If you’ve noticed more than the usual number of dazed Coloradans this winter, shuffling aimlessly with bewildered looks on their sallow faces, you might have crossed paths with Republicans attempting to grapple with the results of the last election.
Here’s a brief recap: For the first time in 80 years, Democrats hold every statewide constitutional office and the gavels in both chambers of the General Assembly.
They also unseated a five-term Republican congressman in a seat that has never before been filled by a Democrat — Mike Coffman in the 6th Congressional District — and swept to power in counties that have until recently been Republican bastions, including suburban bellwethers Jefferson and Arapahoe counties.
Since the Democrats took office in January, they’ve been charging ahead with an aggressive agenda at the Capitol, checking items off a long-simmering progressive wish list, with more to come before the curtain comes down on this legislative session.
In response, Republicans haven’t just been walking around doing their best impression of a dejected Charlie Brown — or George Michael from TV's “Arrested Development,” for the younger set.
They’ve been threatening recalls — including against some of their own members who’ve crossed party lines to sponsor legislation with Democrats — and are planning to ask voters to overturn laws they don’t like, including the National Popular Vote bill that changes how Colorado awards its Electoral College votes for president.
On March 30, the state GOP convenes to elect party leaders to chart a course through the 2020 election, when U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner will test whether Colorado voters want to hire the Republican for another term.
Into this fray, armed with facts, figures and some historical perspective, step two GOP stalwarts, former state party chairman and veteran strategist Dick Wadhams and polling guru David Flaherty, who runs Magellan Strategies.
Since the election, Wadhams has been sounding the alarm over Gardner’s Senate campaign, warning Republicans that if they don’t treat his re-election bid as the occasion of an existential threat to the party, they could wind up on the sidelines for years to come.
Flaherty, for his part, has been polling voters of all stripes since the election to add to the rich trove of data he’s accumulated over decades of tracking Colorado’s electorate.
Recently, they joined up and are blaring their message to Republican groups like a pair of modern-day Cassandras, or at least that’s the idea. So far, they’ve spoken together to a handful of GOP gatherings, and on Wednesday they delivered a full-blown presentation to the Douglas County Republican Women at the group’s regular luncheon.
It isn’t pretty, though it isn’t entirely demoralizing.
Flaherty and Wadhams lay out what Colorado Republicans are facing in cold, hard facts — actually, it’s a crisp PowerPoint presentation filled with brightly colored graphs and vibrant photos — and throw in a few recommendations for GOP candidates.
In a nutshell, their message is that Colorado’s electorate has changed dramatically in recent years, and if the GOP wants to stay in the game, elected officials, donors, party activists and the shell-shocked consultant class need to come to grips with the new reality.
“It’s a devastating presentation that really quantifies in hard numbers what happened and where things are now,” Wadhams told Trail Mix after he and Flaherty spoke to the Douglas County women.
“The numbers are pretty sobering, in terms of the election results, the voter registration numbers. It takes time for those things to soak in with activists, for the reality to soak in. I don't think Republicans can hear it enough.”
According to data compiled by Flaherty, if Republicans thought they were facing a blue wave in the last election, they need to gird themselves for the proverbial tsunami next year.
That’s because the traditional partisan distribution in the electorate has shifted substantially in recent years — with younger and often left-leaning unaffiliated voters flooding the zone — and all signs point to an even bigger turnout by Democrats and liberal-leaning unaffiliated voters in the presidential year.
While the state electorate used to be reliably divided into nearly equal thirds by partisan registration — Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliateds — and many politicians still describe Colorado voters that way, that hasn’t been the case for a decade.
In the most recent registration report, unaffiliated voters make up 40 percent of Colorado’s 3.4 million active voters, followed by the Democrats at 32 percent and Republicans at 29 percent.
As many as 1 million Colorado voters who stayed home in 2018 could turn out in 2020, Flaherty’s data show, and they’re going to look a lot like the electorate that did vote last time.
Diving into those numbers further — and tracking how those voters turned out — paints a grim picture for Republicans.
The unaffiliated voters are overwhelmingly younger, they’re the fastest-growing bloc of state voters, and, for the first time in Colorado history, last year more unaffiliated voters and Democrats turned out for a midterm election than Republicans, and it wasn’t even close.
That, coupled with President Donald Trump’s exceedingly low marks with Colorado’s unaffiliated voters, helps account for Flaherty’s show-stopping pronouncement:
“The 2018 election was extraordinary because in the past 30 years, never has one political party in Colorado been so overwhelmingly rejected at every level of representative government by the electorate.”
The conclusion is backed up by extensive polling he’s conducted since the election that found Trump in the dumps among the unaffiliated — and clear signs that translated into the same voters roundly rejecting Republicans up and down the ballot, a conclusion hard for Republicans to accept because Trump is so overwhelmingly popular in the GOP.
“There are those in the party who don't think Trump had anything to do with the losses and that even suggesting that’s what happened is disloyal to the president,” Wadhams said with a weary chuckle. “These people think we can organize our way out of it by finding a whole new reservoir of unaffiliated Trump fans. They don’t exist.”
Flaherty’s prescription for Republicans: “You need to be fighting for something that is relevant to voters, and not against everything,” including answering how the GOP intends to “help better the lives of all Coloradans.”
It isn’t all bleak, he noted, because Democrats are acting drunk with power and already over-reaching.
“Our conclusions are that candidates and campaigns matter,” Wadhams said. “They always have.”