Colorado midterm 2022 election: Could Republican “red wave” crash in Colorado?

Colorado Democrats currently hold more influence than they ever have. Trifecta control over state government and all four constitutional offices. Both U.S. Senate seats. A majority of the Congressional delegation.

On Tuesday, voters — battered by inflation, whipsawed by gas prices, and rallied by the high court’s reshaping of national abortion policy, among other factors — will test the strength of their position.

The stakes: Democrats’ continued pursuit of progressive housing policies, reinforcement of abortion access protections, and continued stewardship of programs they launched aimed at behavioral health and childhood development. And, perhaps, proof that Colorado is a solidly blue state.

On the Republican side, they’re reaching for a foothold in state government they haven’t had since 2018. The party has been “lost in the wilderness,” as one Republican leader put it, but a big win or two — maybe Lang Sias over Treasurer Dave Young, or Barb Kirkmeyer over Yadira Caraveo in the closely watched new congressional district — would show new vitality. An outright majority in the state Senate is also on the table, with hopes they could force compromise on or outright stop Democratic policies they find most disagreeable.

Democrats hope incumbents serve as a blue bulwark

Polls and forecasts show Democrats with an edge heading into Election Day, at least at the statewide level.

While upsets are always possible, ticket-leading races look to favor Democratic incumbents U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and Gov. Jared Polis. Republican candidate for governor Heidi Ganahl has been consistently behind in polls, often by double-digit percentages. GOP senate candidate Joe O’Dea has likewise trailed, albeit by closer margins.

“I don’t know that the red wave washes up nearly as high here as it does nationwide,” Colorado State University political science professor Kyle Saunders said. “It’s possible, but it doesn’t seem as likely to me as these other more competitive states.”

O’Dea, a construction business owner, gave his campaign a $1.5 million cash infusion to close out October, after previously loaning it $2 million and giving another $660,000, according to campaign finance records — aiming for a final oomph as Coloradans cast their ballots.

If the gap between O’Dea and Ganahl materializes in votes, it would represent an unprecedented amount of ticket-splitting in an increasingly polarized era, Saunders said.

Regardless of the outcome, Saunders called O’Dea a likely model candidate for the party heading forward. O’Dea has downplayed divisive issues that have animated prior campaigns, chiefly abortion, while hammering Democrats on economics and linking the wave of overdose deaths in the state to border security.

Bennet was first appointed to the Senate in 2009. He narrowly won his 2010 election bid, before winning reelection by a more comfortable margin in 2016. If he wins Tuesday, he’d be poised to be among Colorado’s longest-serving U.S. senators.

After casting his ballot Wednesday morning, Bennet acknowledged his own shifting politics as the state itself turned bluer. On the campaign trail, he frequently opens speeches blasting an economy that he says doesn’t work for everyone.

“I feel like I have come to understand just how problematic the unfairness in our economy is,” he said, citing a lack of economic mobility and sky-high childhood poverty compared to other industrialized nations.

However, he thinks Colorado remains purple, and complicated politically.

That’s perhaps best illustrated with the state’s new Congressional maps and the new 8th Congressional District in particular. The new district, drawn as a near 50-50 split, is on paper the most competitive in the state. It stretches from Commerce City up into Greeley and Weld County. And Kirkmeyer is well positioned to be its first Congressional representative, according to forecasters, though they still predict it will be the tightest of the eight congressional races here. Kirkmeyer is facing Democrat Yadira Caraveo.

Barring upsets Tuesday, Colorado’s eight-member Congressional delegation could end up split between Republicans and Democrats — painting the state purple in that chamber, regardless of statewide dynamics.

State Rep. Jennifer Bacon, a Denver Democrat, said she doesn’t consider the 8th Congressional District a bellwether of Colorado’s status as blue, red or purple.

“Because it’s the ‘burbs,” she said, referring to the district covering Weld and Adams counties.

More important, she continued, are the statewide seats. Bacon highlighted the race for Secretary of State: If Democrat Jena Griswold loses to Republican Pam Anderson, she said, that may signal a redshift for the state.

Republicans see a path after being “lost in the wilderness”

On a local level, redistricting has reshuffled the state’s dynamics, independent of historic midterm voting trends. While the process could’ve locked-in Democratic control for a generation, it instead made several legislative races tighter, balanced out one Congressional district and created another that’s essentially a toss-up. Democrats “got hit” by redistricting, Bacon said.

Even still, Colorado Democrats were generally more confident about their prospects here than their peers nationally, and some Republicans agreed: The state seems insulated from a wave election.

State Rep. Colin Larson, a Ken Caryl Republican, predicted a “red riptide” in Colorado, rather than a wave. Even 2010 — an infamously disastrous year nationally for Democrats — was blunted here, he said, and the state’s turned bluer in recent years.

Following a string of electoral setbacks and infighting over recent years, Larson said the Republican Party in Colorado has been “lost in the wilderness for a little while.”  But he was critical of the Democrats’ singular control of the state in recent years, pointing to crime and the cost of living. He’s confident that a fiscal conservative streak remained here, citing the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights and voters’ refusal to strike it down. A re-focused Republican Party could still make inroads here and shade Colorado purple, he argued, and local legislative races will help signal if that’s possible.

“If Barbara Kirkmeyer wins,” he said, “and we win one or two statewide races, significantly narrow the (Democrats’) House majority, narrow the Senate majority, then we will signal the course has turned.”

The state House seems set to remain under Democrat control, though not as firmly. The party’s current hold on 41 seats to the GOP’s 24 seems likely to slip. Democrats say they realistically expect to end up with 36 to 40 seats after redistricting opened up the map across suburban and rural Colorado. That’d be enough to keep a firm hold on the chamber and committees, but it trims their margin of error if concerns about unity among the caucus — flush with new members and new leadership — prove legitimate.

The Senate is more up in the air. Six of the 17 seats up for election are seen as competitive, with Republicans needing to win four to win the chamber. And some members of the caucus describe the stakes of those races in dire terms.

“If Democrats continue controlling the state senate, then I think Colorado is lost for a generation,” state Sen. John Cooke, the outgoing Republican leader, said. “It’s California, it’s Oregon.”

He predicted a future that’s anathema to many in his party: a kneecapped oil and gas industry; powerful oversight commissions staffed by the governor’s appointees and confirmed by an agreeable senate; a “war” on rural Colorado.

Cooke, of Weld County, was first elected to the state senate in 2014 — a time when Republicans held a majority in the state Senate and served as a bulwark against Democratic initiatives from the blue House. He didn’t paint it as bipartisan kumbaya, but it was a time of moderating counterbalances when Democrats had to work with Republicans on their priorities.

Lots of bills still passed then, he said — “reasonable bills,” rooted in compromise. He also recalled Republicans stopping some Democratic bills outright, including one that sought to make oil and gas companies liable for earthquake damage to people’s homes.

He’s hopeful Republicans will pick up seats in the House but that it would be a “huge climb” to regain a chamber his party hasn’t controlled in a decade.

Sen. Julie Gonzales entered the General Assembly as part of the 2018 electorate that broke Republican control of the Senate. She’s running unopposed for her deep-blue Denver seat, but she’s still knocking doors in places like Colorado Springs and Breckenridge to boost Democrats in competitive races.

She touted a number of Democratic achievements under their majority, many of which had some degree of Republican support: fully funded kindergarten; 10 hours of universal preschool that will help save money for families with young children; tougher regulations on air quality; enshrining the legal right to an abortion; and a slew of new rules for towing companies.

“It’s not just about holding the majority because it’s nice; it’s because there are incredibly important policies that we intend to continue our work on,” Gonzales said.

While caucus make-ups and majorities will ultimately determine legislative priorities, Democrats already point to recent and possible U.S. Supreme Court decisions as things they’ll likely respond to legislatively — if they have the votes.

The Supreme Court has recently begun work on cases related to affirmative action, and courts in Texas have passed around lawsuits challenging DACA, the federal program that grants protections to children brought to the United States illegally. Democrats mentioned both when previewing potential legislative priorities going forward.

“I know Roe is such an overt and deeply impactful issue to really latch onto,” Bacon said, “but the Supreme Court half undid Miranda. We’re talking about DACA and affirmative action right now, same-sex marriage.”

Some industry groups have hoped for a split Capitol, which would likely mean fewer significant changes in law and, they say, calm the waters for businesses. That’d be a win for Republicans, too: GOP gains in the legislature, plus some statewide pull, would certainly be a start for a party trying to jostle back into power. It could also settle intraparty battles between the hardline conservatives and more moderate Republicans.

“Reasonable candidates are in ascendence,” Larson, the Republican lawmaker, said. “I think they’re engaged now. I think we’ll continue to see the Republican Party make inroads in Colorado, but it’s going to take a long time.”

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