Bennet ODea Polis Ganahl

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, his Republican challenger Joe O'Dea, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and his Republican challenger Heidi Ganahl

Colorado used to have a deserved reputation as a ticket-splitting state.

Over the last 50 years, in the 18 elections when the state's electorate has had the chance to vote for one party for president or governor and the other party for the U.S. Senate, Colorado voters have taken it on six occasions, one-third of the time.

The move used to be a more frequently exercised option and has become relatively rare since the turn of the century, but it's what in-the-know Republican strategists are banking on in this year's midterm election, which appears to be fast approaching without much suspense at the top of the state's ticket.

Unless every publicly released poll of Colorado voters this year is mistaken, Colorado is poised to reelect Jared Polis as governor for a second term and send Michael Bennet back to Washington for a third full term, with voters putting their eggs in the Democrats' proverbial basket for the state's highest-profile races for the fourth election in a row.

A quartet of polls released this month put Polis up by double digits over GOP challenger Heidi Ganahl, a University of Colorado regent and the last remaining Republican holding statewide office in Colorado. Her term as an at-large member of CU's governing board expires this year, and so is the seat she holds, to accommodate the addition of a new seat representing the state's new 8th Congressional District.

Nonpartisan pollsters Data for Progress and Marist College showed Polis leading Ganahl in early October by 17 points and 18 points, respectively. Democratic firm Global Strategies Group, one of the most reliable Colorado pollsters, also found Polis ahead by 18 points. A survey by nonpartisan pollster Civiqs released on Oct. 21 showed Polis up by 15 points.

Those are virtual landslide margins in a state still pegged by national pundits as purple where Democrats hold a slight edge in voter registration over Republicans, though unaffiliated voters greatly outnumber both parties.

It was always going to be an uphill battle to deny the governor a second term, and not only because the self-made tech gazillionaire has demonstrated a willingness to dip into his fortune to self-fund his campaigns, to the tune of $24 million four years ago and $11 million and counting this time around. Herself a wealthy entrepreneur, Ganahl has sunk some $400,000 into her campaign but has so far struggled to keep pace in campaign spending.

Coloradans haven't handed a pink slip to an elected incumbent governor since the early 1960s, possibly because governors tend to be seen as less a part of the partisan fray that fuels the waves that wash over the electorate. Polis, too, has enjoyed sustained high approval and job-performance ratings.

The same four October polls also found Bennet leading Republican Joe O'Dea, a business owner and first-time candidate, by slimmer margins still outside territory considered close by political strategists.

Data for Progress put Bennet up by 9 points, Marist College gave the Democrat a 7-point edge, Global Strategies Group found Bennet leading by 10 points, and Civiqs reported that it's a 13-point race.

The nine previous gubernatorial polls and 11 previous Senate polls released publicly since mid-2021 showed similar margins in both races, with the exception of a single internal poll conducted for the Republican Attorneys General Association by a GOP firm that found Bennet and O'Dea in a statistical tie.

Still, top Republican operatives say, there's a chance O'Dea could pull it out if enough state voters decide to register their disapproval with the party that occupies the White House, holds the majorities in Congress and runs both elected branches of government in Colorado by voting against Bennet. That's the gist of O'Dea's campaign and the message delivered in a flood of attack ads that lay blame for the country's woes at Bennet's feet and argue that it's time to send him home.

Although Coloradans have a habit of retaining their governors, state voters have been less satisfied with their senators, kicking them to the curb five times in the last 50 years — three times in successive elections in the 1970s and in two of the last three elections when a senator has been on the ballot.

Coloradans have only split their votes at the top of the ticket twice in the 11 general elections this century — in 2004, when George W. Bush got the state’s electoral votes and Democrat Ken Salazar won a seat in the Senate, and in 2014, when John Hickenlooper won a second term as governor and Republican Cory Gardner took the state's other Senate seat from Democrat Mark Udall.

Ticket-splitting was more the fashion in the 14 elections from 1972 to 1998, with four occurrences — 29% of the time in those decades, compared to just 18% of the elections since 2000.

State voters handed wins to Richard Nixon while sending Democrat Floyd Haskell to the Senate in 1972. They reelected Democratic Gov. Dick Lamm to a second term in 1978 the same time they hired Republican Bill Armstrong to his first of two terms in the Senate. In 1980, Ronald Reagan swept the state and Democrat Gary Hart won a second Senate term. Ten years later, Democrat Roy Romer won a second term as governor in 1990 and Republican Hank Brown won election to the Senate.

Amid the spates of ticket-splitting, Colorado voters have stuck with solid tickets for a handful of stretches.

Republicans ruled the roost for an uninterrupted four-election streak in Colorado from 1996 to 2002. At the start of the GOP's run, Bob Dole took the state's electoral votes in 1996 and Wayne Allard won the Senate seat. Two years later, Bill Owens broke the Democrats' hold on the governor's office the same year Ben Campbell — who was elected to the Senate as a Democrat but switched parties two years later — won reelection. In 2000, George W. Bush carried the state, and in 2002 Owens and Allard won second terms.

Voters went back to their ticket-splitting ways in the next election — voting for Bush and Salazar — and then veered toward the Democrats for the next four elections. In 2006, Bill Ritter took back the governorship, followed by wins in 2008 by Barack Obama and Udall. In 2010, Hickenlooper won his first term as governor and Bennet, who had been appointed to the seat a year earlier after Salazar stepped down to take a cabinet post, won his first full term. Obama, alone at the top of the ticket in 2012, won reelection with Colorado's help.

After Hickenlooper' and Gardner's joint turn in the split-ticket spotlight in 2014, state voters returned to sticking with one party — the Democrats — for top-ticket races in the past three elections. Hillary Clinton and Bennet won Colorado's vote in 2016, Polis won in 2018, and Joe Biden and Hickenlooper — this time running for the Senate — landed victories in 2020.

Polls aren't destiny, and the national mood can shift on a dime these days. Recent polling indicates that the national electorate appears to be reverting to typical midterm form, with voters more concerned about inflation and the cost of living — potentially favoring Republicans — though polls in Colorado in the final month before the election have accurately pegged the outcomes in recent years, even as national and battleground state polls have delivered mixed results.

While there's a chance the final results in Colorado's races for governor and senator will be closer than the polls predict — pollsters say undecided voters who still haven't signed on with the incumbents at this stage are less likely to break their way — if there's a surprise in the state on election night, it'll probably be due to a revival of state voters' taste for ticket-splitting.

Ernest Luning has covered politics for Colorado Politics and its predecessor publication, The Colorado Statesman, since 2009. He's analyzed the exploits, foibles and history of state campaigns and politicians since 2018 in the weekly Trail Mix column.

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