The Democrats have only been in control in Washington, D.C. — occupying the White House and swinging the gavels in the House and Senate — for a little over two months, but already the political class has its eyes on next year’s midterm election.
While President Joe Biden won’t be on the ballot in 2022, his performance will, risking the razor-thin majority the Democrats hold in the U.S. House and the party’s 50-50 strength in the Senate, which is effectively a majority because Vice President Kamala Harris can cast a tie-breaking vote.
In Colorado, where Democrats have been in charge across the board for two years longer, Republicans are licking their chops at the chance to stage a comeback after years of diminishing clout at the ballot box and two straight cycles racking up historic losses.
Gov. Jared Polis will be up for re-election the same year that Democrats will be defending a wide majority in the state House and a narrower one in the state Senate.
Ernest Luning sums up the decisions ahead for the most active members of Colorado’s two major political parties to pick party officers and point the Democrats and Republicans toward the next election.
As it stands in Colorado following the 2018 and 2020 elections, Democrats hold the reins at all levels of state and federal government, a position the party enjoyed just once in living memory — for the two years from 2009 to 2011, between President Barack Obama’s election and his first midterm.
Republicans came roaring back in 2010, taking control of both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Colorado House.
Looking back a bit further, from a Colorado perspective, Republicans last accomplished the double-trifecta feat for a two-year stretch, from 2003 to 2005, following George W. Bush’s first midterm.
While Republicans maintained control in D.C. for another two years following the 2004 election — with Bush in the White House and majorities in both chambers of Congress — Democrats won both the Colorado House and Senate that year.
Ernest Luning: "As Colorado braces for what could be one of the Front Range's biggest snowstorms on record, longtime residents can't help but recall monumental blizzards of the past."
As these rare examples suggest, voters — especially in Colorado — bristle under single-party rule and are happy to throw the bums out if they’re easy to blame, like they are when they’re unquestionably the ones in charge.
There are a few constants in Colorado politics. If the conversation goes on long enough, someone’s sure to haul out the adage that in Colorado, whiskey’s for drinking and water’s for fighting. And as sure as I-70 slows to a crawl on Sundays, the party out of power bounces back in midterm elections.
That’s why state GOP strategists, activists and potential candidates say the 2022 midterm will be the best chance in many a moon for Republicans to reverse their decades-long slide and return to power, or at least prevent the party from slipping into irrelevance.
They point to three factors that haven’t converged in 20 years — a fresh set of congressional and legislative boundaries that might loosen the ruling party’s grip; a brand-new congressional seat, without an incumbent’s advantage; and the traditional boost the party out of power gets from voters half way through the sitting president’s term.
Ernest Luning sums up the outrage over Dr. Seuss with stanzas of his own.
Colorado Republicans see enormous potential in each of these, and history mostly backs up their assessment.
There isn’t much reason to be optimistic about Republican chances of capturing legislative or congressional seats after the upcoming round of redistricting, based on past performance alone.
As it turns out, the party in power overall has won majorities in the Colorado General Assembly in the first election under new boundaries every time in living memory, stretching back to the 1930s.
The new, voter-approved independent redistricting commissions currently starting their work might change that outcome, giving Republicans some reason to hope.
Millions of fans know Denver author and entrepreneur Ben Higgins as the titular bachelor who told two women he loved them on the 20th season of ABC-TV's popular match-making reality show — but to Denver Republicans, he'll always be the one that got away.
At least, party stalwarts assert, the GOP won’t be facing the same set of lines that party leaders have maintained prevent Republican candidates from winning.
Over the last 50 years, however, Republicans have captured the prize every time Colorado has added a new congressional seat — and in two of the three cases, the GOP managed to hang onto the seat for decades.
In 1972, when Colorado grew from the four House seats it had been allotted since 1912, Republican state lawmaker Bill Armstrong won the new 5th Congressional District, and it’s remained in Republican hands ever since.
The same thing happened a decade later, when Republican Jack Swigert won the new 6th Congressional District seat in 1982, though the former astronaut — portrayed by Kevin Bacon in the film Apollo 13 — died before being sworn in. Voters picked GOP legislator Dan Schaefer in a special election, and they kept sending Republicans to the House for another 36 years until Democrat Jason Crow won the seat in 2018.
Just weeks into her first term — and nearly a year and a half until next year's primary — a veritable cavalcade of candidates is emerging, ready to challenge the freshman Republican whose every tweet sets off tiny explosions in the heads of thousands of Democrats nationwide, at the same time fueling what appears to be a fundraising machine of small-dollar donors for Boebert's likely 2022 run for a second term.
Colorado didn’t get an additional congressional district after the 1990 census, but the state’s delegation grew again following the 2000 census, when Republican Bob Beauprez won the newly created 7th Congressional District by a whisker, in the closest congressional race in the country that year. Beauprez won re-election fairly easily two years later, but Democrat Ed Perlmutter, a former state senator, took the seat in 2006 and has kept it ever since.
Although there’s no shortage of speculation, no one knows where the state’s new 8th Congressional District will be, and anyone making predictions about its partisan lean is guessing.
But when it comes to midterms, Colorado Republicans have a solid peg on which to hang their hat.
In almost every one of Colorado’s midterm elections since 1998, state voters have rewarded the party that doesn’t occupy the White House with big gains, though Democrats contend that the state’s long-standing characteristics have changed enough in the last decade to make that less likely.
While the lines blur between myths, truisms and rules of thumb, it’s a good idea now and then to examine some of the most prevalent assumptions, including a cluster of related maxims that keep appearing whenever politicos and pundits bend elbows to talk state politics.
Before 1998, the lesson was less obvious, since Colorado’s electoral landscape had settled into an odd sort of equilibrium for the better part of the three preceding decades, with only an occasional jolt.
In election after election, from the dawn of the modern political era in 1974 and that year’s post-Watergate realignment, Colorado voters predictably maintained a sort of balance between the two major parties. In presidential years, they cast ballots for Republican presidential candidates, and in the midterms, they reliably voted in Democratic governors.
Republicans ruled the General Assembly, holding what looked like permanent majorities in both chambers. The two parties split the other statewide offices, except for secretary of state, which was reliably held by a Republican. And except for a brief patch in the mid-1970s, the state sent a Democrat and a Republican to the U.S. Senate and kept a rough balance in the congressional delegation, with one party as likely to hold the edge as the other.
The glaring exception was when Bill Clinton carried the state in 1992, emerging on top in a three-way race with incumbent President George H.W. Bush and Texas billionaire Ross Perot, whose Reform Party challenge could have siphoned off enough conservative-leaning votes to hand the state’s electoral votes to the Democrat.
Ernest Luning: "The way things are shaping up, Bennet might also be going longer than any other recent Colorado senator without drawing a serious challenger."
In the last five midterms the pattern has been clear. From Bill Clinton's 1998 midterm to George W. Bush's 2002 and 2006 midterms through Barack Obama's 2010 and 2014 midterms and Donald Trump's 2018 midterm, the party out of power has staged a comeback each election — except one.
In the 2002 midterm — when George W. Bush occupied the White House, Republicans had the majority in the U.S House with a 50-50 Senate — is either the exception that proves the rule or the year Democrats could look to for inspiration, when the midterm spell was broken.
That year, Republicans took back the state Senate after Democrats had won a one-vote majority in 2000. Owens won re-election in a landslide and Republican Wayne Allard, the state’s other U.S. senator, won a second term. Beauprez’s squeaker of a win in the new congressional district gave Republicans the largest delegation majority they’d held since the 1930s.
Even though it looks like an iron law, though, there are enough differences over the years to make strict comparisons difficult and any wagers based on the patterns foolhardy.
Just days after being sworn into office, the Rifle Republican has vaulted into the rarified pantheon of Colorado politicians who have found themselves the brunt of national comedians and satirists.