State Sen. Kevin Priola, center.
State Sen. Kevin Priola, center. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

State Sen. Kevin Priola has switched his party registration to Democrat from Republican, the Henderson lawmaker announced Monday, citing ongoing concerns about the GOP’s embrace of 2020 election conspiracies and unwillingness to work on legislation to combat climate change.

“I cannot continue to be a part of a political party that is OK with a violent attempt to overturn a free and fair election,” Priola wrote in a letter announcing his decision. “There is too much at stake right now for Republicans to be in charge.”

The surprise move less than three months from Election Day improves Democrats’ chances of maintaining their power at the Capitol after the November election. Democrats now outnumber Republicans 21-14 in the Senate as a result of the change, making the GOP’s uphill battle to win a majority in the chamber that much steeper.

Priola is not up for reelection this year — his term ends in January 2025 — but Republicans were hoping to pick up a handful of Senate seats in November and end the Democratic control of the Capitol that’s been in place since January 2019.

Priola’s switch guarantees Democrats 13 Senate seats in January, compared with seven for the GOP. Of the Senate seats up for election in November, three are considered solidly Democratic, five solidly Republican and seven are tossups.

Priola has often voted with Democrats in recent years, bucking his party on issues like climate, immunizations, energy and tax reform. His positions sometimes drew intense ire from his Republican colleagues. In the final days of the 2022 lawmaking term, for instance, he began shouting at state Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, on the Senate floor as Sonnenberg tried to rally the GOP Senate caucus to battle against a recycling bill Priola was sponsoring.

Priola isn’t on board with all of the Democratic caucus’ priorities, however. He is fiercely anti-abortion, signing onto a GOP letter in recent weeks criticizing Democratic Gov. Jared Polis’ recent executive order blocking Colorado’s state entities from cooperating with abortion investigations initiated in other states.

“In nearly every case, rape excepted, life is naturally created by the conscious choice of two individuals aware of the potential outcome of their decisions,” the letter said. “Nowhere in law or morals is it otherwise acceptable to end a life because of the imposition of personal hardship or inconvenience resulting from one’s own deliberate actions.”

The letter concluded that “life begins at conception.”

Priola wrote in his letter that he realizes the political implications of his decision to switch parties and how it benefits Democrats heading into the November election.

He said there will “continue to be issues that I disagree with the Democratic party on.”

In a brief interview with The Colorado Sun on Monday, Priola said he considered stepping down from his seat or becoming an unaffiliated voter before ultimately deciding to become a Democrat. He felt affiliating with the Democratic party gave him the best chance of being effective for his constituents.

“Our political affiliations have become too tribe and too much of a litmus test,” Priola wrote. “I’ve always been an independent thinker and sometimes buck the conventional wisdom of my party — and I don’t plan to change that.”

Senate President Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat, welcomed the news.

“Today, Senator Kevin Priola chose his constituents and Colorado’s future over partisan politics,” Fenberg said in a written statement. “It is unfortunate that the Colorado Republicans have become so extreme that moderate voices aren’t welcome.”

Gov. Jared Polis said in a tweet that he was “proud” to welcome Priola to the Democratic party, calling him a “strong leader on climate issues.”

Senate Minority Leader John Cooke, a Greeley Republican, said Priola’s party affiliation switch wasn’t too surprising given hit votes in the legislature in recent years.

“This event will not change the trajectory of this election cycle, nor the outcome of this year’s fight for the state Senate,” Cooke said, adding that Priola’s constituents “may explore their options for new representation” in an nod to calls for Priola to be recalled.

State Sen. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, on the floor of the state Senate on Feb. 18, 2020. The set up in the chambers will change when the legislative session resumes amid the pandemic. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Kristi Burton Brown, chairwoman of the Colorado GOP, criticized Priola’s move, saying he will regret it in 2023 once Republicans have won a majority in the chamber.

“Kevin Priola finally made the move to the party he’s consistently voted with,” she wrote in a statement. “After lying to his constituents and routinely voting for tax increases that hurt the everyday working families of his district, he’s now admitted his true affiliation: a pro-tax-increase Democrat. It’s clear that Priola has selfishly chosen to make himself the story at the expense of Coloradans he was elected to fight for.”

Priola was first elected as a state representative in 2008. He was elected to his first term as a state senator in 2016 and won a reelection in 2020 during a difficult year for Republicans in Colorado.

Priola said he first became a Republican in 1990 during the ascent of Ronald Reagan, enamored by Reagan’s views on trade, taxes and immigration.

“I haven’t changed much in 30 years,” Priola said in his letter, “but my party has.”

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...