Colorado voters made two things clear in Tuesday's primary election: The state's blue streak could be put to the test in this year's general election, and the Democrats who spent millions of dollars trying to pick Republican nominees failed spectacularly.
In linked developments, voters in the state's Republican primary — including a record-high share of unaffiliated voters who decided to cast GOP ballots — pulled the GOP ticket back from a brink by nominating more traditional candidates in contested statewide and congressional races, while at the same time rejecting massive efforts by Democrats to steer Republican voters toward more overtly conservative candidates.
Business owner Joe O'Dea, a first-time candidate with a history of donating to U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, the Democrat he's hoping to unseat, won the nomination over Ron Hanks, who boasts that he's ranked among the most conservative lawmakers in the statehouse.
University of Colorado Regent Heidi Ganahl, the only Republican statewide office-holder, likewise prevailed over Greg Lopez, the former mayor of Parker making a second run at the gubernatorial nomination. She will face Gov. Jared Polis in November.
In the other contested statewide GOP primary, former Jefferson County Clerk Pam Anderson won over embattled Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters and political newcomer Mike O'Donnell in the race to take on Democratic Secretary of State Jena Griswold. This primary, in particularly, largely served as a proxy battle over competing views on the integrity of Colorado's election system — with Anderson, a chief architect of the system, contending it's largely secure and Peters claiming it's riddled with opportunity for fraud.
In an electoral bank shot, a Democratic-funded avalanche of TV advertising and mailers describing Hanks and Lopez as "too conservative" for Colorado could have effectively painted their respective primary opponents, O'Dea and Ganahl, as the moderates in the race, setting the table for the GOP nominees to take advantage of what could be an ideal year for Republicans, a veteran GOP consultant told Colorado Politics.
Across the state, voters in the GOP primary handed losses to the candidates whose campaigns were most clearly identified with former President Donald Trump and unfounded claims that he won the 2020 presidential election, with one notable exception.
It was enough to avoid what prominent GOP candidates and strategists had warned would be a nightmare scenario, with the party's nominees unable to capitalize on an approaching red wave.
O'Dea and Ganahl posted convincing — if not overwhelming — wins, each receiving about 54% of the vote, with O'Dea doing slightly better. In the three-way primary for secretary of state, Anderson pulled in about 43%, for a plurality, while O'Donnell and Peters hovered around 28% apiece, with Peters slightly ahead in late, unofficial results.
The same pattern played out in the crowded GOP primaries for open congressional seats in the 7th and 8th districts, where self-described MAGA candidates Laurel Imer and Lori Saine came in third with 16% and 21%, respectively.
In El Paso County, voters' rejection of the more aggressively Trump-aligned candidates is even more pronounced, with the establishment Republicans taking between 60% and 70% in nearly every race featuring challenges from upstart candidates who secured "top line" ballot positions with wins at GOP assemblies.
Colorado Springs Republican Dave Williams, a state lawmaker and the only candidate to make the 5th Congressional District primary ballot at the district assembly, lost to incumbent Doug Lamborn with 33% of the vote in a four-way race.
U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, the only Colorado candidate endorsed this year by Trump, proved to be the exception with her landslide, 30-point win over state Sen. Don Coram, a Montrose Republican, in her bid for a second term representing the 3rd Congressional District. The incumbent's celebrity status and massive fundraising advantage likely benefited her in the Republican-leaning, largely rural district.
Republican consultant Ryan Lynch, who hasn't work on any of Colorado's state-level or congressional races this cycle, said the state GOP dodged a bullet.
"A Ron Hanks or a Tina Peters on the statewide ballot could've sunk the whole ticket," he said, noting that down-ticket legislative and county candidates would have suffered, in part because national Republicans would have been less likely to put Colorado races on their map.
"Excessive spending on the Democratic side to try to promote the fringe-right candidate inevitably backfired," he said. "It failed, but now you've upped the name ID of our candidates, and our candidates have been portrayed as moderates with millions spent to communicate that to voters."
Democrats, he added, "will pivot to calling Joe O'Dea too extreme, but that'll fall flat after Democrats spent weeks describing O'Dea as the moderate one. Democratic special interests have done the Republican statewide ticket big favors."
There's little question that Colorado will be more competitive over the next four months than it would have been if Hanks, Lopez or Peters had won their statewide race's respective primaries, with strategists from both parties suggesting that the state could start cropping up on battleground lists in coming months.
Democrats, however, dispute the notion that the GOP nominees — particularly O'Dea and Ganahl — qualify as centrists, as they've been described this week in media accounts, merely because they aren't as far out there as the Republicans they defeated.
“With abortion rights no longer federally protected, Coloradans are counting on their governor to safeguard their right to an abortion,” said Democratic Governors Association spokeswoman Christina Amestoy in a statement on Wednesday. “Heidi Ganahl vowed to ‘rip up’ Coloradans' reproductive rights and ban abortion if elected. Reproductive freedoms for millions of Coloradans are on the line this November, and the only way to protect them is to re-elect Gov. Jared Polis and shut down Ganahl’s extreme, anti-choice agenda.”
Alvina Vasquez, a Democratic consultant and spokeswoman for Democratic Colorado, one of the independent expenditure committees that spent heavily in the Republican Senate primary, predicted the group's advertising will bear fruit.
“Time and again, Joe O’Dea has said one thing and done another — it’s clear that O’Dea is not who he says he is, and Coloradans can’t trust him to fight for their interests," she told Colorado Politics in an email. "We know that Democratic Colorado’s efforts to educate voters on O’Dea’s record and expose his hypocrisy have laid the groundwork to defeat him in November.”
Kristi Burton Brown, chairwoman of the Colorado Republican Party, suggested that GOP nominees will keep the focus on inflation and other topics that will drive voters this fall.
"The Democrats proved throughout this primary that they are afraid," she said in a statement. "They spent millions of dollars in illegal and false mailers because they know Michael Bennet and Jared Polis are in trouble. They are afraid because their candidates have failed. They are a rubber stamp on the Biden agenda of record breaking gas prices and costly inflation. These failed Democrat policies are hurting Coloradans across our state. Make no mistake: we will hold these Democrat officials accountable."
Referring to a campaign platform unveiled last year by the state GOP, Burton Brown added: "In November, Colorado voters will choose the Republican Commitment to Colorado and elect new leaders who bring real solutions on the cost of living, public safety, and providing better education for our kids."
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the most recent vote count.