COVER STORY YEAR IN REVIEW Mike Coffman

Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman addresses the Colorado GOP watch party on Nov. 6, 2018, at the Denver Marriott South at Park Meadows in Lone Tree after conceding the race for the Colorado 6th District to Democratic challenger Jason Crow.

Of course Coloradans will be focused on the presidential and U.S. Senate races on Election Day, but I’m going to be just as interested to learn whether Highlands Ranch sends a Democrat to the state Legislature for the first time.

If Republicans prevail, the margin of victory will be closely examined.

I lived in Highlands Ranch for three years in the 1990s. As a registered Democrat then, primary elections were lonely affairs. Douglas County was so Republican in that era not a single Democrat ran for any county office, including treasurer and commissioner, in 2002.

“They're depressed,'' Ernie Felix, the Douglas County Democratic Party chairman, said at the time. “They don't feel they can win.''

But the times clearly are changing, as evidenced by Highland Ranch’s performance in the 2016 presidential election and voter trends in the Douglas County portion of Congressional District 6.

If you don’t think it can happen, you haven’t paid attention to Arapahoe and Jefferson County politics.

For decades, Douglas County was almost an outpost in the metro area. The population was small, and the lifestyle rural.

The first homes in Highlands Ranch weren’t built until 1981, the same year the town of Parker incorporated. The population of Douglas County at the time was 25,153, but from 1990 to 1997, the U.S. Census listed Douglas County as the fastest growing county in the nation.

The number of Republicans kept growing, too.

Douglas County’s population now is around 350,000, with about 30% of the residents living in Highlands Ranch.

In 1998, Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Owens took 62% of the vote in Douglas County. That's 1 percentage point more than Owens received in El Paso County, which fashioned itself as the heart of Colorado's Republican Party. Owens went on to win in a race so close it wasn't called until the next day.

At the time, Republicans accounted for 48% of the voters in Douglas County, with unaffiliated voters at 30% and Democrats at 21%.

No one would have predicted then that unaffiliated voters would become the largest voting bloc in Douglas County, a phenomenon seen elsewhere in Colorado and the country. Unaffiliated voters now represent 40% of the voters in Douglas County, with Republicans at 38% and Democrats at 20%.

In other words, the percentage of Democrats barely changed over those years, while Republicans, whoa. Douglas County is still a mostly wealthy, mostly white, mostly conservative county with unaffiliated voters still selecting Republican candidates.

But these are tough times for Colorado Republicans.

Statewide, Democrats control the state Senate and state House, and all five constitutional offices, from governor to treasurer.

The 65 legislative districts in the House are so gerrymandered it’s nearly impossible for Republicans to win the majority. House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, a Castle Rock Republican, said he hopes a new process underway for drawing legislative and congressional districts will make life more even starting with the 2022 election.

It doesn’t help that Republican Donald Trump, who is running for a second term for president, is unpopular in the Centennial State. That’s a key reason Colorado Democrats recorded historic gains in 2018.

That year, state Rep. Kevin Van Winkle, a Highlands Ranch Republican, won re-election with 53% of the vote. (A third-party candidate took 2%.) Two years earlier, Van Winkle cruised to victory with 60% of the vote.

This year, the small businessman, who is running for his fourth and final term, faces Democrat Jennifer Mitkowski, a physician’s assistant, also from Highlands Ranch.

Democrats are putting money into her race. And why not?

More than one-fifth of the precincts in Highlands Ranch went for Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016, according to a recent story about Douglas County politics by Bente Birkeland with Colorado Public Radio.

A look at the 6th Congressional District, which was redrawn after the 2010 census, is telling. Most of the district lies in Arapahoe and Adams counties, but a piece is in Douglas County. About 90% of the Douglas County area is in Highlands Ranch.

Republican Congressman Mike Coffman, running for re-election in the newly redrawn district in 2012, nearly lost. It was Douglas County where Coffman won big, with 33,157 votes over Democratic state Rep. Joe Miklosi’s 19,501 votes.

Coffman adjusted his message from hard-core conservative to moderate Republican and amped up his work with the immigrant community. He coasted to victory in the next two elections, but then came the 2018 wipeout, when he was beaten by a fellow combat veteran, Democrat Jason Crow.

Coffman still won Douglas County, but only by 4,000 votes. Two years earlier in Douglas County, Coffman easily took out former state Sen. Morgan Carroll, now the Colorado Democratic Party chairwoman, by more than 13,000 votes.

Among the Republicans who believe Coffman’s criticism of Trump cost him the election is former lawmaker Ted Harvey of Highlands Ranch. Harvey and Coffman were among the four Republicans who sought the GOP nomination for the open seat in the 6th District in 2008. At the time, the district included all of Douglas County and was red, red, red Republican.

“Mike Coffman lost because he ran against President Trump for two years instead of running for Congress,” said Harvey, chairman of the Committee to Defend the President political action committee.

Other Republicans lost, he said, because they didn’t run good races.

Dustin Zvonek ran Coffman’s first congressional race and remains involved in politics, particularly in the southern metro area.

“I do believe the Highlands Ranch portion of Douglas County has become more competitive because of the competitive nature of Congressional District 6 as a whole,” he said. “National Democrats realized to win the seat they had to close the gap in Douglas County because that was pushing Coffman over the finish line.”

Zvonek believes it will take a couple more election cycles to determine whether Highlands Ranch becomes the ”first soft underbelly” in Douglas County, moving from solidly Republican to swing status.

That’s what happened in neighboring Jefferson and Arapahoe counties. Republicans held the advantage, but a number of offices were considered swing seats where the political climate played a role in determining which party won the office.

That swinging has stopped.

Today, Rep. Colin Larson of Ken Caryl Ranch is the lone Jefferson County Republican in the legislature. Republicans are campaigning hard in Arapahoe County but Democrats predict they will pick up at least two legislative seats.

Times change. When I covered my first legislative session, in 2000, Republicans controlled both chambers and the governor’s office. The GOP majority included two Republicans from Denver, Rep. Dorothy Gotlieb and Sen. Dottie Wham.

These definitely are strange times when a Democrat in Highlands Ranch has a better chance of winning a legislative seat than a Republican in Denver.

Lynn Bartels thinks politics is like sports but without the big salaries and protective cups. The Washington Post's "The Fix" blog named her one of Colorado's best political reporters and tweeters. Bartels, a South Dakota native, graduated from Cottey College in 1977 and Northern Arizona University in 1980 and then moved to New Mexico for her first journalism job. The Rocky Mountain News hired her in 1993 as its night cops reporter and in 2000 assigned her to her first legislative session. The Gold Dome hasn't been the same since. In 2009, The Denver Post hired Bartels after the Rocky closed, just shy of its 150th birthday. Bartels left journalism in 2015 to join then Secretary of State Wayne Williams's staff. She has now returned to journalism - at least part-time - and writes a regular political column for Colorado Politics.

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