Before the 2020 election slips into the history books, we wanted to note a few of the firsts and bests and mosts achieved during what will undoubtedly rank as a Colorado campaign season unlike any other.
On the heels of a history-making 2018 Colorado election, this year’s exercise in democracy didn’t mark the kind of realignment accomplished in the last election by the state’s Democrats, when they won historic majorities at the state Capitol and swept into congressional, legislative and county offices that had been previously only held by Republicans.
But after Colorado’s electorate spent the better part of the last decade vacillating between handing the reins to Democrats, only to jerk back on them in the next election to give Republicans some control, the 2020 election amounted to staying the course; for one election, at least.
In 2018, Colorado voters notched several firsts — electing the state’s first Jewish governor and the country’s first openly gay governor in Jared Polis, electing Colorado’s first Jewish attorney general in Phil Weiser, and electing the first Democratic woman to serve as secretary of state in Jena Griswold.
This year, Democrat Joe Biden defeated President Donald Trump by a margin not seen by a Democratic presidential candidate since LBJ’s 1964 landslide, and former Gov. John Hickenlooper ousted Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner by a smaller, though still comfortable, margin.
On the Western Slope’s 3rd Congressional District, Republican Lauren Boebert accomplished something that hasn’t happened in more than 50 years by winning a seat in Congress after knocking out an incumbent in a primary.
In the Legislature, voters elected the state’s first Muslim member in Aurora’s Iman Jodeh.
Colorado voters turned out in historic numbers, setting modern records for both the share of registered voters and the share of eligible voters who cast ballots.
While ballots were still being processed at press time — including military and overseas ballots and cured ballots only counted after a signature or other issues have been resolved — Secretary of State Griswold reported the day after the election that 3,303,265 ballots had been processed, making for an 86.8% turnout rate among active registered voters, just a hair above the 86.7% turnout rate in the 2016 election.
The turnout rate this year for all registered voters — including inactive voters — was 78.4%, up more substantially from the previous record set in 2016 of 74.3%. According to the University of Florida’s United States Election Project, Colorado’s turnout rate for its eligible population was 76%, far above the previous 71.9% record set in 2016.
Biden shattered the record for most votes received in a Colorado election, with 1,783,261, and Hickenlooper did the same for the most votes received by a Colorado candidate in a Colorado election with 1,711,205. The previous record-holder on both counts was Democrat Michael Bennet, who won a second full term in the U.S. Senate in 2016 with 1,370,710 votes.
Griswold, incidentally, has the record for most votes received by a Colorado woman, with 1,116,693 in the 2018 election. (Democrat Hillary Clinton’s record still stands as the woman who received the most votes in a Colorado election, with 1,338,870, when she beat Trump to win Colorado’s electoral votes in 2016.)
Hickenlooper demolished records for quarterly contributions received by a Colorado candidate when he pulled in $22.6 million for the 3rd Quarter ending Sept. 30, leaving the previous record of $5.2 million — set by Hickenlooper in the previous quarter — in the dust.
Colorado’s Senate race saw at least $39.8 million in outside spending, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, though the true total could be millions more because certain dark-money organizations that advertised heavily in the race aren’t required to disclose their spending.
That total doesn’t come close to the roughly $70 million spent by outside groups in the 2014 race, when Gardner unseated Democrat Mark Udall, but the 2020 candidates — particularly Hickenlooper — swamped the totals raised and spent by Udall and Gardner in 2014.
According to campaign finance reports filed on Oct. 14, Gardner raised at least $26 million and Hickenlooper raised at least $39 million. Both totals surpass the previous record sum raised by a Colorado Senate candidate, set in 2014 when Udall received $20 million.
Adding together the outside spending and the reported fundraising by the two major-party nominees, Colorado’s 2020 Senate contest chewed through at least $105 million, just barely edging out the $104 million raised by the candidates and spent by outside groups in 2014, making this year’s the state’s second nine-figure race.
At 68, Hickenlooper is the oldest Coloradan to first win election to the U.S. Senate.
Democrat Michael Bennet, the state’s senior U.S. senator, who is now 55, was briefly the youngest member of the Senate. For just five days after he was appointed to fill the vacancy created by Ken Salazar’s resignation in January 2009, the then-44-year-old Bennet held the title until he was dethroned by then-42-year-old Kirsten Gillibrand, the New York Democrat appointed to replace Hillary Clinton after she joined Salazar in President Barack Obama’s first Cabinet.
Gardner, who was 40 when he won election to the Senate, lost out to Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton, who was just 37 in 2014 when he was elected.
Boebert, 33, ties the record for the second-youngest Coloradan to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, sharing that distinction with Polis, who was also 33 when he first won the 2nd Congressional District seat in 2008.
At this point, the youngest House member from Colorado was 32-year-old Pat Schroeder, the Denver Democrat first elected in 1972. The third-youngest would be Democrat Joe Neguse, who was 34 when he was elected to succeed Polis in the 2nd Congressional District in 2018.
Boebert will be the first woman to represent the 3rd Congressional District, and only the fifth woman to go to Congress from Colorado, joining Schroeder and her successor, Democrat Diana DeGette, as well as Republican Marilyn Musgrave and Democrat Betsy Markey, who both represented the 4th Congressional District.
Boebert’s race against Democratic nominee Diane Mitsch Bush marked only the ninth time in Colorado that both major party congressional nominees have been women, following the 2008 contest between Musgrave and Markey, Democrat Angie Paccione’s 2006 run against Musgrave, and the 1998 election between DeGette and her GOP challenger, Nancy McClanahan, plus five times Schroeder faced Republican women in 1980 and in all four elections from 1984-1990.
Boebert and Hickenlooper also appear to be the first restaurateurs elected to represent Colorado in Washington.
Boebert is the owner of Shooters Grill in Rifle, a gun-themed restaurant where the waitstaff are armed. She generated headlines this spring when she defied a public health order by opening her restaurant to in-person dining before pandemic restrictions had been lifted.
Hickenlooper was instrumental in founding Colorado’s brewpub industry when he and some partners opened the Wynkoop Brewing Co. in Denver’s Lower Downtown neighborhood, after the future senator lost his job as a petroleum geologist during one of the fossil fuel industry’s bust cycles in the 1980s.
While most of Colorado’s senators have been lawyers and career politicians, like Gardner, Udall ran Outward Bound, Wayne Allard was a veterinarian, Ben Nighthorse Campbell was a jewelry maker, Bill Armstrong owned broadcast stations and other business enterprises, Ed Johnson worked the railroad, Walter Walker was a newspaper editor, and several senators in the state’s early years were miners and bankers.
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to reflect that Pat Schroeder faced Republican women challengers five times from 1980-1990.