John Mikos, the chairman of the El Paso County Democratic Party, said he doesn’t get discouraged helming the underdog team in one of the state’s most reliably Republican counties — in part, because the county’s electorate has been shifting toward his party in the last few cycles.
Colorado Springs last year had the national distinction of being the large metropolitan area — with a population over 250,000 — with the greatest swing against former President Donald Trump between the 2016 and 2020 elections, 11.37 percentage points, as a share of the two-party vote. That's according to a New York Times analysis that still gets plenty of attention at local Democratic headquarters. (Two other Colorado metro areas — Fort Collins and Denver — finished in second and third place on the national ranking, a phenomenon the Times attributed to the fast-growing state’s preponderance of people with four-year college degrees.)
Mikos, a career Army officer and Iraq combat veteran who retired with the rank of colonel, calls himself a lifelong Democrat, though he notes that he didn’t get politically active until after he hung up his uniform.
Mikos and his wife live in Monument — enjoying a good view of the Air Force Academy from their patio, he says — and have four children and one grandchild.
Our interview with Mikos has been edited for length and clarity.
Colorado Politics: How did you land in El Paso County, and what led to your election this past spring as county chair?
John Mikos: I'm a retired Army officer, moved around my entire life quite a bit. My wife and I settled here just in the last few years; we’ve enjoyed traveling through Colorado for years. I became involved in the local Democratic Party, and then this past year when we had a reorganization, the previous chair, Electra Johnson, a good friend of mine, stepped down, and I threw my hat in the ring, and lo and behold, became the new party chair.
CP: Had you been stationed in the Colorado Springs region at any time when you were active duty?
Mikos: No, I wasn’t stationed here, though we had visited quite a bit. It's really a perfect place for military retirees, with great systems, good TRICARE; it's just a wonderful community for retired military. It’s a great community all around.
CP: El Paso County has been a Republican stronghold for as long as anyone can remember, although that hold seems to be loosening a bit in recent years. Is that something you feel on the ground, or does it just look that way on paper?
Mikos: I feel it on the ground. It does reflect the numbers. I think the message is this: El Paso County is rapidly trending purple. That is the clear indication. Population change is driving that, voter registration is driving that, and even voter trends. I am confident that over the next few years, we are going to see increasingly competitive districts within El Paso County in the state legislative races and in the county commissioner races. All of the numbers point in that direction, towards a purple county with competitive districts. I think that's consistent with what voters want. Even redistricting is going to advance that, because one of the goals of the independent redistricting commission is to produce more competitive districts. Democrats in El Paso County are feeling very positive about where we stand right now.
CP: Are you talking about what showed up last year when Colorado Springs was found to have had the biggest shift, nationally, from Republican to Democratic in the presidential vote, in large metro areas?
Mikos: That’s right, it was a New York Times analysis, and it was the Colorado Springs metropolitan area, so a bit broader than the city but not quite the whole county. The analysis of the 2020 presidential race showed we had the largest shift away from President Trump from 2016 to 2020. That's one of those trends that I mentioned, the voting trends. Voting registration trends are heading that way as well. Throughout Colorado, we're seeing the rise of the unaffiliated voter, that’s clear. It’s impacting all of the parties. But in El Paso County, the Republican registration has been dropping off precipitously, whereas the Democratic Party registration has really just declined by a fraction of a percentage point.
Right now, there are 720,000 people in the county, and 508,000 voters — 44% of those are unaffiliated, 34% are Republican, 20% Democrat, and then 2% other, third parties. But the story behind the story has been the drop from just a few years ago where the Republicans were running 42-43% of county registration, and they're down, into the mid-30s, while the Democratic Party registration in El Paso County is basically holding its own, it’s dropped about a half of a percentage point. So you can tell already that the preponderance of these unaffiliated voters are leaving the ranks of the Republican Party, and, we believe, they become more persuadable. Our job as a local party is to get organized, to get the Democratic Party message out and to be actively involved in voter engagement, voter registration, those kinds of activities.
CP: How much do you think that shift between 2016 and 2020 can be attributed to voter reaction to Donald Trump, rather than generic partisan decisions, as El Paso County starts to act more like other large suburban counties in Colorado? Once Trump is no longer on the ballot, won’t many of these voters return to the GOP?
Mikos: I'm not going to delve into exactly what motivates Republican voters. I'm sure there's a lot of Republicans who are very conflicted, and I’m sure there are a lot of Republican voters who are really questioning where their party has gone — that’s something they’ll have to figure out. No doubt there’s truth that Donald Trump was a particularly toxic person and there may be some votes against Trump, but what I see in El Paso County is that there are other trends that seem to support that. This is becoming a rapidly, more diverse county. The Latino population is increasing, it's the largest demographic as a percentage of increase in the recent census numbers. That kind of diversity generally helps the Democratic Party. We’re a party in which everybody is welcome, and I think that plays very well here in El Paso County.
CP: It looks like three Democrats are already challenging Doug Lamborn, but every time he’s run for re-election, the question has always been whether he could survive a Republican primary, since the Democratic nominees seem to hit the ceiling at about 40% of the vote. When are Democrats going to be competitive in that congressional race?
Mikos: We have, and we'll continue to put competitive candidates forward. The voters of the 5th Congressional District are going to have some real choices. There's a significant degree of dissatisfaction in many quarters, to include perhaps within his own party, of Congressman Lamborn. So we're going to be competitive starting in 2022 and increasingly competitive as we move into the out years. This is becoming a more competitive district. The preliminary maps that have been released by the (redistricting) commission are very favorable. The remaining parts of the county that are in the district are the parts that are growing in Democratic votes, so we are feeling very optimistic about that. We do have three declared candidates already, all fine people. I think the voters want to see that.
CP: You certainly aren’t running the county Democratic Party in a vacuum. The county's Republican Party has had some controversies and even some difficulty organizing in the last year. Does that make it easier to do your job, when the opposition is in some disarray, or does that encourage people to throw up their hands and say they don’t want to be involved in politics?
Mikos: I hope people don't throw their hands up, because we don’t want people to get disengaged about being active politically. I think that the political parties in this country play an important role framing the issues, in candidate development, and in making sure that there's a mechanism for people to run for office. I’m very proud of the fact that in El Paso County, we have a real grassroots organization, and it's a way for people to get on the ballot. We don't run closed-door sessions. We don't pick favorites before the primary. The party stays neutral and it encourages Democrats to come forward, and it helps them navigate that process. We welcome primaries. We aren’t trying to get out of primaries.
I'm not going to speak to the Republican Party. It's obvious that they're working through some stuff right now. My only hope is that everything doesn't get voters disillusioned about civics and about the positive way that political life can shape our community. That's why I'm in it, and that’s why I do what I do. I get a lot of energy and spend a lot of time with young Democrats, talking with young people about the value of public service, encouraging them to start out with things like being on an advisory board or a commission or running for school board, carving out a part of your professional life that you get into civic life, volunteerism. That kind of thing is what we're trying to promote.
We're in this for the long game. We're not in this for just the next election cycle. We want to create a competitive environment throughout El Paso County where there's robust discussion about the issues, candidates coming forward, and the voters of El Paso County having real choices in every district. That's our goal.
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