colorado, a program training Democratic women to run for office.

“This makes it the second cycle in a row where Colorado voters have elected historic numbers of women to the state legislature,” she said. “The fact that the Democrats were able to pick up one vote in the state Senate is kind of a big deal.”

The leadership on both sides of the aisle in the House will change this year. In addition to Garnett moving into the top job, state Rep. Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock, is stepping down as minority leader in the House. A two- or possible three-way GOP race to replace him is emerging ahead of a vote expected next week.

In the Senate, Democratic leadership will remain constant at the top, but Republicans are considering moving Sen. Paul Lundeen, R-Monument, into the top job now held by Holbert. Holbert said he is open to the move because he’s entering the final term, but he may remain in place.

Fiscal issues rather than ideological battles are front of mind

In approaching the new term, a shift in the Republican mindset may take hold. 

Tyler Sandberg, a Republican consultant who also works for education reform group Ready Colorado, said he expects his party to lessen its focus on social issues, and “get much more wise to fiscal issues.”

“That Republican Party brand is damaged, but not its policies,” Sandberg said. “Colorado is still a small ‘l’ libertarian state. We love guns, God, gays and ganja, but not government.” 

Likewise, former Republican Rep. Polly Lawrence said newly elected GOP lawmakers are “equally as conservative, but maybe more on fiscal issues than on social issues.” 

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Both parties believe fiscal issues will dominate the legislative session, given the ongoing pandemic and limits on businesses and social gatherings. “People and businesses need to recover together,” said Alvina Vasquez, who helped elect Gov. Jared Polis in 2018 and advised Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. The question, she said, is “how do we make sure the bottom doesn’t fall out under the weight of COVID?” 

Helping businesses and essential workers survive is part of a major stimulus plan announced by the governor, but the question is whether the money exists to finance the plan. In the election, voters approved an income-tax cut for the current year that will reduce revenue by more than $150 million a year. In addition, voters approved the creation of a new paid family leave program by levying a small payroll tax on employers and employees. 

“There’s always room for the opportunity to work together, but it depends on how progressive the Democrats are,” Lawrence said. “If they’re not willing to compromise with their Republican counterparts, I don’t see much room to work together.”

Fenberg, the No. 2 Democrat in the state Senate, said the next session is “primarily going to be about our economic recovery — there are not going to be strong ideological fights when people are going bankrupt and businesses are closing and people are massively unemployed.”

John Frank

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

Sandra Fish

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @fishnette