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Protestors pack onto the west steps during an abortion rights protest outside the Colorado State Capitol Building in reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade on Friday, June 24, 2022, in Denver, Colo. (Timothy Hurst/The Denver Gazette)

Democratic candidates dominated Colorado’s November election, creating perhaps the most liberal-leaning legislature in state history. But that doesn’t mean the fight for progressive policies has been won. 

Democrats flipped seven seats from red to blue in November, leading to a 69-31 Democrat-Republican split at the state Capitol. In the House, the 46-19 split is likely the largest Democratic advantage in state history. And in the Senate, after months of predictions that a “red wave” would result in Republicans seizing control, Democrats ended up gaining two seats, only one short of a two-thirds majority. 

While these margins make Republicans almost powerless to block whatever legislation Democrats want to pass, political analysts see the defining conflict in next month's legislative session as emerging among Democrats themselves — pitting those who want to push the envelope with progressive proposals against those who favor a more moderate approach. 

The shifting delegation

After the election, Colorado now has the seventh highest percentage of Democratic state lawmakers in the nation, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures. By that metric, Colorado ranks sixth in the nation in terms of Democratic state House dominance and 11th for Democratic state Senate control. 

In addition to having more Democrats, the members of this year’s legislature could be the most liberal the state has ever seen, particularly in the state House. 

“There's no denying that the new class of lawmakers contains some very progressive new legislators,” said Ian Silverii, a Democratic insider and former executive director of ProgressNow Colorado. “I'd be surprised if this weren't one of the youngest class of freshmen, majority caucus or even entire House chamber in state history."

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U.S. Rep.-elect Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, right, poses for snapshots with her husband, Ian Silverii, and their son Davis at the opening of the Lakewood Democrat's congressional campaign office in Arvada on Oct. 4, 2022. Pettersen won election on Nov. 8, 2022, to represent Colorado's 7th Congressional District.

He added: "There are more women than ever before, more LGBTQ+ folks, more people of color and more Democrats from rural parts of the state than any class I believe I've ever seen.” 

The infusion of new blood comes as some of the party’s most influential mainstream members are leaving the state House in January. Among them are outgoing House Speaker Alec Garnett, who will become the new chief of staff for the governor; Rep. Kerry Tipper, the Denver city attorney-designee; and, U.S. Rep.-elect Yadira Caraveo. At the same time, the House is getting an influx of progressive policymakers, notably Reps.-elect Elisabeth Epps, a prison abolitionist, Stephanie Vigil, a community organizer, and Javier Mabrey, a housing rights attorney.

In the Denver metro delegation — which makes up roughly half of the 65 House seats — 15 legislators were replaced in November, almost entirely by more progressive candidates. Rep. Adrienne Benavidez has also announced her resignation and another three long-standing Denver representatives could potentially leave the House in a matter of months, as they’re running for local offices in April: Reps. Alex Valdez, Leslie Herod and Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, with the first two seeking the mayor’s office and Gonzales-Gutierrez gunning for city council. 

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SB217 sponsors (from left) Sen. Rhonda Fields, Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez and Rep. Leslie Herod (far right) stand with the parents of De'Von Bailey, who was shot in Colorado Springs while he was running away from an officer, while Gov. Jared Polis signs the historic measure.

Adrian Felix, president of Young Denver Democrats and secretary of Denver Democrats, said the new blood leaning further left than the outgoing Democrats reflects Colorado's voters. 

“Denver has this new delegation that I really think represents the city in terms of how left we're moving. The ones that we've elected are much further left,” Felix said. “Not to rag on the older generations, but we kind of inherited a lot of these problems from their inability to solve these issues. So, maybe it takes a new group of people to get these things figured out. I think it's only going to benefit the state in terms of new ideas, new leadership and new ways of doing things.”

The shifting ideological lean among Denver lawmakers is especially important, as those lawmakers are largely responsible for setting policy trends for the state, said Seth Masket, professor of political science and the director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver. 

“The legislators from the city, in some ways, set the tone for the majority party,” Masket said. “Some of them are from some of the most liberal districts in the state and it’s common that the Democratic leadership comes from the Denver area. They do a lot of agenda setting for the party.”

That means Coloradans can expect to see a lot of legislation regarding affordable housing, criminal justice reform and green climate policies be introduced next session — but it doesn’t necessarily mean all of those bills will pass.

Potential roadblocks

While the incoming class of rookie lawmakers could be the most progressive that Colorado has ever seen, they’ll still be first year lawmakers and, therefore, haven’t accumulated the political influence of veteran legislators. 

Floyd Ciruli, founder of the public policy research and consulting firm Ciruli Associates, said this will be one of the main challenges facing the progressive agenda, as moderate Democrats, such as House Speaker-designee Julie McCluskie, take the reins of the legislative session. 

“It's extremely important as to who the leadership is,” Ciruli said. “The new speaker from Dillon is pretty moderate. The chairmen and the vice chairmen have a lot of power. There's a lot of new people, but they're not necessarily in the position to dominate or set the agenda. My sense is that there will be at least some pressure from the opposite direction. They will be restrained by folks with more experience and leadership.”

Ciruli said longer-standing centrist Democrats may fear political backlash for pursuing progressive policies. He pointed to the 2013 recall of two Democratic senators in Colorado for supporting gun control legislation as evidence of what can happen when voters feel a party has overreached. 

“We have moved much more progressive than that 2013 era, but that was a very liberal group and the backlash took place very quickly,” Ciruli said. “That made Democrats extremely, extremely cautious.” 

Even with their massive majority, Democratic leadership, indeed, appears to be moving cautiously.

In a Q&A with Colorado Politics, Senate President Steve Fenberg said he is going to make a conscious effort to keep legislation bipartisan and include Republicans in policy development. In her House committee assignments, McCluskie continued the tradition of making Republican Rep. Marc Catlin vice chair of the agriculture committee — the only Republican to hold committee leadership for the third year in a row. 

These kinds of decisions have made some Republicans optimistic about the upcoming session, despite being at such a large numerical disadvantage.

House Minority Leader Mike Lynch said McCluskie and Majority Leader Monica Duran have been very cognizant of giving Republicans the opportunity to contribute to the conversation. 

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Newly elected minority house leader Rep. Mike Lynch walks up the main stairs before giving remarks during a ceremony preceding the lying in state of Colorado House Minority Leader Rep. Hugh McKean on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022, in the rotunda of the Colorado State Capitol building in Denver, Colo. (Timothy Hurst/The Gazette)

“The leadership seems to be very common sense and concerned about all views at this point. I can just hope for the best that it will carry through in legislation,” Lynch said. “I'm very hopeful that we'll still be able to get some stuff done and not have to be playing defense the whole time. ... But Speaker McCluskie, she's got a challenge of a very diverse caucus. I don't know how she'll handle that.”

One of the biggest names among the incoming progressive lawmakers, Rep.-elect Elisabeth Epps, appears to be less optimistic than Lynch about the upcoming session. Already, she signaled that a fight is brewing. In a tweet posted on Dec. 16, Epps said she expects progressive efforts will fail more than they will pass. 

“We’re going to lose much more than we win in the coming year,” Epps said. “Our wins are gonna be big — yes, but our losses will be painful and numerous (and indefensible). I hope you keep rocking with those of us who are in this work for the long haul.”

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Denver School Board member Tay Anderson, left, and Elisabeth Epps from the Colorado Freedom Fund stop in front of East High School and address their support for Senate Bill 20-217 that is before the Colorado Legislature. The two joined Denver Public Schools students as they gather at Civic Center Park and march to the Martin Luther King, Jr. statue at City park in support of Black Lives Matter on June 7, 2020 in Denver, Colorado.

Rep.-elect Javier Mabrey, another new leading progressive, said he believes the issues Coloradans want solved are not going to be controversial or divisive among the Democratic Party. 

“The Democrats got to 46 seats because the voters want us. They trust us to address the rising cost of living, to fight for affordable housing, to fight for these basic kitchen table issues. I don’t even want to delineate it in terms of progressive or not. I think it’s just common sense policies that will help working families,” Mabrey said. “I am optimistic that regardless of how individuals may label themselves, that we’re going to come together." 

But as Mabrey has seen firsthand, Democrats have not always been willing to veer too hard to the left when it comes to passing big-ticket progressive legislation. Take as an example 2021's Senate Bill 273, which sought to change the pre-trial detention process by clamping down on the use of arrests and cash bail for "low-level offenses."

Epps and Mabrey, then community organizers, were among the advocates who pushed the bill through a 7½-hour hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Epps sparred with the Republican committee members over the veracity of the points they made in opposition, while Mabrey and his mother, Catherine, told their personal stories of how the legislation could have affected their lives after an incarceration due to an incident involving a barking dog.

The bill advanced on party lines that day, but picked up bipartisan opposition as it moved through the General Assembly. Less than three weeks after clearing Senate Judiciary, the bill died in the House Finance Committee after two Democrats — Reps. Shannon Bird and Matt Gray — voted with Republicans to shut it down. 

While Mabrey said he cannot assure this kind of thing won't happen again next session, he is hopeful that Democrats will be more willing to stand together because "the stakes are too high for us to fail." 

“We have to demonstrate to voters that democracy is a tool that can work for them to meaningfully and materially improve their lives,” Mabrey said. “Our economic system for too long has been stacked against working families. They trust Democrats to do something about it. If we fail to come together and pass policies that will meaningfully address the fundamental inequities in our society, then we are putting democracy at risk." 

Other factors could still prevent legislation from passing despite widespread support from Democratic legislators. 

Though the state Senate reached a 23-12 Democratic majority, in seven of the 10 Senate committees, there is only a one-member difference between Republicans and Democrats, meaning Republicans only have to convince one Democrat to vote “no” on a bill to prevent it from advancing to the full chamber. Newly Democratic Sen. Kevin Priola could help tip the scales for some bills. Though Priola switched from Republican to Democrat in August, he said it would not change how he votes, including opposing Democrat-backed abortion protections.

In addition, the state Senate is one Democrat short of a two-thirds majority, meaning Democrats alone would not be able to counteract Gov. Jared Polis if he vetoes a bill passed by the legislature.

This is a major concern for Felix of Young Denver Democrats. 

“The problem they're going to run into is that they have a governor who seems far more concerned about his presidential aspirations than he does with helping their constituents,” Felix said. “I know all of these legislators have great ideas, but it's really about what the governor is going to allow. At this point in his career, he's just going to be prioritizing his own future.” 

Felix said he fears Polis will veto any legislation that could be seen as controversial to avoid bad press. Polis, a Democrat and wealthy tech entrepreneur who served in Congress for a decade, is a mainstay on shortlists identifying potential presidential candidates for 2024.

Felix pointed to last session, when Polis threatened to veto a bill expanding rights for mobile home residents because it would have capped lot rent increases in mobile home parks. Though the measure had broad Democratic support and enough votes to pass the House and the Senate as written, the bill was amended to remove the rent stabilization portion to avoid Polis’s veto.

“A lot of (legislators) feel that Polis is going to be the be all end all,” Felix said. “If he doesn't think it'll benefit him in terms of his aspirations for running for president, he's probably not going to support it.”

In a statement to Colorado Politics, Polis's spokesman Conor Cahill defended the governor's track record of supporting Democratic policies. 

“The governor just had an over 19 point win on a platform and record of delivering for people’s pocketbook issues of saving them money, saving people money on healthcare, tackling high housing costs, and making us one of the top ten safest states in the country," Cahill said. "The governor intends to continue to focus on delivering on those promises and will always do what’s right for Colorado.” 

Felix said he is specifically worried that Polis will kill legislation regarding rent control, progressive criminal justice reform and increasing education funding next session, with the latter due to a reportedly lacking budget for the year.

Democratic insider Silverii echoed concerns about the budget.

“Without addressing Colorado's structural budgetary issues, the new progressive supermajority in the House and near-supermajority in the Senate won't be able to fully deliver on the things that voters sent them to Denver to do,” Silverii said. “There is a lot of work to do in a short amount of time, and it's going to take a united caucus, strong leadership, creative thinking and strong stomachs to make progress on a whole host of unresolved issues.”

Voter response

After Democrats expanded their legislative dominance in November — in addition to winning every statewide office, five of eight congressional seats and nearly unseating Republican U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert — some party insiders believe the Republican Party is all but dead in Colorado. However, Silverii warns that a revival is possible, depending on the Democrats' performance this session. 

“When I got here in 2006, we were a red state that was quickly empurpling, and anyone who thinks the pendulum can't swing just as hard and just as fast in the other direction needs to pay closer attention to history,” Silverii said. “Colorado voters could very well reconsider how much power they want in the hands of one party.”

Silverii encouraged the Democratic leadership to focus on caucus unity, common sense progressive legislation and responding to community needs, while cautioning against “ideological purity tests, performative legislation and personality politics.”

Though the worst thing Democrats could do, he said, is “squander the opportunities the voters have given them by doing nothing.”

Felix agreed, saying his biggest worry for the upcoming legislative session is that Democrats will not listen to the message voters sent during the election, which he views as mandate to pursue more progressive policies.

“Colorado very much gave this to Democrats,” Felix said. “They wouldn't give it to Democrats if they didn't believe in our ideals or the things that we believe or the things that we want to accomplish. My fear is that they've given us this incredible supermajority and that we're not going to run with it. Instead, we're going to take the more moderate stance.” 

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Gov. Jared Polis (left) and Adrian Felix (right) at the Democratic Party of Denver's annual picnic on Aug. 15, 2021 at Ruby Hill Park in Denver, Colo.

Pollster Ciruli suggested that voters may have not been choosing Democrats as much as they were rejecting Republicans, an opinion he thinks some moderate members of the Democratic Party share.

“My thought is that new leadership in general is going to be very conscious of it. They won a great victory here, but it was a surprise. While it's a welcome surprise for them, I think they recognized that it wasn't because the Democratic brand was completely adopted by everyone. Rather, there was a sense that the Republicans collapsed,” Ciruli said. "There's going to be a sense, particularly among the leadership, that they were pulled in by this wave and they could be pulled out by a new wave.” 

While Ciruli said Democrat leaders will likely be cautious in picking their battles regarding progressive policies — rallying around crowd favorite issues, such as affordable housing — the weakened state of the Republican Party will make it difficult for voters to hold Democrats accountable, regardless of whether they under or over perform this session. 

Though, this newest batch of lawmakers from the November election could also bring hope for Colorado’s Republican Party, said Eric Sondermann, an independent political analyst who regularly writes for Colorado Politics.

"The Republican caucus in both the House and the Senate, not just in the metro area but across the state, has gotten somewhat more mainstream. A number of those Republican primaries last June were won by the centrist Republican as opposed to the hardcore Trump-y Republican,” Sondermann said. “Moderate Republicans will have the opportunity to have somewhat more influence in an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature, so that piece is probably for the better.”

Of the 10 sitting GOP House members considered to lean the furthest right, nine of them did not run for reelection in November: Reps. Ron Hanks, Tim Geitner, Patrick Neville, Andres Pico, Kim Ransom, Shane Sandridge, Dave Williams, Mark Baisley and Kevin Van Winkle, the last two of whom switched to the state Senate. That leaves Rep. Stephanie Luck, who won her reelection, as the only remaining far-right House member. 

Pico, Geitner and Van Winkle's seats were all won by Democratic candidates. For Republican candidates who are holding on to the seats, most are much more moderate than their predecessors. For example, Reps.-elect Lisa Frizell, Anthony Hartsook and Rose Pugliese, who are replacing Neville, Ransom and Sandridge, respectively. 

As the Colorado Republican Party is becoming more moderate, Sondermann said non-competitive Denver metro districts and low turnout primaries largely reflecting activist ideals have pushed the Democratic Party further to the left than the general public. He said this puts a burden on Democratic leaders, such as McCluskie and Polis, to rein in their own caucus on occasion. 

Dick Wadhams, a Republican political consultant and a former Colorado Republican state chairman, argued in a recent column that Democrats pushing for more progressive legislation would be an opportunity for the GOP. Wadhams said Democrats "might actually go too far even in the minds of the unaffiliated voters who stood by them in 2022." 

Sondermann said the upcoming Denver municipal election in April will be a good indicator for Democratic lawmakers about whether they need to hold back or push forward with progressive policies, depending on how the liberal candidates perform. 

“Voters hold the ultimate veto card, which is if one party gets carried away, voters have the ability every two years in legislative elections to dial it back,” Sondermann said. “That said, the Democratic majorities in both houses are now so overwhelming that the most voters are going to do in any one election is trim a few seats here and there off the Democratic majority. They're not going to flip either of those houses anytime soon.”

Despite his party's influence shrinking, Minority Leader Lynch remains optimistic about the upcoming session, saying he is incredibly impressed with his new crop of Republican representatives. 

“This group is less ideological and more of the ‘get work done’ kind of folks,” Lynch said. "They're going to show that the Republican Party is serious about policy issues and not the political games. We've got some initiatives that I think we'll be able to get passed. We're not going to be dead in the water. We're not just sitting there hitting the red button all day long. We've got folks that are going to contribute to the conversation.”

Javier Mabrey

Javier Mabrey

But with more Democrats in the legislature than Colorado has ever seen before, the next session is theirs to lose — and Rep.-elect Mabrey said he and the other incoming Democrats are ready to face the challenge. 

“Colorado voters knew exactly what they were doing when they sent us there,” Mabrey said. “They are struggling to afford the rising cost of living, struggling to stay in their communities, to put food on the table. They doubled down on Democratic leadership expecting us to take bold action. It’s going to be an exciting legislative session.” 

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