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Voters drop off their ballots on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021, at the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado voters’ decisions in the 2021 elections left plenty to be dissected Wednesday. 

Here are six big takeaways from the results:

The failure of two conservative-backed ballot measures

As Republican candidates have lost in Colorado over the past two election cycles, conservatives have placed more emphasis on trying to advance their policies through ballot initiatives. And they had some success — until Tuesday.

Both Amendment 78, which sought to require more legislative oversight of spending, and Proposition 120, which would have lowered some property taxes, were rejected by wide margins. In fact, they didn’t even do well in conservative parts of the state, including Mesa, Douglas and El Paso counties. 

The ballot measures also failed despite that there was no serious money spent to oppose them.

Michael Fields, the head of the conservative fiscal nonprofit Colorado Rising Action who led the push for both measures, blamed the initiatives’ failure on voter confusion. He says he will pursue tax-cutting ballot questions every year into the forseeable future, and Tuesday’s results don’t necessarily change his plans.

“I don’t know if these (results) have any further ability to project what’s going to happen next year,” he said. “I don’t think Republicans are going to stop putting stuff on the ballot. You can’t win them all.”

While liberal groups that opposed Amendment 78 and Proposition 120 were pleasantly surprised by their defeat, they weren’t exactly jumping for joy.

“I think this is a strategic inflection point,” said Scott Wasserman, who leads the liberal-leaning Bell Policy Center, a fiscal policy advocacy nonprofit. “I think for our side, the worst possible lesson they could take away from these results is complacency.”

Proposition 119 was a big bust

One surprise of election night was how poorly Proposition 119 fared despite the support of some big-name politicians, including Gov. Jared Polis. 

As of Wednesday morning, only five counties had voted in support of the ballot measure, which would have hiked recreational marijuana sales taxes to pay for out-of-school learning. The measure was failing by 9 percentage points statewide as of 11 a.m. Wednesday.

We will let the county-results map below speak for itself:

Republicans win in Aurora, Douglas County

Despite the defeat of their ballot measures, conservatives were celebrating Tuesday night because of their apparent wins in Aurora City Council and Douglas County School Board races. 

“​​The big story is big wins in Douglas County and Aurora,” said Joseph Jackson, executive director of the Colorado GOP.

Four Republican-backed candidates for Aurora City Council — Steve Sundberg, Jono Scott, Dustin Zvonek and Danielle Jurinsky — were headed toward victory. The one apparent loss for the GOP was Bill Gondrez, who was running to represent Ward 1 on the city council.

City council elections in Colorado are nonpartisan, but given Aurora’s Democratic lean the GOP was taking their candidates’ victories as a positive sign heading into the 2022 election season. 

In Douglas County, three conservative school board candidates won their races and a fourth was trending toward victory. The winning candidates will make up a majority of the school board.

Republican-backed candidates also won local elections in Westminster, Loveland, Commerce City and Thornton.

Jackson called the results “a harbinger of what is to come in 2022.” Colorado GOP Chairwoman Kristi Burton Brown said Republicans won in areas of the state that have traditionally been Democratic strongholds because of Democrats’ policies. 

Ian Silverii, a Democratic political consultant, called it “preposterous” to think that Republican-backed candidates winning in Aurora means the GOP will have success in 2022 races when control of the statehouse and the congressional delegation will be up for grabs. 

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The real reason the conservative candidates in Aurora won, he said, is because of spending by dark-money groups, which are called that because they don’t have to disclose their donors, and because the ballot didn’t inform voters the candidates were Republicans.

The Republican-leaning nonprofit Colorado Rising State Action, a dark-money group, put at least $450,000 into a political committee called Aurorans for a Safe and Prosperous Future that supported Zvonek, Gondrez, Sundberg and Scott. The committee paid for digital ads, mailers and door hangers supporting those candidates.

Morgan Carroll, chair of the Colorado Democratic Party, said Democrats had wins in school board contests in Jefferson and Larimer counties, as well in municipal elections in Delta County, Montrose County and Pueblo.

“That being said,” Carroll added in a written statement, “last night’s election showed what we’ve always believed, that we can take no vote or election for granted.”

Conservative spending didn’t work in Denver 

Denver’s long ballot included three questions backed by Republicans and a conservative dark-money group. All of them failed.

The initiatives were:

  • 2F, which sought to make it illegal for five unrelated adults to live together
  • 303, which sought to cap the city’s sanctioned campsites for people who are homeless and force Denver to move more quickly to remove illegal campsites
  • 304, which would have capped the city’s sales tax rate at 4.5%

The ballot measures were funded by Defend Colorado, a conservative nonprofit that doesn’t have to disclose its donors and hence is called a dark-money group.

An election official, Barbara Brewer, collects the ballots at the vehicle drop-off location in front of Mesa County Central Services on Tuesday, November 2, 2021, in Grand Junction. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Defend Colorado spent more than $319,000 on digital ads and mailings supporting 2F and 303 after spending $325,000 to help get the measures on the ballot. For 304, Defend Colorado paid to help get it on the ballot.

Denver liberals were celebrating the failure of the initiatives.

“Last night housing options won,” Denver Councilwoman Robin Kniech tweeted. “Inclusivity won. Facing our challenges head on, investing in proven solutions and perseverance won. Dark, out-of-town money lost.”

Turnout bounced back on Election Day, but there were interesting trends

Turnout for the 2021 election looked like it was going to be lower than in prior odd-year contests in Colorado, but a last-minute surge in ballots propelled returns to more than 1.4 million and well above what they were in 2019 and 2017. 

One change over the past three election cycles is that unaffiliated voters turned out in larger numbers than Republicans and Democrats. In 2017 and 2019, more Republicans voted than unaffiliated voters and Democrats.

While more Republicans still voted this year than Democrats, they did so by a lesser margin, according to ballot counts though 5 p.m. on Election Day. 

“Clearly Republicans stayed home,” Wasserman said of why the conservative-backed statewide ballot measures failed.

Fields thinks turnout didn’t contribute at all to the failure of his ballot measures, however.

“It all comes down to how unaffiliated voters vote,” he said.

And Burton Brown said she, too, was pleased with Republican turnout this year.

What happened in Virginia and New Jersey

On the national level, political observers are dissecting what happened in Virginia, where Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe lost to Republican Glenn Youngkin. That’s despite it being a state President Joe Biden won in 2020 by a hefty 10 percentage-point margin.

New Jersery’s gubernatorial race was even more of a shocker. Democratic incumbent Phil Murphy was in a close race with Republican Jack Ciattarelli on Wednesday. Biden carried New Jersey by more than 15 percentage points in 2020. 

The New Jersey gubernatorial race this year was not expected to be close.

The results in New Jersey and Virginia prompted Sabato’s Crystal Ball, an election prognosticator at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, to downgrade Colorado’s 2022 U.S. Senate race, in which Democratic incumbent Michael Bennet will be running for election, from “safe Democratic” to “likely Democratic.”

Bennet “could potentially be vulnerable if 2022 turns into a GOP mega-wave,” Sabato’s Crystal Ball wrote in a memo dissecting the results.

Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bennet, D-Colo., arrives for a campaign stop at the Spotlight Room at the Palace, Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020, in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

“If Biden’s approval rating is in the low- to mid-40s next year, as it is now, everything we know about political trends and history suggests that the Democrats’ tiny majorities in the House and Senate are at major risk of becoming minorities,” the memo said.

Gov. Jared Polis, who is up for reelection next year, blasted out a fundraising email warning that what happened in Virginia could happen in Colorado.

“We know the same special interests that poured millions into attack ads in Virginia are going to throw everything they’ve got into reversing the progress we’ve made here in our state,” the email said.

Burton Brown, the chairwoman of the Colorado GOP, said she expects national Republicans to invest in Colorado next year like they did in Virginia. 

“Our state is very reflective of the Virginia electorate,” she said.

Colorado Sun correspondent Sandra Fish contributed to this report.

Jesse Paul

The Colorado Sun — Desk: 720-432-2229 Jesse Paul is a political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is...