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Politics and Government

The top story in Colorado politics in 2020 — and what to expect in 2021

The coronavirus pandemic dominated headlines inside and outside politics, but the U.S. Senate race also ranked high on the list

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If you enjoy politics, 2020 didn’t disappoint. And if you don’t, it probably left your head spinning.

The year started with talk about the impeachment of President Donald Trump, the Democratic presidential primary and the battle for a U.S. Senate seat in Colorado. Then, the pandemic quickly upended the political landscape — and the conversation.

The politics of public health soon came to dominate the discussion in top-of-the-ticket races and at the state Capitol, where Gov. Jared Polis and other Democratic leaders found themselves confronting a once-in-a-generation challenge a year after assuming complete control in Colorado.

To look back on the big political stories in 2020, The Colorado Sun reached out to experts and readers for their thoughts on the year in politics — and what to expect in the new year. More than three dozen answered the annual survey. Here’s a look at the results.

The top story in Colorado politics in 2020

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis delivers an address from the governor’s mansion in Denver on April 6, 2020. Polis said then that the state of Colorado would extend a statewide stay-at-home order from April 11 through April 26 due to coronavirus. (Pool photo by AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post)

The state’s response to COVID-19 emerged as the top story in Colorado politics — but it had stiff competition.

Colorado’s governor made himself the face of the state’s response to the pandemic, and it didn’t take long for the public health crisis to become a political one.

COVID-19 IN COLORADO

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Polis won early praise for his response, but big questions and criticism from Republicans began to mount. His delayed — and politically difficult — decisions to issue a lockdown order and mask mandate marked big moments, as did his presidential-style statewide address at the start.

Polis became the chief promoter of social distancing and masks, even appearing in television commercials, but COVID-19 became all too real for him at the end of the year when he and his partner contracted the virus. His partner, Marlon Reis, experienced complications that led the governor to drive him to the hospital in early December.

Democratic challenger and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper participate in the final debate with Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner in the 2020 race for Colorado’s U.S. Senate seat at Colorado State University in Fort Collins on Oct. 13, 2020. (Bethany Baker, The Coloradoan/Pool photo)

The runner-up: John Hickenlooper’s win in the U.S. Senate race. 

All the attention on COVID-19 didn’t distract from Hickenlooper’s big win over U.S. Sen Cory Gardner, who was once hailed as the future of the Republican Party. The political winds in Colorado foreshadowed the former Democratic governor’s victory, and at the end, the race wasn’t even close.

The other big storylines included Republican Lauren Boebert’s upset win over U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton in the party primary and her victory in November over Democrat Diane Mitsch Bush. The presidential election consumed all the attention at the national level, but finished more distant in the minds of Colorado political watchers.

MORE: How the Cardboard Cory protest in Colorado helped Democrats defeat Gardner in the U.S. Senate race

The predictions for biggest political story in 2021

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signs the state’s budget into law on June 23, 2020, while surrounded by Democratic members of the Joint Budget Committee. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Looking ahead to 2021, the coronavirus remains front of mind for political observers. But the survey found the top story to watch in the new year is the state budget.

Each year, Colorado lawmakers wrestle with a series of competing priorities when it comes to spending the roughly $11 billion in discretionary money available. But it’s even more difficult now amid the pandemic and dire needs across the state.

MORE: Colorado’s fiscal future looks brighter. Now lawmakers must decide how to spend the unexpected windfall.

Sara Chatfield, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Denver, put it succinctly. She says the challenges include “how to balance the budget given what will likely be limited federal support.”

Right now, the fiscal picture doesn’t look too dismal. But tough decisions loom as the lawmakers crafting the annual budget decide how to allocate money to three key areas:

  • Restoring money to programs that took deep cuts in the current fiscal year
  • Accommodating growth in demand for state services amid an uncertain outlook
  • Demands for major government spending to stimulate the local economy

The governor is pushing for the later. He put forward a $1.3 billion stimulus package he says will create 10,000 to 15,000 jobs.

The sign at the movie theater in downtown Greeley on April 24, 2020, which closed amid the coronavirus outbreak. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

The runner-up: The state’s recovery from the pandemic. 

The coronavirus won’t disappear overnight, and the state has months to go when it comes to addressing the crisis, not to mention a years-long recovery. So how the Polis administration manages the pandemic response in the next year is something many are watching.

MORE: Colorado isn’t changing its vaccine priority plan for now, despite new federal recommendations

The other topics expected to make big headlines in the new year include the rollout of the vaccine in Colorado, the debut of the state’s new redistricting commissions and the battle for the soul of the Republican Party, which elects a new chairman after suffering major losses in the prior two elections.

The name to watch in Colorado politics in 2021

Lauren Boebert, right, won Colorado’s 3rd District election in November 2020. Ahead of the election, she attended a rally and took a selfie with Mike Pinnt in Grand Junction on Nov. 2, 2020. (Barton Glasser, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Lauren Boebert is quickly becoming the face of the Republican Party in Colorado, and she’s the one that political observers are watching in 2021.

The first-time candidate and gun-slinging restaurant owner managed to defeat a decade-long incumbent in the GOP primary by running as a more Trumpian conservative. In the general election, she fended off national Democratic attacks and major questions about her prior remarks about the Qanon conspiracy theory to win the 3rd Congressional District seat.

MORE: 3 numbers that explain Republican Lauren Boebert’s victory in Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District

Democrats are even speculating about whether she will run for U.S. Senate against Democratic incumbent Michael Bennet. “She’s shown that she has strong support from the base and would be a frontrunner to win the Republican primary if she wants it,” says Dan Baer, a former Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate.

Even as a newcomer, she is now the most notable Republican in the state party and her allegiance to Trump and brand of bomb-throwing politics are sure to set the tone for the next year.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, left, makes a few remarks to the media as he watches Gina Harper, clinical coordinator with pharmacy, reconstitute a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine before it is administered to the first patients in Colorado at UC Health Poudre Valley Hospital on Dec. 14, 2020 in Fort Collins. (Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post, Pool)

The runner-up: Jared Polis

The Democratic governor will confront two challenges simultaneously starting in 2021 — the continued fallout from the coronavirus and his 2022 reelection bid. The twin pressures will keep his name in the headlines and the critics vocal

The other organizations and names to watch include the Democratic-led legislature as it navigates policy amid the pandemic and Hickenlooper, who will need to define his approach as an incoming U.S. senator.

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