donkey standing on back of elephant Democratic Republican

Last year, Colorado underwent what appears to be a political sea change, but it's too early to tell whether the Democrats' sweep at the ballot box amounts to a fundamental realignment or if it's only the latest high-water mark in the state's shifting electoral tides.

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, the Colorado Republican up for re-election next year, will test the proposition that Colorado voters — particularly the unaffiliated Coloradans who make up 40% of registered voters — have a contrary streak and aren't comfortable handing all the power to one party, at least not election after election.

(I write about Gardner and his re-election campaign in the latest Colorado Politics cover story, in print in the July 6 issue and online at ColoradoPolitics.com on July 10.)

After voters last November filled the state's executive offices with Democrats — Gov. Jared Polis, Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera, Attorney General Phil Weiser, Secretary of State Jena Griswold and State Treasurer Dave Young — and replaced five-term Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman with Democrat Jason Crow in the 6th Congressional District, while winning control of the legislature, will they send another Democrat to join Michael Bennet in the U.S. Senate?

Whenever either Colorado party has hit the kind of apogee Democrats could be approaching, voters have soon forced them to share control if not relinquish it altogether.

Since statehood, Colorado voters have only rarely sided entirely with one party, and when they have, they've almost always swung back within an election or two — sometimes reversing course, sometimes splitting their tickets to keep a check on the party in control.

It could be that Western bent for self-reliance that keeps bringing new residents to Colorado, a "don't fence me in" sentiment that blossoms under the wide-open skies in a state without the calcified political apparatus prevalent elsewhere in the country.

A political strategist recently told Trail Mix that the state's political swings make a certain kind of sense, even beyond the news of the day and the national environment.

Colorado voters, the strategist said, like their freedom — they don't want anyone messing with their land or their marijuana or their marriage or their guns.

When either party goes too far restricting any of those freedoms — as they surely will when they hold all the levers — voters are more than happy to hold them to account and switch things up.

If Democrats manage to oust Gardner — and keep their majorities in the state legislature and the congressional delegation — it will be the first time the party has held all the offices and gavels in Colorado since 1938. (Republicans similarly held all the cards in Colorado for two years after the 1970 election, though the state's smaller congressional delegation was split evenly between the parties, with two members apiece.)

If history is any guide, the state won't be under one-party control for long.

Republicans most recently nearly ran the field in 2002, with voters re-electing Bill Owens as governor and Wayne Allard to the U.S. Senate, and expanding their majority to five of Colorado's seven members of Congress by electing Bob Beauprez to the state's new congressional seat.

Secretary of State Donetta Davidson and State Treasurer Mike Coffman both won second terms that year. In addition, the GOP retook control of the state Senate after having lost it for one term while keeping the gavel in the state House of Representatives.

The only Democrat in power at the state or federal level in Colorado after the 2002 election was Ken Salazar, who won a second term as attorney general.

Republicans had managed the same near-sweep in the previous midterm election in 1998, when Salazar was also the lone blue spot in a sea of red.

In 2000, between those peak elections for the GOP — the same year Democrats seized the majority for one term in the state Senate by a single seat — George W. Bush won the state's electoral votes.

Bush would carry the state again in 2004, but by then the cracks in the GOP's grip on Colorado were already yawning wide: Salazar won the open U.S. Senate seat; his brother, John Salazar, won an open congressional seat; and Democrats won the majorities in both chambers of the legislature for the first time since 1960.

The Democrats kept up their momentum in the next election in 2006, electing Bill Ritter as governor, Barbara O'Brien as lieutenant governor and Cary Kennedy as state treasurer, though Republicans held on to the two other statewide executive offices — Mike Coffman again, this time as secretary of state, and John Suthers, who was appointed to replace Salazar as AG and won his first full term. Democrats took the majority in the congressional delegation when Ed Perlmutter won the seat Beauprez vacated for an unsuccessful fun for governor.

By 2008, Democrats had nearly turned the 2002 landscape on its head, winning Colorado's electoral votes for Barack Obama and replacing outgoing Republican U.S. Sen. Ben Campbell with Democrat Mark Udall. As well, Betsy Markey's win over U.S. Rep. Marilyn Musgrave gave Democrats a five-two majority in the congressional delegation.

Two years later in 2010, however, Republicans staged a comeback, with Walker Stapleton defeating Kennedy for state treasurer and retaking the majority in the congressional delegation as Gardner unseated Markey and Scott Tipton sent John Salazar back to the ranch. Republicans also won a one-seat majority in the state House of Representatives.

Since then, Republicans have done well in Colorado in election years that have favored the GOP — like when Gardner toppled Udall in 2014 at the same time Republicans won the majority in the U.S. Senate — and Democrats have come roaring back in years when their party has held the edge.

Last year's election could be the latest iteration of the state's perennial zigs and zags, or it could be the new normal in Colorado as the growing state fill up with young and often more liberally leaning transplants, as some Democratic strategists contend.

But for nearly every California resident moving to Colorado recently, there's a refugee from Texas, according to state demographers.

Even if Gardner doesn't survive the wave of anti-Trump sentiment that appears to be poised to crash through Colorado in 2020 like it did last year — and that's far from a settled question — some GOP strategists are already licking their chop at the prospect of running in 2022 with a Democrat in the White House, leaving the state's voters primed to hand the keys to at least some Republicans in Colorado.

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