If there were doubts as to Colorado’s true political colors, Tuesday’s mighty blue wave washed them away.
Many political analysts and observers across the state say Democrats’ Election Day sweep signaled Colorado’s shift from a purple state teetering between two political parties to some yet-unknown shade of blue.
The change didn’t happen overnight, despite Democrats capturing more power in one day than they’ve had since the 1930s. Rather, it evolved slowly and steadily.
A string of Republican candidates who have failed to attract voters beyond their base and a sophisticated, well-heeled strategy 15 years ago by Democrats to move the state left added momentum to the state’s shifting political tides, political analysts say.
And the dam broke Tuesday amid an overwhelming distaste among most Colorado voters for President Donald Trump’s brand of politics.
“Colorado is a blue state, it’s been going blue, and this election confirms that,” said Tony Robinson, chair of the University of Colorado Denver’s political science department.
Gov.-elect Jared Polis “leads a party that is now in control that is very liberal,” added Floyd Ciruli, an independent pollster and founder of Ciruli Associates. “This is not a powder blue or a periwinkle or purple or whatever. It’s blue.”
Even so, blue waves of the past faltered quickly when Colorado voters recoiled at Democrats’ ambitious agendas. And longtime political observers say Democrats must avoid the same missteps if they are to stay in power.
Most recently, when Democrats had a supermajority in 2013, Republican voters recalled two state senators — including Senate President John Morse of Colorado Springs — amid backlash for the lawmakers’ support of gun control legislation. Democrats lost the state Senate a year later.
A similar moment happened in 1974, when Dick Lamm and other Democrats rose to power amid the Watergate scandal. The momentum lasted only a couple of years, after voters recoiled at Democrats’ intense environmental and liberal agenda, Ciruli said.
“It doesn’t take long for — whether it’s a recall or it’s simply the next election cycle — the blue wave to recede very quickly,” Ciruli said. “His [Polis’] greatest challenge will be on the back benches of the Democratic Party, in the Legislature. And his challenge is how to say ‘No,’ and keep everybody in the tent.”
Unaffiliated largest voting bloc
The true scope of Colorado’s shift to the left is without precedent in the last 80 years, experts say.
Polis comes into office with a Democratic attorney general, treasurer and secretary of state — the latter office being won by Jena Griswold, who unseated a nationally heralded incumbent, Republican Wayne Williams, who seemed to transcend party while making Colorado the safest place to vote. Both legislative chambers will be controlled next year by Democrats, after they retook the Senate. And four of the state’s seven congressional districts lean left.
They did it all without Democrats being the state’s largest voting bloc. More unaffiliated voters turned out in the fall election than either Democrats or Republicans. And rarely have they been as enthusiastic to hit the polls.
More than 260,000 more of them voted this year, compared with the last midterm election in 2014. Combine that with a powerhouse showing by Democrats, and Republicans hardly had a chance, analysts said.
Such voters usually skew blue — underlining the fact that most unaffiliated voters are hardly independent. And enthusiasm among their youngest voters likely proved to be a difference maker.
Roughly twice as many unaffiliated voters ages 18 to 40 — in other words, millennials — cast ballots as Republicans their same age, enough for a nearly 178,000-vote advantage. Not even Democrats had such an edge.
The GOP’s only sizable advantage came in voters ages 61 and older. It follows a national trend for unaffiliated voters, which are usually young and lean blue.
“They’re just entering the voting stream, Trump was a motivation for them, and they’re going to be here for a while,” Ciruli said.
A ‘trigger’ was Trump
The reasons for Colorado’s leftward tilt are myriad, including:
• A grassroots, coordinated effort over the last 15 years by a few top Democrats — Polis being among them — that injected their party with new money and momentum.
• A lack of Republican candidates capable of appealing to more than just their party’s base.
• And distaste for Trump that spurred a deluge of people to vote blue down the ballot.
“Obviously, the trigger was Donald Trump,” Ciruli said. “If you look at all the advertising they did, they did all they could to tie every conceivable opponent up and down the ticket to Donald Trump.”
“But this has been building for some time.”
It began in 2004, when a handful of wealthy liberals and Democrats came together with a goal: reimagine the Democratic Party in Colorado with an eye toward finally turning the state blue.
Called the “Gang of Four,” they worked campaign finance laws to their advantage and poured millions of dollars into statewide legislative races — moves detailed in the 2010 book “The Blueprint.”
Among them was Polis, who won election to Congress in 2008. And together, they built “the new Democratic Party — a very sophisticated party, lots of money, lots of interlocking committees, lots of strategies,” Ciruli said.
“Slowly but surely, they built a much better Democratic Party that now regularly controls the Legislature,” he added.
Meanwhile, Republicans failed to help themselves, political observers say.
A lack of superstar, broadly appealing candidates for governor and Congress over the last 15 years have kept what should be competitive races out of reach for Republicans, said Josh Dunn, political science professor at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs.
Bob Beauprez lost both his bids for the governor’s mansion, in 2006 and 2014. Ken Buck, a hard-line conservative who beat out a more centrist candidate in Jane Norton for the GOP nomination, faltered in his 2010 bid for a U.S. Senate seat.
Most notable was Dan Maes in 2010, whose run for governor prompted former GOP congressman Tom Tancredo to mount a third-party bid that finished second to Democrat John Hickenlooper, splitting the conservative vote.
“It’s not fated that Republicans lose these statewide races — they have to do a better job of nominating people for these premier offices,” Dunn said.
Dick Wadhams, a Republican strategist and former Colorado GOP Party chairman, said most Republican candidates fail to articulate their visions to voters in the same way as former Gov. Bill Owens, former U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard and current U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner — all Republicans.
“We know how to win races in Colorado as Republicans — it’s just too many of our candidates don’t remember it,” Wadhams said.
Many observers noted that defeated Republican gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton spent a lot of time on the campaign trail and in debates knocking Polis and his proposals — time that could otherwise have been spent introducing himself to voters.
For his part, Gang of Four member Rutt Bridges isn’t quite sold on the notion of Colorado being a sure bet for Democrats.
“We’re beginning to be bluish, but we’re still a purple state,” Bridges said. “I really think that historically, when we start turning too blue, we tend to swing back to purple. And I think it’ll be a challenge — the biggest challenge the Democrats will face, as Hickenlooper said, is not overreaching.”
True test to come in 2020
He isn’t alone with those thoughts.
The election’s results more closely resembled midterms of the past, when a sitting president’s party fared poorly during the first election after coming into power, said Colorado College professor emeritus Bob Loevy, a political scientist. Voters swung left throughout the country, and Colorado — a classic swing state — merely did the same.
“It’s a purple state,” Loevy said. “It was a big blue night. And just like purple states are supposed to do, we went Democratic.”
Wadhams pointed out that ballot measures that typically fare well among Democratic voters failed miserably. Two proposed tax increases — one to fund schools, another to improve roadways across the state — went down by at least 9 points. So did a ballot measure taking aim at the environmental impacts of oil and gas development.
“If those big tax increases had passed, I think that would be a much different situation,” Wadhams said. “But they didn’t — not only didn’t pass, they were gilled.”
Wadhams framed the losses as a repudiation of Trump, with unaffiliated voters turning out in droves to vote Democratic down the ballot, regardless of any candidate’s qualifications.
He said the true test will come in 2020, when Gardner faces his first re-election test.
“You can’t argue after what happened last night — it was a massive victory for Democrats,” Wadhams said. “But 2020 will be fought on different turf. And maybe after the 2020 election, we’re going to be saying yep, it’s a blue state, period. But we’ll see.”
Only one thing appears certain, said Eric Sondermann, an independent political analyst. If Gardner does win in 2020, he’ll have done so as one of the Democrats’ top targets in the nation.