Many seats are empty in the Senate chambers just before the start of their session, Colorado lawmakers return to the state Capitol on May 26, 2020 in Denver, Colorado. Legislators have returned after a 10-week pause due to fears from the spread of the coronavirus. (Photo By Kathryn Scott)

Lead Capitol reporter Marianne Goodland deconstructs the 18 state Senate races on the ballot as Democrats defend their majorities in both chambers while Republicans try to reestablish a conservative beachhead.

The battle for control of the state Senate — the top legislative prize in 2020 — could boil down to a handful of seats, and unaffiliated voters will be key in virtually every race, as well spending by independent expenditure committees.

There are 18 seats in the state Senate up for election in 2020. Democrats are defending 10; Republicans eight. A 19-16 majority for Democrats has Republicans hoping to flip two seats they would need to take back the majority. But they’ll need to hold onto the eight they have, including one that could flip Democrat.

Colorado Politics’ analysis shows of the eight Republican seats, four are safe, three lean Republican and one leans Democrat. Of the 10 Democratic seats, nine are safe, one leans Democrat.

The competitive seats:

Senate District 8, northwestern Colorado: Republican Sen. Bob Rankin of Carbondale was appointed to the seat in 2019 after the resignation of Sen. Randy Baumgardner of Hot Sulphur Springs.

Independent expenditure committees, some backed by Democratic donors, spent heavily to ensure that Rankin, the senior member of the Joint Budget Committee and a center-right Republican, won his primary. The question becomes whether that will repeat for the November election. While Republicans hold a 6,000-voter registration advantage over Democrats (down from a 7,400 advantage two years ago), there are more unaffiliated voters than either. Republican voter registrations have dropped by more than 1,000 in the past two years, unaffiliated voter registrations increased by 5,000.

The candidates: Sen. Bob Rankin, Republican; Democrat Karl Hanlon, both of Carbondale. 

Advantage: Rankin

VOTER GUIDE 2020 | Colorado Senate District 8: Karl Hanlon and Bob Rankin

Senate District 19, Jefferson County: The seat has flipped between Democrats and Republicans in the past decade, and is currently held by Democratic Sen. Rachel Zenzinger of Arvada. Some of the same IECs are already spending in favor of Zenzinger, even though she didn’t have a contested primary. Although Democrats have increased their voter registration advantage over Republicans in the past two years, unaffiliated voter registration has grown by nearly 6,000.

This district has been home to the most expensive senate race in the state for the past eight years (averaging north of $423,000 in candidate contributions in 2012, 2014 and 2016) and it’s starting to look that way for 2020. Zenzinger has raised more than any statewide legislative candidate.

The candidates: Democratic Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, Republican Lynn Gerber, both of Arvada.

Advantage: Zenzinger

VOTER GUIDE 2020 | Colorado Senate District 19: Lynn Gerber and Rachel Zenzinger

Senate District 23, Broomfield, Larimer and Weld counties: This open seat has two women candidates vying to replace term-limited Republican Sen. Vicki Marble of Fort Collins. While this has been considered a safe Republican seat, population growth had made this the fastest-growing and largest senate district by population in the state. SD23 grew from 104,000 registered voters in 2016 to more than 139,000 as of July 2020, with more than 20,000 voters added in Weld County and 9,000 in Broomfield County.

Democrats gained 4,000 voters between 2016 and 2020 to 32,524; Republicans gained about 3,500 to 45,992. Unaffiliated voter registrations jumped from 46,349 to 58,408, the largest such increase in any state senate district. Don’t be too surprised if this district gets a new look after the 2020 census.

Both major party candidates had to win primaries in June, depleting their campaign funds. Republican Barbara Kirkmeyer, a Weld County commissioner, was strongly backed by center-right IECs such as Weld Strong, faces Democratic candidate Sally Bocella of Johnstown.

The candidates: Republican Barbara Kirkmeyer of Brighton, Democrat Sally Boccella of Johnston.

Advantage: Kirkmeyer

VOTER GUIDE 2020 | Colorado Senate District 23: Sally Boccella and Barbara Kirkmeyer

Senate District 25, Adams County: Republican Sen. Kevin Priola of Henderson has been a reliably moderate vote in the Senate. That said, Democrats would like to increase their 19-16 advantage, and this is one of two prime targets, especially given that Democrats hold a 6,500-voter registration advantage over Republicans. This is also a district that saw a big jump in unaffiliated voter registrations in the past four years, by nearly 12,000.

Neither Priola nor his Democratic challenger, Paula Dickerson, had primary challenges.

The candidates: Republican Sen. Kevin Priola of Henderson, Democrat Paula Dickerson of Aurora.

Advantage: Priola

VOTER GUIDE 2020 | Colorado Senate District 25: Paula Dickerson and Kevin Priola

Senate District 26, Arapahoe County: The second of the two targeted districts for pickups by Republicans, SD26 includes the rural portion of Arapahoe County as well as the county’s largest cities: Greenwood Village and Cherry Hills. Kagan won his 2016 contest by 6 percentage points.

But this race will be harder for a Republican to win in 2020 than it has been in the past. Four years ago, the district was nearly evenly divided among Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters. Not any more. Democrats have picked up 3,500 voters, Republicans have lost 2,500 and unaffiliated voters increased by more than 9,000.

The race also includes Libertarian Party candidate Marc Solomon, which could draw votes away from the Republican challenger, Bob Roth.

The candidates: Democratic Sen.  Jeff Bridges of Greenwood Village, Republican Bob Roth of Aurora, Libertarian Marc Solomon of Denver

Advantage: Bridges

VOTER GUIDE 2020 | Colorado Senate District 26: Jeff Bridges, Bob Roth and Marc Solomon

Senate District 27, Arapahoe County: The biggest target of them all for both parties, this is an open seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Jack Tate of Centennial, who decided not to run for another term.

Four years ago, Tate defeated Democrat Tom Sullivan by 6.5 percentage points. But the district looked a lot different back then. The district has flipped in voter registration since then. In 2016, Republicans held a nearly 8,000-voter registration advantage of Democrats and 4,000 more than unaffiliated voters. That lead has evaporated. Democratic voter registration now trails Republicans by just over 1,000 but unaffiliated voter registration has jumped by more than 10,500 and lead all groups.

The candidates: Democrat Chris Kolker and Republican Suzanne Staiert, both of Centennial.

Advantage: Kolker

VOTER GUIDE 2020 | Colorado Senate District 27: Chris Kolker and Suzanne Staiert


VOTER GUIDE 2020 | Colorado Senate District 4: Jim Smallwood, Elissa Flaumenhaft and Wayne Harlos
VOTER GUIDE 2020 | Colorado Senate District 10: Larry Liston, Randi McCallian and Heather Johnson
VOTER GUIDE 2020 | Colorado Senate District 12: Bob Gardner, Electra Johnson and Zechariah L. Harris
VOTER GUIDE 2020 | Colorado Senate District 14: Joann Ginal and Hans D. Hochheimer
VOTER GUIDE 2020 | Colorado Senate District 17: Sonya Jaquez Lewis, Matthew Menza and Andrew O'Connor
VOTER GUIDE 2020 | Colorado Senate District 18: Steve Fenberg
VOTER GUIDE 2020 | Colorado Senate District 21: Martin Martinez and Dominick Moreno
VOTER GUIDE 2020 | Colorado Senate District 28: Janet Buckner and Karl Stecher
VOTER GUIDE 2020 | Colorado Senate District 29: Rhonda Fields and Michele Poague
VOTER GUIDE 2020 | Colorado Senate District 31: Chriis Hansen and Doug Townsend
VOTER GUIDE 2020 | Colorado Senate District 33: Jerry Burton and James Rashad Coleman
VOTER GUIDE 2020 | Colorado Senate District 35: Carlos Lopez and Cleave Simpson

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