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A proposed redrawing of state Senate districts in the Denver metro area.

Unlike last week’s release of a draft congressional district map by Colorado’s Independent Redistricting Commission, this week’s unveiling of preliminary maps outlining state House and Senate districts provoked more questions than bold diagnoses and heated declarations.

That's probably a function of the main difference between the maps. With just eight districts, including the long-anticipated suggested location of Colorado's new seat, the congressional map is easy to form conclusions about — from complaints that Lakewood and Castle Rock don't belong together to an allegation the map short-changes Hispanic residents in Southern Colorado.

With 100 districts arrayed across a pair of maps, however, the legislative drawings are harder to suss out quickly, especially because there's a good chance the final versions won't look much like the draft.

Mostly, pundits marveled at how many incumbents were drawn together into the same districts — something new in Colorado, which used to keep incumbent addresses in mind when redrawing the lines, but which the voter-approved independent commissions aren't supposed to do.

It's impossible to stress just how very preliminary the legislative maps are. That isn't only because the commissioners will be spending the next two months soliciting comments from the public in a series of 32 hearings scheduled throughout the state.

Perhaps as consequentially, the Census Bureau won't be releasing final population data until mid-August, when the addition of a thousand previously unaccounted-for residents here, another thousand there, could require some big changes to the new House map, for instance, where each district currently contains around 88,000 residents.

Since the maps released this week are based on population estimates, it's anybody's guess how the final figures will influence things. It's conceivable the updated population numbers will mostly be catching up with the state's rapid growth. But they could also include people who are traditionally harder to count, potentially skewing some of the factors the commission is supposed to consider, like race and language.

It would be folly to pick apart any particular legislative district, since the maps must be considered fluid at this point, while assessing either major party's chances of holding or taking various seats would be beyond premature.

But the maps’ overall compositions can help understand where Colorado is politically, and where the state might be headed in the next decade.

It's more instructive to consider the House map, because the Senate map is freighted with complications that won't be sorted out anytime soon — like whether the commission can lump together two incumbents who were both elected last year to constitutionally mandated four-year terms. Whatever the resolution, it's almost certain that the Senate lines won't look like they do in this week's map.

It appears the authors of Amendment Z, which established the redistricting commission, didn't consider the foreseeable complications surrounding the Senate's overlapping four-year terms. Election law experts say it's unclear whether the commission can sort it out with rules or if the courts will have to step in.

On the House side, though, all members serve two-year terms, so everyone elected next year starts fresh in a new district, even if incumbents who don't face term limits will have to vie with other incumbents for some seats.

Using voter registration and election performance data for the newly drawn districts, it turns out that the House elected under the preliminary map would have the same partisan breakdown as it does currently — with 41 seats held by Democrats and 24 held by Republicans — if you include one key factor: Donald Trump.

That's because the preliminary House map includes 29 safe Democratic seats, five competitive seats that lean Democratic, four competitive seats that lean Republican, and 20 safe Republican seats, along with seven seats that can be considered toss-ups. Competitive seats are those where neither party has more than a 5-point advantage, and toss-ups are those where neither party has more than a 2.5-point advantage, using several measures.

Not all analysts agree about that breakdown. A Republican consultant, for instance, told Colorado Politics the GOP starts with a few more districts where the party can be competitive, while a Democratic consultant came up with a similar assessment, suggesting House Republicans are in a better position under the proposed map.

Trump's influence on the Colorado electorate matters, because Democrats effectively swept the toss-up districts in the last two cycles, a result strategists say has as much to do with how the state's traditional swing voters feel about Trump as it does anything else.

If the pattern of the last two cycles repeats under the preliminary House map, with Democrats and Republicans winning the seats where they hold an advantage — that's 34 for the Democrats and 24 for Republicans — and Democrats win all seven toss-up seats, you wind up with the same historic 41-25 majority Democrats currently enjoy.

It’s too early to tell whether next year’s election will be about Donald Trump, but there's a good chance the former president won't figure as centrally as he did in 2018 and 2020, which could give Republicans a chance to win back some of the seats that might have been more in play earlier in the decade, before Trump. 

Observers will debate whether seven toss-up seats and nine that lean to one party or the other is a sufficient number of competitive seats, though redistricting experts caution that the smaller the district, the harder it is to draw competitive ones without discarding other criteria, like existing political boundaries and communities of interest.

Out of the gate, it'd be a difficult map for Republicans; they would have to win all the toss-ups and pry away at least two of the seats that lean toward Democrats in order to take the majority. That probably isn’t going to happen in the next election, but a comparison between the current legislative battleground map and what it looked like at the beginning of the last decade suggests that Republicans might have some hope.

Swing districts and battleground seats aren’t set in stone once the lines are drawn for another decade.

During the last redistricting process in 2011, no one saw Donald Trump coming, and few could have imagined the kind of realignment the two major parties have undergone since the real estate billionaire wrested control of the GOP five years ago.

At the dawn of the last decade, Colorado was the prime example of a crucial presidential swing state, along with Virginia, Ohio and Iowa and a handful of others. As the decade drew to a close, the presidential battleground had shifted to Wisconsin, Michigan, Arizona and Georgia, states that would have elicited skeptical stares if they’d been listed as linchpins to the White House only a few years before they were.

Ten years ago in Colorado, the bulk of the up-for-grabs legislative seats were mostly in the inner suburbs around Denver, with the most-contested races taking place in Lakewood, Arvada, Broomfield, older parts of Aurora and close-in cities in northwest Arapahoe County. There have also been a few districts that kept their battleground status across the decade, including one in the southwest corner of the state and another on the southern edge of Colorado Springs.

Years later, the battlegrounds appear to have shifted to outer-ring suburbs, including parts of Centennial in Arapahoe County that were until recently among the strongest of Republican strongholds, as well as newer parts of Aurora and even Highlands Ranch in heavily GOP Douglas County.

Some of the change is attributable to Trump's influence — attracting working-class voters who used to pull the lever for Democrats, while at the same time repelling suburban voters who were once comfortable identifying as Republicans. Other influences include in-migration and a shifting housing market, forcing young residents who might have lived in Denver among fellow Democratic-leaning voters out to the suburbs, where they've helped turn precincts blue.

None of these is going to end anytime soon, while new, unforeseen factors — like the arrival of Trump — are surely around the corner, meaning concerns over the district maps adopted later this year by the commission could look as strange in 2031 as the 2011 maps look today.

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