Election 2021 Virginia Governor

Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin speaks to supporters during a rally in Fredericksburg, Va., on Oct. 30, 2021. Youngkin's victory over Democrat Terry McAuliffe on Nov. 2 has inspired Republicans to argue Colorado's election next year is up for grabs, and several GOP candidates are claiming they are the heir to Youngkin's mantle.

If Halloween had come a week later this year, there's a good chance a number of the Colorado Republicans running in the U.S. Senate primary might have dressed up as Glenn Youngkin, the Republican who won the Virginia governor's race on Nov. 2.

The battle to define the 2022 election has been underway for a while, but the lines became much clearer this week. 

The stakes are high.

Democrats will be trying to prove that the last three general elections weren't flukes, and that the state has tilted to the left rather than having mainly demonstrating how much state voters dislike Donald Trump.

Republicans, meanwhile, will be trying to jolt the out-of-power GOP back to life and demonstrate that Colorado's recent status as a battleground hasn't been lost to history.

Nowhere will the tension between the two parties play out as prominently as in the race for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Michael Bennet, who is already the longest-serving senator from Colorado in the last 50 years and is making a bid to become the state's first senator elected to a third term since the mid-1960s.

While the race hasn't so far attracted much attention outside Colorado's borders, the results of an election 1,500 miles away this week prompted one leading election forecaster to downgrade the Democrats' chances of hanging onto the state's Senate seat.

Surveying the aftermath of Youngkin's win in Virginia over Terry McAuliffe, a former governor and this year's Democratic nominee in the commonwealth, Kyle Kondik and J. Miles Coleman, the seers at  Sabato's Crystal Ball changed the 2022 ratings for four Democratic-held Senate seats, moving Arizona, Georgia and Nevada one step from Leans Democratic to Toss-Up and moving Colorado one step from Safe Democratic to Likely Democratic.

The shift doesn't mean Bennet isn't still favored, the forecasters made clear, but the electoral fault lines exposed in November's off-year election mean the Colorado Democrat's re-election bid might not be the sure thing it had been shaping up to be.

Loading up the caveats — it's a year until the midterm, President Joe Biden's lackluster approval rating could rebound, and former President Donald Trump could reassert himself and remind suburban voters why they swung away from the GOP in recent years — the Crystal Ball authors described Bennet's position: "He could potentially be vulnerable if 2022 turns into a GOP mega-wave."

Kondik and Coleman said the election in Virginia — including gains by Republicans in other statewide offices and in the legislature — answered a few questions about the electorate that had been lingering since Trump is no longer on the ballot or in the White House.

Would conservative voters still turn out without Trump to motivate them? Can Republicans woo back suburban voters while maintaining their strength among rural voters? Do the traditional rules of Virginia off-year elections still hold? (For decades, the party that won the White House the year before has nearly always lost the state's governor's race.)

"Unfortunately for Democrats, and fortunately for Republicans, the answers to all of these questions were a resounding 'yes,'" the Crystal Ballers concluded.

And that spells a more difficult year ahead for Democrats, no matter how you slice it.

At this point, it's unknown how closely next year's election in Colorado will resemble the 2010 election, the last time a Democrat in the White House — Barack Obama — presided over his first midterm.

That year, Colorado voters punished Democrats up and down the ballot, angry that the economy was slow to recover from downturns it suffered under the previous, Republican president. Conservatives and Republicans alike were riled up by the Tea Party, a loosely organized populist group that fronted for wealthy interests similarly to how the MAGA crowd stokes GOP-leaning voters these days.

But even as Colorado voters swung to the right at the polls that year, handing a slim majority to Republicans in Colorado's House of Representatives, they elected Bennet to his first full term over Republican nominee Ken Buck by the skin of his teeth and handed the governor's office to Denver's mayor, John Hickenlooper, who joined Bennet as the state's junior senator after last year's election.

Establishing that Bennet is more vulnerable than has been assumed is one thing. It's another thing, though, to make a case that any of his potential GOP opponents can unseat the incumbent.

Eight Republicans are running for the nomination, though it's still early in the race and none has so far emerged as a clear frontrunner.

The morning after Youngkin was declared the winner in Virginia, the campaigns of several of Bennet's Republican challengers argued that their candidate embodies that Youngkin appeal and can duplicate his feat.

The similarities between Colorado and Virginia are impossible to ignore.

Both states have a similar mix of suburban and rural populations, both were once reliably Republican-leaning and have trended solidly toward the Democrats since Obama's 2008 election. With well-educated electorates, both have nearly identical Cook Political Report partisan voter indexes — D+2 in Virginia, D+3 in Colorado — and both swung for Biden by double digits last year, though Colorado swung a little harder than Virginia. According to recent polling, Biden is underwater with voters in both states by identical margins.

Against that backdrop, the campaigns advisors to three of Bennet's challengers — Eli Bremer, Gino Campana and Joe O'Dea — circulated internal memos and issued statements framing their candidate as the one true heir to Youngkin's mantle. 

Youngkin's message, said a memo authored by Bremer's campaign, "was bolstered by the fact that he ran against an entrenched career politician who was unable to offer a creative, different or fresh approach or perspective. Youngkins’ status as an outsider businessman was crucial to his credibility and appeal.

"In Colorado, Eli Bremer has a similar message. As a businessman, first-time candidate and Olympian, Bremer is memorable and clearly not a typical candidate. Like Youngkin, he is also running against the consummate vanilla political insider in Michael Bennet."

Campana, according to a memo sent on Nov. 3 to his finance committee, "was given the opportunity to live the American Dream thanks to the compassion of one American soldier in 1943 who legally sponsored his father’s immigration to the United States from the war-torn city of Naples, Italy. Now, Gino is ready to fight to give every American family the opportunity to live the same dream....

"Gino isn’t a politician. He’s a father, coach, builder, entrepreneur, and first generation American who wants to stop Sen. Michael Bennet and Joe Biden from destroying our country. An appointee of President Trump, Gino earned the confidence of the President and has demonstrated his strong conservative credentials."

O'Dea's campaign said in a release: “Virginia’s verdict is a clarion call to Republicans in Colorado — if we nominate a competent leader and happy conservative warrior we can unite Republicans and appeal to those simply looking for a reduction in inflation, debt, and national spending, and a return to normal. Joe O’Dea is the son of a cop, a concrete guy, a fighter — Biden’s errand boy Michael Bennet doesn’t want any part of this guy.”

Bennet's campaign manager, Justin Lamorte, said the forecaster's rating change only confirms what the Democrat's campaign has been saying all along, that Colorado's isn't a solidly Democratic seat and that Bennet will be running in a difficult climate.

"In Colorado we are always prepared for a close election, and Michael won in 2010 while facing strong headwinds in a midterm," Lamorte said.

"That’s why Michael’s campaign is off to a strong start, and he is running on his record of delivering for Coloradans, including passing the expanded Child Tax Credit to cut taxes for lower and middle income families. Looking ahead, Michael is working hard to pass legislation that will cut the costs of health care, and child care, and fight climate change with investments in clean energy and outdoor restoration that will grow jobs and strengthen our economy."

Even as the calendar moves on to other holidays and into the new year, if the GOP candidates start occasionally referring to Colorado as "the commonwealth," there's a strong possibility they've got their Youngkin costume in mind.

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