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COVER STORY | Republicans face opportunities, risk ahead of 2022 midterm

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Colorado’s fast-approaching 2022 midterm election could be the chance the state’s beleaguered Republicans have been waiting for to stage a comeback and prove that their exile from power is temporary.

The GOP, however, will have to navigate the twin shoals of an unpopular former president and his  many groundless claims the last election was rigged.

The GOP is in a nearly unprecedented position following two election cycles that saw Colorado voters reject the party across the board, with Democrats taking control of state government, including wins for every statewide executive office for the first time since the 1930s and majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly.

On top of that, in 2018 Democrats wrested a congressional seat from Mike Coffman, a Republican who hadn’t lost an election in three decades — giving the party an incumbent in four of the state’s seven U.S. House districts — and last year ousted Cory Gardner, the only Republican to have won election as U.S. senator in 20 years.

Colorado, pegged as a perennial battleground state for most of the 21st century, handed the state’s nine electoral votes to the Democratic nominee for the fourth time in a row last year, with Joe Biden carrying the state over Republican Donald Trump, and it wasn’t even close.

Weighing the odds

After decades of earning its nickname as the quintessential purple state, Colorado could shed its purple state reputation in the 2022 midterms and move into the solid blue category as a reliably Democratic one.

But with the Democrats’ strength comes opportunity for Republicans, top GOP strategists tell Colorado Politics, since voters can put all the blame on the party that holds all the power, even if there’s plenty of blame to go around.

“There’s a strong argument that it isn’t a purple state, but that should be added motivation for Republicans to get us back there,” said Colorado-based Republican consultant Ryan Lynch, owner of Polstar Strategies.

“I don’t think most folks are going to look at the election history in Colorado over the last three cycles and say that it’s a purple state, but we can change that, and we have the opportunity to do so.”

Lynch, who managed the re-election bid of Adams County’s state Sen. Kevin Priola, the only Republican legislator to survive last year in a district that favors Democrats, said it’s a mistake to assume the state’s voters have given up on Republican candidates.

“I don’t think the electorate has changed that much,” he said, brushing aside as myths the notion that Colorado’s surging population over the last decade has turned the traditional swing state into a Democratic stronghold.

“The Democrats have done a better job than we have lately, and we need to fix that. We have a better product; we just haven’t been as effective at marketing it.”

Opportunity for the underdog

Midterm elections are almost always prime opportunities for the party out of power to regain ground, and Colorado Democrats are mindful of their experiences in 2010 and 2014, when the party that controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress lost incumbents across the country, including in Colorado.

In 2010, President Barack Obama’s first midterm, Republicans — still reeling from three consecutive cycles of Democratic gains in Colorado — knocked off two incumbent House members, U.S. Reps. John Salazar and Betsy Markey, winning control of the state House of Representatives and seeing State Treasurer Cary Kennedy lose a bid for re-election to Republican Walker Stapleton.

Obama’s next midterm, in 2014, led to Colorado Republicans taking control of the state Senate and Republican Cory Gardner unseating Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Udall.

The 2022 fields for the Colorado’s top two statewide races could be nearly full: University of Colorado Regent at Large Heidi Ganahl and 2018 gubernatorial candidate Greg Lopez are the most prominent hopefuls among a dozen Republicans seeking the nomination to challenge Gov. Jared Polis.

This week, Larimer County developer Gino Campana threw his hat into the ring for the Senate seat held by Democrat Michael Bennet, joining Olympian Eli Bremer, first-time candidate Erik Aadland and former congressional nominee Peter Yu.

But Republicans lack candidates for the other statewide executive offices and party insiders say it could be a while before contenders emerge, giving Attorney General Phil Weiser, Secretary of State Jena Griswold and State Treasurer Dave Young big head starts on their re-election campaigns.

The Trumpian roadblock to unaffiliated votes

Complicating matters for Republican candidates ahead of this midterm, though, is an enduring battle between representatives of the GOP’s increasingly Trump-aligned base and the more establishment voices, who argue that Republicans have to nominate candidates who appeal to the state’s vast trove of unaffiliated voters.

While Colorado’s electorate was divided roughly equally between Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters earlier this century, in recent years unaffiliated voters have seen their numbers surpass the two major parties — currently making up 43% of the electorate, compared to 29% registered as Democrats and 26% registered as Republicans, with the remainder belonging to minor parties.

“That massive group of unaffiliateds is clearly anti-Republican because they hated Trump. I’m convinced many of those unaffiliateds are going to be open to voting Republican,” said Dick Wadhams, a veteran campaign strategist and former chairman of the Colorado GOP.

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Throughout Trump’s presidency, polling showed the former Republican president was toxic with Colorado’s unaffiliated voters, losing the group by roughly 2 to 1, but without Trump in the White House or on the ballot, the strategists say Colorado voters could give Republicans another look.

But Wadhams, who had a hand in managing the campaigns of every Republican governor and senator to have won re-election in the last 50 years — former Gov. Bill Owens and former U.S. Sens. Bill Armstrong and Wayne Allard — said that candidates need to run aggressive campaigns and lay out the reasons they’re running.

“Everything we do and say in the primary has to be done with an eye toward the unaffiliated voter,” he said, recalling something Allard told him on an election night years ago. “‘I don’t want to be just the nominee, I want to be the senator.’ Those words have echoed in my head for years. The trouble is, we don’t have enough Republicans who look at races that way.”

This cycle, Wadhams warned that before they’ll be treated seriously by Colorado voters, Republicans have to firmly reject Trump’s suggestion that the 2022 election was stolen from him, even if it means damaging their standing with GOP voters.

“I think there’s plenty of opportunities that will emerge next year, but I think the single biggest threat for Republicans being able to win in 2022 is this obsession about the election being stolen from Donald Trump and the conspiracy theories being put forward around that,” he said.

“There’s only one way to get past that, and that is to forcefully, clearly and unequivocally say the election was not stolen, either here in Colorado or nationally, and put absolute distance between any Republican candidate and Donald Trump. I know that will cause short term pain, but I also know that candidate will not win a competitive election, either in a competitive district or statewide, if that position is not taken.”

Stressing that he voted for Trump twice, Wadhams said he supports his agenda.

“But he has squandered that great record with his behavior since the election, and Republicans have got to deal with it," he said. "I’m optimistic 2022 won’t be another massacre for Republicans if we have candidates of courage — and it’s going to take candidates of courage to confront these Trump supporters. Everything we do and say in the primary has to be done with an eye toward the unaffiliated voters.”

Wadhams acknowledged that GOP candidates face a dilemma, since polls show around two-thirds of self-identified Republicans say they agree with Trump's cries of election fraud, despite there being no credible evidence to back up the claim.

Said Wadhams: “No candidate can pussyfoot through it. It’s time to fight back, or we’re not going to win. I'm sure a lot of Trump supporters won’t like hearing that but it’s the truth.”

Lynch agreed that Republicans have to figure out how to run in a party that will likely still be led by Trump, who sounds increasingly like a 2024 presidential candidate.

“While Trump was personally unpopular in many places, his ideas were very popular,” he said. “As a candidate, if you can focus on his ideas and initiatives instead of the man himself, that’s a good way to answer that question. Likewise with the election integrity question. It would be against a Republican candidate’s interest to fully embrace any election fraud conspiracy, because all you’re doing is suppressing your own base, by convincing them the election is predetermined or their vote can be stolen, it really only works against you.”

Primary problems, in-fighting strain strategies

The strategists say the state GOP dodged a bullet but lit a fuse when the party’s state central committee voted down a proposal last month to cancel next year’s primary election rather than let unaffiliated voters participate. At the same time, the GOP’s governing body authorized a lawsuit seeking to overturn the 2016 ballot measure that allows unaffiliated voters to cast ballots in the Democratic and Republican primaries.

Republicans opposed to ditching the primary argued that it was a sure-fire way to alienate the unaffiliated and miss an opportunity to appeal to voters candidates would need to win statewide and in competitive districts. Supporters maintain the party has been nominating increasingly moderate candidates in recent cycles, leading to a string of losses.

Lynch said he doesn’t think the intra-party fight has done much damage, since few outside the GOP’s inner circles paid much attention, but notes, "Had the opt out succeeded, it would have been a disaster.”

Wadhams, on the other hand, said the move to challenge the state’s current primary system in court could come back to bite the party and its candidates.

“During the debate on whether to cancel the primary, they would say that ever since we’ve had so-called open primaries, we’ve gotten beat,” he said, adding that Colorado Republicans have been losing statewide for years before 2018, when unaffiliated voters first got the chance to participate in primaries.

“The thinking of some of these people is mind-boggling,” he said. “They focus all their energy on this internal battle they want to have within the Republican Party to expunge anybody who isn’t a loyal Trump supporter.

“Taking the primary to court is just as bad as canceling the primary. What will the headlines be? ‘Colorado Republican Party goes to court to overturn law allowing unaffiliateds to vote in primaries.’ We’ve got to let this issue drop and focus on winning elections and not spend energy on telling voters we don’t want their input.”

A 'concerning' lack of campaigns while waiting for maps

After sweeping Republicans from power up and down the ticket in the last two cycles, Democrats have another advantage heading into the midterm, since their candidates for top office are all incumbents able to run for re-election. The Democrats won’t have to wait until next summer to pick nominees, allowing their campaigns to conserve resources and avoid potentially costly infighting, as well as enjoying the advantages of incumbency.

Polis, the wealthy tech entrepreneur who spent $23 million on his own campaign four years ago, will likely have a cash advantage next year over any GOP challenger, but the other Democrats running statewide have been socking away campaign funds while Republicans have yet to demonstrate whether they can keep up.

“Incumbents have the advantage of name ID, built-in donor base, and an already built-out campaign apparatus, so there are obvious benefits to being an incumbent, but one of the drawbacks is when your party is running things, the voters have nobody else to blame,” said Lynch.

He said Republicans could benefit next year in Colorado as the state appears to be following a trend toward nationalizing its elections.

“Nationally, the Democrats haven’t exactly gotten a lot of good news lately,” he said. “More than ever, national politics are dwarfing local politics. That’s probably a product of the 24-hour news cycle. But whether we’re talking about local council races or gubernatorial races, federal issues are by and large taking up most to the oxygen. Republicans can play on that field this cycle. Between the federal COVID response and the hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan — these are all issues that are taking precedence right now.”

Added Lynch: “It’s going to be a while before our economy fully recovers. Economic indicators tend to be the largest factor that impacts an incumbent’s ability to win.”

Things are off to a slow start with Republicans, however, as the midterm coincides with the once-in-a-decade redistricting process, which has thrown an element of uncertainty into next year’s election and left at least a dozen potential Republican candidates for top office idling until the maps are finalized — possibly as soon as this week, though both congressional and legislative maps must also pass a court review.

“You would still typically see a lot of folks lining up or at least dipping their toes into the water, and we haven’t seen a lot of that, particular in seats that might be competitive for us,” Lynch said. “That’s concerning, though once the legislative and congressional maps are finalized I think you’ll probably see a quick rush into these races.”

Colorado’s inaugural independent redistricting commissions — created when voters passed a pair of ballot measures in 2018 — have been inching their way all summer toward boundaries that will go into effect after next year’s election, including deciding where the state’s new, eighth congressional district will be located.

By all accounts, the open seat will cover the suburbs and exurbs north of the metro area, from Adams County into Weld County, possibly giving Republicans a chance to vie in a competitive district.

Democrat Yadira Caraveo, a state lawmaker and pediatrician, is the only prominent candidate who has so far launched a campaign in the new district. Three Republican state senators — John Cooke, Kevin Priola and Barbara Kirkmeyer — have been eyeing the seat and could move quickly once the boundaries are set.

“I do think there’s time,” said Wadhams. ”I don’t think you can wait until next year, but there’s still time in 2021 for candidates to get in these races.”

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