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Sun glints off buildings late Friday, May 6, 2022, in downtown Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

“A toilet bowl.” “A city that no one wants to come to.” “There’s nobody out there that says Denver’s great anymore.”

Those were three takes on the Mile High City earlier this month from three different Republican state representatives. The remarks were made during a news conference recapping the 2022 legislative session and they raised eyebrows given the upcoming election. 

The Colorado GOP this year, after four years without a majority in either the Colorado House or Senate, is trying to win back some power in November. They will need the support of voters in Denver, a Democratic stronghold, and its surrounding counties, which make up the state’s population center, to do it.

Nineteen of Colorado’s 35 state Senate districts are in or touch Arapahoe, Adams, Boulder, Broomfield, Denver, Douglas and Jefferson counties. When it comes to state House districts, 35 of the 65 districts are either in or include one or more of those metro Denver counties.

In other words: the road to power in the legislature runs through Denver, which, according to several House Republicans, isn’t such a great place.

“They have basically let the downtown area become a toilet bowl,” said Rep. Matt Soper, a Delta Republican. “You feel safe in our part of Colorado.”

House Minority Leader Hugh McKean, R-Loveland, said Denver is a “city out of control,” referencing crime.

“I would challenge anybody that’s saying that Denver is not on a downward spiral,” said Rep. Colin Larson, a Ken Caryl Republican and one of the only GOP lawmakers in the Denver suburbs. “I would just have to say that doesn’t pass the smell test.”

Douglas County, a conservative stronghold, is really the only metro Denver county where Republicans have consistently won in recent election cycles.

The irony is that Republicans often complain when Democrats criticize rural Colorado. Take, for instance, the condemnation leveled at Marlon Reis, Gov. Jared Polis’ husband, last month after a 2021 Facebook comment he posted surfaced.

In the comment, reported on by The Fence Post in a story about controversy surrounding a prairie dog relocation plan, Reis complained about rural Coloradans whining when state and federal money is sent their way. “You’d best learn not to bite the hand that feeds you,” Reis wrote. “Colorado is more than ranchers, and it’s time to adapt rather than complain.”

Kristi Burton Brown, chairwoman of the Colorado GOP, said Reis’ words were “pathetic” and “disgusting.”

Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Vail Democrat who represents rural parts of western Colorado, said Republicans are talking about Denver in the same vein that Democrats have talked about rural areas. Donovan said the GOP, which often complains about the urban-rural divide, should know better. 

“It’s a very dangerous political strategy to create division to try to win elections,” she said.

But McKean said it’s not fair to compare Reis’ remarks to those from him and his caucus. He said he wasn’t castigating any group or person, and that what’s happened in Denver, in his opinion, is the result of Democratic policies. That’s where the politics behind criticizing Denver come in.

“What politics truly is, I think, and especially this year, is a study of contrasts,” he said. “You take a look at what Denver was just a few years ago and the cycle that it’s gone through and in the midst of large policy changes.”

Colorado State Rep. Hugh McKean , R-Loveland, stands for the reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance as the 2022 legislative session opened Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022, in the State Capitol in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

McKean spoke broadly about policies on crime and homelessness. Those are two issues the GOP is promising to tackle if they win in November, along with rising consumer costs.

McKean said the remarks about Denver aren’t part of an election strategy, however. “I think it’s more just a commentary,” he said.

But not every Republican seems to think blasting Denver, whose home prices are soaring as people try to buy into a city with a limited housing supply, is such a good idea.

Sen. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican leading efforts to secure a GOP majority in the Senate, said Thursday night during a Colorado Sun event that he thinks Denver “could do better,” but he’s not sure attacking the capital city is a winning strategy.

“It’s not as safe as it was when I first showed up at the legislature eight years ago,” he said. “Do you build a campaign on that? No. You build a campaign on helping the people of Colorado.”

Even Cole Wist, a former Republican state representative who used to be in the same caucus as McKean, appeared to push back on Twitter.

“Like many metro areas, Denver has some things to work on,”  he posted, “but it is definitely a great city.”

Sen. Chris Hansen, a Denver Democrat weighing a mayoral bid next year, rejected the criticism wholecloth. He thinks the remarks will hurt Republicans in November. 

“Denver definitely has issues like every other city, but this is a wonderful city,” he said. “That is not going to be a winning strategy, I can say with clarity.”

Polis said he doesn’t think the attacks on Denver are ”good politics.”

“I don’t think it ever works to attack part of the state that you want to represent,” he said. “Denver is the cultural capital of our state. You go to Rockies and Broncos and Nuggets games. No area of the state is perfect, but we all value every part of the state. I love Grand Junction. I love Colorado Springs. I love Denver. I love Boulder. They’re all great. I don’t think you hear very many — you certainly don’t hear me — attacking parts of the state that are conservative.”

Democrats hold a 20-15 majority in the Colorado Senate and a 41-24 majority in the House.

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....