A-a-a-a-and they’re off!
Except that they aren’t.
Not yet, anyway.
With the dust settling quickly on the first regular session of the 73rd General Assembly, this would normally be the time Colorado politicos began fixing their eyes on next year’s election.
The 2022 primary is only a year away — the blink of an eye in this accelerated era of perpetual campaigns — and in just six months, precinct caucuses will be just around the corner and the race for the ballot will be in full swing.
But except for a handful of first-time candidates and also-rans spread across a few of the major races for statewide offices and Colorado’s congressional seats, everyone is waiting for a shoe — any shoe — to drop.
In conversations with political insiders lately, it's become nearly as common as remarking on the weather to ask if there's news about a Republican running for any number of top-ticket offices, and the answers are usually the same.
So-and-so is talking about it, but so far no one's made a decision. Maybe next month, maybe sometime after the second quarter wraps up? It'll be a lot clearer after we see where the state's new congressional district will be.
Nearly all the vacant slots are on the Republican side for one simple reason: Over the last couple cycles, as every article about Colorado’s political scene is obliged to point out, Democrats have nearly swept the table, winning every statewide election — including nabbing the secretary of state position for the first time in nearly 60 years — and even winning the 6th District congressional seat, which hadn’t ever been represented by a Democrat.
And as we’ve all just been reminded, the Democrats took control of the legislature by historic margins three years ago and just this week finished a session with one of the most aggressively progressive agendas the state has ever seen.
Couple the Democrats’ one-party rule — in a state that’s historically swung back and forth between the major parties — with the fact it’s a presidential midterm with a Democrat in the White House, and Colorado Republicans are salivating at the chance to offer an alternative to an electorate that could be primed for some fresh faces and a different approach.
But a conspiracy of factors have so far kept next year’s potentially hot races cooler than cucumbers.
All those losses in recent years have decimated the GOP bench, while the lingering hangover from the Trump years has left some Republicans who would otherwise run in such prime conditions gun shy, since it’s still unclear whether the former president’s sway over his party will continue to repel the state’s moderate, well-educated suburban voters who shunned Republican candidates in droves in the last two elections.
On top of that, the state’s shifting electorate appears to be moving in just one direction, toward the blue end of the spectrum, though it’s still hard to untangle recent sentiment and voting behavior from Trump’s toxic effect on voters who might have been up for grabs in a different environment.
It’s hard to overstate the vacuum at the top of the Republicans’ tickets.
At this point four years ago, more than a dozen Democrats were already running for the Senate seat held by Republican Cory Gardner, though the candidate who went on to unseat the incumbent, former Gov. John Hickenlooper, was still traipsing around Iowa on the presidential campaign he would soon abandon.
Ahead of the 2018 race for an open governor’s seat — Hickenlooper was facing term limits — by the summer before the election year, the Democratic primary already featured a number of powerhouse entries, including two members of Congress, a former state treasurer and a former state senator, with the sitting lieutenant governor about to jump in. On the Republican side, candidates included the state treasurer, the attorney general, a former member of Congress, a couple of mostly self-funding wealthy businessmen and a prominent district attorney who later switched to the attorney general race.
Six years ago, as Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet’s re-election bid neared, a good half dozen Republicans were already criss-crossing the state, drumming up support at Lincoln Day dinners and county GOP picnics, though some of the heaviest hitters in that primary didn’t jump in until late 2015 and early 2016.
Just one major race has attracted throngs of top-tier wanna-be challengers, yielding a field that probably includes the eventual nominee. Eight candidates are so far running in the Democratic primary in the 3rd Congressional District, hoping for a chance to take on U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, the gun-toting Silt Republican whose outspoken presence on social media and conservative channels has made her a top target for Democrats.
The final roster of Boebert challengers will be up in the air for months, since the district’s 2022 boundaries won’t be firm until sometime this fall, but there’s a good chance it’ll cover most if not all of the Western Slope and possibly some counties along the Continental Divide in central and southern Colorado.
The prominent Democratic candidates who live within those lines include state Sen. Kerry Donovan of Vail, state Rep. Don Valdez of La Jara, Pueblo activist Sol Sandoval and Glenwood Springs attorney Colin Wilhelm, along with a passel of lesser known hopefuls.
The slower-than-usual pace of the redistricting process is partly to blame for so many vacant berths for other major offices, since a good dozen candidates on both sides of the partisan divide are waiting to find out where the state’s new 8th Congressional District will land.
Next year’s two top races have yet to attract any well-known or well-funded Republicans, but at least Bennet and Gov. Jared Polis have drawn a challenger or two from the grassroots wing of the GOP.
A few candidates have thrown their hats in the ring, but no one thinks the short lists represent the final assortment of candidates.
The three other statewide offices on the ballot next year — attorney general, secretary of state and state treasurer — are at this point only the topic of whispers and rumor.
Greg Lopez, who served as mayor of Parker more than two decades ago and finished third in the 2018 Republican gubernatorial primary, is running for governor, while unsuccessful GOP congressional nominee Peter Yu and brand-new Republican Erik Aadland, an Army veteran who has worked in the oil and gas industry, are running for Bennet’s job.
It’s an open secret, however, that at-large CU Regent Heidi Ganahl — who holds the distinction of being the only Republican currently holding statewide office in Colorado — is prepping a run for governor, possibly with an announcement coming in July after the campaign calendar moves into the third quarter.
Potential Bennet challengers include Eli Bremer, an Olympian and former chairman of the El Paso County GOP, whose interest in the race was first reported by Colorado Politics, and radio host and attorney Dan Caplis, who has been making noise about a Senate candidacy in the run-up to elections for years but could finally mean it this time.
A dark horse possibility is former state Rep. Clarice Navarro, who held a swing seat in Pueblo County before taking a job with the Department of Agriculture in the Trump administration and is now serving as Boebert’s district director.
Navarro, the rare Republican who probably keeps both the GOP’s establishment wing and its Trumpified base happy, could also be weighing a run in the new 8th CD, depending where it falls.
Rose Pugliese, the former Mesa County commissioner who moved earlier this year to Colorado Springs, is almost certain to challenge Democratic Secretary of State Jena Griswold, and probably has a clear path to the nomination after she gets in sometime this summer.
Attorney General Phil Weiser and State Treasurer Dave Young, however, will have to wait for opponents to emerge from a shifting group of legislators and other officials said to be eyeing a run for higher office, including Republicans waiting to find out if they live in the new congressional district.