Door by door, Democrat Lisa Cutter and Republican Tim Walsh are fighting a high-stakes battle in Jefferson County that could determine which party controls the Colorado Senate next year.
And control of the Senate means control of the direction of the state.
A majority in the chamber runs through state Senate District 20, where Cutter, a state representative, is running against Walsh, a first-time candidate and developer. It’s one of seven competitive state Senate districts on the ballot in November. Republicans must win six of the races to take back the gavel from Democrats, who now hold a 21-14 advantage in the 35-member Senate.
The issues Cutter and Walsh are hearing about in District 20 — affordability, education and abortion — are the same pivotal issues that will likely decide the outcome of all seven competitive races.
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“Child care in general is devastating,” Jennifer Bell, a single mom and Democrat in Lakewood, told Cutter when the lawmaker knocked on her door.
“I think there’s appropriate things to be taught in school, keep the politics out of it,” said Arvada Republican Alex Hytinen when talking to Walsh while walking her dog.
Bryan Applegate, an unaffiliated voter in Arvada, told Walsh crime, cost of living and education are “top of mind” for him.
While most Coloradans are probably focusing on other, higher-profile races, such as the gubernatorial or U.S. Senate contests, the battle for control of the state Senate is likely where there’s the highest chance of a meaningful political shake-up. If Republicans win a majority, they will have tangible power at the state level for the first time in four years, allowing them to block the agenda of Gov. Jared Polis, who is expected to cruise to reelection, and other Democrats.
Unlike races at the top of the ballot, the state Senate contests don’t often make headlines, feature prime-time debates or are fought over flashy TV commercials. Instead, they’re decided through mailers and by knocking on voters’ doors.
What makes the District 20 contest a race to watch is that it’s made up of a large chunk of northwestern Jefferson County — a suburban area historically known as a political bellwether for the rest of the state. And voters there look a lot like the electorate in six other contested state Senate districts this year.
District 20 voters backed Democrat John Hickenlooper in the 2020 U.S. Senate race and Jared Polis in the 2018 gubernatorial contest, both by more than 10 percentage points, according to a nonpartisan analysis by legislative staff of previous election results. But the GOP hopes this year there will be a big swing, especially given that the party in control of the White House typically experiences losses during its first midterm election.
“Jefferson County is a battleground area, it’s something that indicates where political conversation is vibrant,” said state Sen. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican who is likely to be the GOP’s leader in the Senate next year. “It’s a piece of the puzzle — it’s one of the major pieces.”
And though the races may not be the focus of the average voter, plenty of cash is flowing into the state Senate contests. The District 20 election alone has drawn more than $4.5 million between both sides, rivaling what’s being spent in some statewide races.
Walsh is the first to concede it won’t be an easy win in the Democrat-leaning district. “For me to win, I have to make up a lot of ground, more than most of the other races,” he said. “I feel like I’ve done that.”
Cutter said she’s well aware Republicans are eyeing the seat with hopes of gaining a majority. “I want to work hard for the team and make sure this doesn’t happen on my watch,” she said.
To win a majority
There are the seven state Senate races this year that are considered competitive after legislative district lines were redrawn in 2021 as part of Colorado’s once-in-a-decade redistricting process.
The competitive races, in addition to the one in District 20, include:
- Senate District 3 in Pueblo, where Democratic state Sen. Nick Hinrichsen faces Republican Stephen Varela, a military veteran
- Senate District 11 centered in Colorado Springs, where Republican state Sen. Dennis Hisey is running against Democratic state Rep. Tony Exum Sr.
- Senate District 15 in northern Colorado, where Republican state Sen. Rob Woodward is up against Democrat Janice Marchman, a former school board member
- Senate District 27 in Arapahoe County, where Democratic state Rep. Tom Sullivan faces Republican Tom Kim, a business owner and former lawyer who is a first-time candidate
- Senate District 8 in northwestern Colorado, including Craig, Eagle and Steamboat Springs, where Democratic state Rep. Dylan Roberts faces Republican Matt Solomon, a former Eagle town councilman
- Senate District 24 in northwestern Adams County, where Democratic state Rep. Kyle Mullica faces Adams 12 Five Star Schools board member Courtney Potter, a Republican
The redistricting process last year made the state Senate map more favorable to Republicans.
Previously, District 20 included the mountain area north of Golden and much of eastern Jefferson County. It’s currently represented by Democrat Jessie Danielson, of Wheat Ridge, who is running for reelection in Senate District 22. The new District 20 includes more of the western side of Jefferson County, such as Evergreen, west Arvada, Coal Creek, Morrison and western Lakewood.
“I think the newly drawn maps give Republicans a better fighting chance than they’ve had,” Lundeen said.
And Democrats agree.
“The Senate had the harder map after redistricting,” said Morgan Carroll, the chair of the Colorado Democratic Party. “The candidates and the campaigns they’ve run, I think, give our state Senate a really decent fighting chance to come back in the majority and hopefully grow it.”
State Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, said the party is focusing on its “ground game” or talking with voters directly. “At this point, it’s going to come down to turnout,” she said.
But Colorado Senate President Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat, is bullish on Democrats’ chances of retaining control of the Senate, especially after Sen. Kevin Priola switched his party affiliation in August to Democrat from Republican. That gave Democrats a little more cushion in their quest to keep their majority.
“I think there’s a mythology out there that the Republicans are about to gain control of the chamber and if you look at the map it seems very, very unlikely,” he said. “Especially given that the top of the ticket for Democrats is performing very well. It would be very unusual for the down-ballot races to have such differentiation.”
However, Republican outside groups working on the battle for control of the state Senate are outspending Democrats $11.3 million to $9.4 million.
“At the end of the day, look at the dollars and cents, that is where people actually invest in what they believe is happening on the ground,” said Daniel Cole, who leads the Senate Majority Fund, the organization charged with helping the GOP win a majority in the Colorado Senate.
Walsh, who lives in Evergreen, has loaned his campaign nearly $1 million and raised about $162,000 from others, spending heavily on TV advertising. If elected, he will be paid about $44,000 annually. Only the two gubernatorial candidates have put more of their own cash into their campaigns.
Cutter, who lives near Morrison, has raised more than $211,000, spending on advertising and consulting.
Democratic groups have spent $1.6 million on the District 20 race, compared to $1.9 million spent by their Republican counterparts. Both sides are spending the bulk of that money on TV ads, mailers and digital ads attacking the other party’s candidate.
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The issues in District 20
If the GOP does win the Senate majority, Walsh hopes it will mean Democrats, including Polis, will begin coming to the table with Republicans for policy discussions. Right now, because Democrats control the House, Senate and governor’s office, they can pass bills without any GOP support. The GOP is unlikely to retake control of the House, which leaves the Senate as the party’s best chance of stopping the Democratic agenda.
“Any bills that go through the House … they will actually have to negotiate them, because they know they won’t be able to just be forced through the Senate,” Walsh said.
Walsh and Cutter have different issues they plan to prioritize if elected.
For Cutter, it’s mental health, wildfire mitigation and funding for the public school system. For Walsh, it’s crime, inflation and school choice.
Walsh, a vocal supporter of charter schools, hopes a Republican Senate majority would result in more backing for the alternative to the traditional public school system. Cutter says she wants to make sure tax dollars don’t go toward “education that is not science and fact-based and in any way crosses into religion.”
When it comes to abortion, Cutter is pro-abortion rights. She voted in support of a Democratic bill last year that gauranteed abortion access in Colorado with almost no limitations.
Walsh has said he isn’t anti-abortion and that he doesn’t believe “government or anybody should be in the middle of a woman and their health care provider.” “The part that I do struggle with is sort of the late-term abortions,” he said. “At what point do you start advocating for the rights of a pre-born child?”
He didn’t define when an abortion is “late-term,” saying he believes that’s something that should be decided by voters.
Walsh claims All Together Colorado, a Democratic state-level super PAC supporting Cutter’s campaign, has lied about his stance on abortion in a TV ad that he’s demanded be taken down. The ad says Walsh plans to ban abortion.
The group has linked to a video of Walsh talking about abortion and calling it “state-sanctioned murder.” But Walsh says he was only talking about late-term abortions.
Democrats are also attacking Walsh over a recording of him praising former President Donald Trump and saying “we all know something was fishy with the 2020 election” but that it’s not an issue he can campaign on. Walsh says the video was doctored, pointing to how the images and audio in the recording are out of sync. He doesn’t overtly deny, however, what he said in the recording, instead arguing that he was taken out of context. “They’re not airing the part that I said there’s no proof that the election was stolen,” he said.
As for Cutter, Republicans have attacked her and other Democrats over rising crime rates in Colorado. Specifically, she’s been criticized by the GOP for voting for a 2019 measure that made the personal possession of up to 4 grams of most drugs, including the powerful opioid fentanyl, a misdemeanor.
Walsh supporters have also criticized Cutter for voting for a bipartisan 2019 bail reform bill that would have removed sexual assault from a list of offenses that could prevent someone from being released before trial. The bill was ultimately rejected in the Colorado Senate. It also would have required counties to develop and implement a pretrial release screening process.
Cutter says the legislation’s effects have been exaggerated by her opponents. “The way it was framed is not true,” she said. “It was put in the most scary way possible.”
Back on the campaign trail, Cutter and Walsh are trying to address the same issues with voters.
Walsh told one Arvada voter during a conversation at their door that he condemned the Jan. 6 riot and that he’s “not a Trump fan, never have been.” “I really hope to transform the Republican Party back to the middle where it should be,” he said.
On inflation, another topic Walsh has focused on, Cutter has said she only occasionally hears inflation concerns. “Anybody that’s paying attention understands that that’s not something that we have control over,” she said.
Ballots have been sent out, voting centers are open and Election Day is Nov. 8.
Colorado Sun correspondent Sandra Fish contributed to this report.
CORRECTION: This story was updated at 3:22 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 31, 2022, to correct an editor’s error. Republican Stephen Varela is running to represent state Senate District 3 after running unsuccessfully for a Pueblo City Council seat in 2019.