Colorado Republicans were popping the corks Tuesday night even before polls across the state closed, and by the time votes had been mostly counted, they were toasting the party's revived chances in next year's midterm election.
Election observers called the gubernatorial race in Virginia for Republican Glenn Youngkin while Colorado voters were still returning ballots, signaling what a top strategist said could be a sea change for the GOP in blue-trending purple states.
Add to that a resurgence by Republican candidates in key local races in Front Range suburbs, and Colorado could be on the map again as the competitive state it had been before the last couple of Democrat-dominated cycles.
"Virginia and Colorado are very similar in the sense the majority of each state's population is suburban and the electorate is well educated, so the race in Virginia could very well be a good barometer for Colorado in 2022," said GOP strategist Ryan Lynch, who could barely contain his glee over Youngkin's come-from-behind win over former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who was seeking a second, non-consecutive term in Virginia.
Lynch said Youngkin's path to victory amid a new political climate could spell trouble for Colorado's incumbent Democrats, including U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, Gov. Jared Polis, Attorney General Phil Weiser, Secretary of State Jena Griswold and State Treasurer Dave Young.
By Wednesday morning, the campaign staff behind at least one of the Republicans hoping to challenge Bennet was sounding the alarm that Colorado was in play and embracing the Youngkin mantle.
"Virginia proves that states where Joe Biden won by double digits are fully up for grabs in 2022, and we believe that Colorado is the next Virginia," wrote Matt Connelly on behalf of Gino Campana's campaign in an email to the Republican's supporters.
"Education, public safety and the economy — those are the three things at the forefront for the suburban electorate. Youngkin played this perfectly, and he may very well have provided a roadmap for how Republicans can succeed in Colorado," Lynch said. "Youngkin kept former President Trump at arm’s length and yet was still able to excite the base and win over moderate voters. That’s precisely what Republicans in Colorado need to do."
And that's what Republicans did in several closely watched Colorado contests, including in Douglas County where GOP-backed candidates swept a Democratic-backed slate to win a majority on the suburban county's nonpartisan school board. In Aurora, meanwhile, city council candidates supported by Mayor Mike Coffman — a former GOP congressman — won four of five races that also were nominally nonpartisan.
Although most of those Republican wins were convincing, Colorado's red tide wasn't uniform — a trio of Democrats swept to victory in Jefferson County's school board election and union-backed candidates prevailed over school reform candidates in Denver's school board races.
Voters also shot down a pair of conservative-backed statewide ballot measures that would have restricted state government spending and cut property taxes, flipping the traditional read of Colorado's electorate on its head: In previous off-year elections, Lynch noted, conservative ballot measures have passed while conservative candidates have fared poorly.
In Denver, where turnout among the heavily Democratic electorate was low, voters defeated a handful of ballot measures proposed by Republicans but also rejected a pricey bid to build a venue at the National Western Stock Show complex. At the same time, voters approved an even more expensive package of bond measures and kept in place the city's controversial group living ordinance.
"There was definitely some voter fatigue across the city, with under 20% voter turnout in an election where there are some big decisions to be made," said Democratic strategist Daniel Aschkinasi.
The results signal the approaching end of the era of term-limited Mayor Michael Hancock, whose third term ends in mid-2023, he noted.
"It was a huge night for the city in terms of reinvesting in itself with the bond proposals but was also a blow to the mayor to lose the National Western rebuild, which a lot of people saw as a final legacy project," Aschkinasi said.
"Voters invested in things that benefit people across the city — they wanted to see investments in public spaces. It was a pretty loud message that voters just weren’t interested in another big shiny thing but wanted to see things like roads and libraries and pools improved, which benefit all income levels across the city, not just folks who can afford to go see a show."
Denver voters were clear, he added, that they want humane solutions to the city's inescapable homeless population.
"It's going to be the No. 1 issue going into the mayoral election: What does Denver do about its homeless problem?" he said. "It’s now on the elected leaders and the groups that are really invested in fighting for these programs and protections to step up and do something."
Added Aschkinasi: "This is really the last page of the Hancock administration’s electoral moments. Now it’s on to the next generation of leaders to see where the city goes."