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House Minority Leader Hugh McKean gives remarks on Jan. 12, 2022 in Denver at the start of Colorado’s General Assembly’s 2022 session. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

One of the most closely watched Colorado statehouse primaries this year remained too close to call Wednesday with the two Democratic candidates vying to represent central Denver’s House District 6 separated by fewer than 500 votes.

Elisabeth Epps, a criminal justice activist, was leading Katie March, a former legislative aide, on Wednesday evening in a race framed as a tug of war over the future of the House Democratic caucus in the legislature. Incumbent Democratic state lawmakers’ endorsements were split between the candidates.

Denver Public Schools board member Tay Anderson (left) and activist, Elisabeth Epps and address a large crowd of demonstrators during a Black Lives Matter march to emphasize the need for more black educators in schools outside of East High School in Denver, June 7, 2020. (Kevin Mohatt, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Epps had 7,460 to March’s 7,087 as of Wednesday evening. It is possible the race heads to a mandatory recount, triggered when the difference in votes between candidates is less than 0.5% of the leading candidate’s total votes.

The Democratic House District 6 contest was the most expensive legislative primary of 2022. 

Katie March. (Campaign photo)

March spent more than $161,000, while Epps spent nearly $127,000. But outside groups spent close to $467,000, with $221,000 supporting March, $142,000 supporting Epps and $104,000 opposing Epps. 

LuLu Scully, a 20-year-old Democrat who works an intern in the public defender’s office, voted for Epps, whose criminal justice work resonated with her.

“I think Elisabeth Epps is really awesome,” Scully told The Colorado Sun, speaking at a polling place in central Denver. “She was a former public defender. I work for the public defender’s office right now and that’s something I really care about. That’s a unique experience if you really care about criminal justice reform. That’s a really awesome person to have in office — someone who is a former public defender.”

Another voter who backed Epps was Robert Johnson, a 53-year-old unaffiliated voter in Denver who said he was driven to cast a ballot in the Democratic primary this year by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

The winner of the House District 6 Democratic primary is all but guaranteed to win the general election in November given the district’s solidly Democratic electorate.

House minority leader hangs on

Hugh McKean, the top Republican in the Colorado House, fended off a GOP primary challenger on Tuesday.

McKean beat Austin Hein, who used to work for the House Republican caucus and is an ally of McKean’s rival, former House Minority Leader Patrick Neville. As of Wednesday morning, McKean was leading by 10 percentage points.

Hein is a gun rights activist whose candidacy was backed by Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, a far-right group aligned with Neville. 

House Minority Leader Hugh McKean gives remarks on Jan. 12, 2022 in Denver at the start of Colorado’s General Assembly’s 2022 session. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Outside groups spent nearly $295,000 supporting McKean in the House District 51 race in Loveland and about $31,000 opposing Hein. RMGO reported spending $1,400 on mailers supporting Hein.

“I am excited,” McKean said Tuesday night, saying he thought his win was “a rejection of all the negative, nasty politicking we usually see and certainly the folks in Loveland appreciate the work we’ve done.” 

“I’m humbled and honored,” he added. 

McKean should win the general election in the heavily Republican district.

Incumbents faced challenges, but prevailed

In addition to McKean, several other incumbents fended off primary challengers.

Senate District 9: Republican state Sen. Paul Lundeen easily defeated retired Air Force Lt. Col. Lynda Zamora Wilson. He spent about $85,000 to Wilson’s $6,700. Outside groups spent more than $63,000 supporting Lundeen, the Republican minority whip who is slated to become a leader of his caucus. The El Paso County district is solidly Republican so Lundeen is expected to also win the general election.

House District 21: Republican state Rep. Mary Bradfield beat back challenger Karl Dent, who is on probation for felony trespassing. She won nearly two-thirds of the vote in her GOP stronghold district in Colorado Springs. Bradfield spent about $20,000, including $12,000 she loaned to her campaign, through June 22. Dent spent $8,400, including $5,600 he loaned his campaign. Outside groups spent nearly $73,000 supporting Bradfield. 

Bradfield was initially kept off the ballot after she narrowly lost to Dent at the March GOP House District 21 assembly. A Denver judge, however, ruled that the original assembly vote should be tossed out because one delegate was illegally credentialed. The assembly reconvened and Bradfield secured a spot on the ballot.

Bradfield would be favored to win the general election in the heavily Republican district.

House District 25: GOP state Rep. Colin Larson easily defeated challenger Dede Wagner, his best primary-contest showing in three election cycles in his southern Jefferson County district. He spent $12,000, more than twice as much as Wagner, while outside groups spent $25,000 supporting him. Larson will face Democratic state Sen. Tammy Story, who was drawn out of her district, in a competitive general election contest.

House District 42: Democratic state Rep. Mandy Lindsay had a 16 percentage point lead over former city of Aurora employee Gail Pough in this solidly Democratic seat in Aurora. Lindsay was appointed earlier this year to replace former Rep. Dominique Jackson, who took a job in the Biden administration. Lindsay spent about $7,800 to Pough’s more than $11,000. Outside groups spent about $164,000 supporting Lindsay and more than $26,000 supporting Pough.

House District 63: State Rep. Richard Holtorf, a controversial Republican lawmaker who this year dropped a firearm in the Capitol, defeated Eckley Mayor Jessie Vance in House District 63 on the Eastern Plains. Holtorf spent about $34,000, while Vance spent nearly $18,000. There is no Democrat in the contest. 

Other competitive House and Senate contests

House District 17: Democrat Regina English, an education advocate, led political campaign staffer Mischa Smith for the Colorado Springs-area seat being vacated by state Rep. Tony Exum Sr. Exum endorsed English, who is treasurer of the Harrison School District 2 Board of Education. Outside groups spent nearly $183,000 supporting Smith.

House District 34: Jenny Willford, of Westminster, led Sam Nizam, of Thornton, in this safely Democratic open seat in Adams County. It was the third most expensive legislative primary contest with $160,000 supporting Willford and $157,000 supporting Nizam. Willford spent $53,000 on her campaign through June 22 to Nizam’s $26,000.

House District 45: Douglas County Assessor Lisa Frizell handily defeated Bill Jack, a Christian educator, in this Castle Rock district. She took 56% of the vote. Frizell spent nearly $83,000, of which $65,000 was her own money, while Jack spent $42,000. Outside groups spent $179,000 supporting Frizell and nearly $73,000 opposing Jack.

House District 44: Republican Anthony Hartsook, a combat veteran and director of the Future Freedom Foundation, defeated Terry Dodd to replace outgoing GOP state Rep. Kim Ransom. Hartsook faces Bob Henry in November in the solidly Republican district. Outside groups spent more than $82,000 supporting Hartsook.

House District 57: Small business owner Elizabeth Velasco took 64% of the vote to defeat lawyer Cole Buerger in this district centered in Glenwood springs. The winner faces GOP state Rep. Perry Will in a district that is now heavily Democratic. Buerger spent about $43,000, more than half of that his own money, while Velasco spent about $52,000. Outside groups spent nearly $138,000 supporting Velasco and about $74,000 supporting Buerger.

Senate District 11: State Rep. Tony Exum defeated Colorado Springs City Councilwoman Yolanda Avila with 55% of the vote. He’ll face Republican Sen. Dennis Hisey, who moved into the district after lines were redrawn. The district is considered a toss-up, and a key to Republicans retaking the state Senate.

Senate District 27: Businessman Tom Kim defeated JulieMarie Shepherd Macklin, an academic and small business owner who served on the 2021 Colorado redistricting commission. Kim will face Democratic state Rep. Tom Sullivan in one of the most competitive state Senate contests in the fall. Shepherd Macklin spent more than $45,000 to Kim’s $38,000. Outside groups spent more than $30,000 supporting Kim.  

Colorado Sun staff writers Jesse Paul and Tatiana Flowers contributed reporting.

UPDATED: This story was updated at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, June 29, 2022, with the latest ballot returns.

Shannon Najmabadi covered rural affairs and the rural economy for The Colorado Sun from 2021-2023.