This election cycle will test just how blue Colorado is. The GOP has less power now in state electoral politics than at any point since World War II, but the four major statewide seats — governor, attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer — are up for grabs, and Republicans have a real opportunity to snatch back control of the state Senate and return partisan balance to the legislature. Then there are the federal races: Michael Bennet could face a difficult reelection to the U.S. Senate, and at least a couple of U.S. House races should be quite competitive.
But before any of that is decided, the respective parties must sort out their nominees in a slew of critical races. Primary ballots began to be mailed out Monday, while in-person voting starts June 20. All voting ends at 7 p.m. on June 28. Registered Democrats and Republicans must vote in their own party races, but independent voters, who comprise a plurality of the Colorado electorate, can choose to fill out either party’s ballot.
Here’s a look at some of the most interesting and high-stakes primary contests in the state:
GOP race for governor
Let’s start with the top job in state politics, occupied since 2018 by Democrat Jared Polis. He is seeking a second term, and the centimillionaire brings seemingly endless self-funding capability to the race.
Up against him on the Republican side will be either Heidi Ganahl or Greg Lopez. Either would be a heavy underdog against Polis, who has polled well in his first term, even as polls have shown Colorado voters souring on the Democratic president and legislature.
Ganahl is a University of Colorado regent, which makes her the only Republican currently elected to statewide office. She’s also the establishment pick, and, like Polis, is working hard to keep her message mostly on “kitchen-table” issues such as cost-of-living, mental health and fixing roads.
The base, however, is animated much more by, for one, questioning 2020 election results and the integrity of U.S. elections in general. This is a crowd that, at the April GOP state assembly, supported candidates who are vocal — that’s understating it, in some cases — about election denial. Ganahl doesn’t disavow that movement, but doesn’t quite endorse it either. She is attempting to chart a path in which she nods to the far right enough to win its support but not so much that she alienates the middle. Former U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner reminded everyone in 2020 of how hard it can be to pull that off.
Lopez, who ran for governor in 2018 and served a single term as Parker’s mayor in the early 90s, bested Ganahl in that assembly setting. He’s raised less than a tenth of her money, but he appears to generate substantially more grassroots enthusiasm. He says “the jury is still out” on whether the 2020 was legitimate generally takes more hard-right positions than Ganahl does — including by stating that abortion should be outlawed in Colorado without exception. He’s unrestrained and regularly generates controversy, including by making homophobic remarks about the governor’s husband and by proposing an overhaul to Colorado’s “one person, one vote system” such that that conservative parts of Colorado would have greater electoral power.
GOP U.S. Senate race
Some Republican candidates talk about fighting election systems and baselessly argue that Donald Trump rightfully won the 2020 election. Ron Hanks doesn’t just talk about it; he attended Trump’s rally-turned-riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2020. (There’s no evidence he entered the Capitol that day and he’s never claimed to have done that.)
Hanks, a one-term state representative from Fremont County, faces Joe O’Dea, a wealthy construction CEO.
Like Ganahl, O’Dea’s got much more money and establishment backing. Hanks won at the state assembly, but that crowd is not necessarily representative of the primary electorate. O’Dea figures to perform much better among independent voters — a group he’ll sorely need if and when he faces Bennet in November. While Hanks openly and regularly attacks elections as being fraudulent, O’Dea does not believe 2020’s election was stolen. Hanks wants to ban all abortions, and O’Dea says he doesn’t want Roe vs. Wade overturned and that any limitation on abortion should come with major exceptions.
GOP race for secretary of state
The only major figure in Colorado politics who can match up with Hanks’ election-denying bona fides is Tina Peters, the indicted Mesa County clerk who is accused of jeopardizing election security in her office by, among other things, copying and then posting sensitive information online. Peters is now a national leader in the space of election conspiracies, having forged a close partnership with pillow tycoon and Trump mega-supporter Mike Lindell.
Peters was chosen overwhelmingly by voters at the state assembly to take on Democratic Secretary of State Jena Griswold, who seeks a second term.
But primary voters turned off by Peters can opt for a very different kind of candidate: Pam Anderson, the former Jefferson County clerk who unequivocally rejects election conspiracy theories and who has vast experience in election administration. Establishment types clearly view Anderson as their best chance to defeat Griswold, but right now she’s lagging behind in fundraising.
Peters and Anderson both face businessman Mike O’Donnell, a long shot for the nomination. He, too, is an election denier.
Race for Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District
U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, the most famous and divisive Republican politician in Colorado, seeks a second term representing western and Southern Colorado in the U.S. House.
Boebert faces an interesting primary fight from state Sen. Don Coram, who is well to the center of Boebert and even of most elected Republicans in the statehouse. He’s got less money, less name recognition and a short window of time to make a splash in this district — but he’ll have plenty of support from more moderate Republicans and from independent voters who dislike Boebert.
Coram’s problem is that Boebert, an election denier who made her name as an unwavering advocate for expanded access to guns, is actually pretty popular among lots of CD3 voters.
The Democratic primary in this race is also interesting: Sol Sandoval, Alex Walker and Adam Frisch face off for the right to mount a long-shot bid in the general election. This district already leaned red and got even redder during redistricting in 2021, so either Republican candidate would be strongly favored over any of the three Democrats.
GOP race for Colorado’s 5th Congressional District
Boebert became a household name by defeating unsuspecting incumbent Scott Tipton, a firmly conservative Trump supporter who did not withstand Boebert’s challenge from the right. Tipton was far from a national figure and not a bombast, and voters ousted him in favor of a lightning rod.
That could happen in Colorado 5th Congressional District this year, as incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn seeks a ninth term.
State Rep. Dave Williams, one of three Lamborn challengers from the GOP, dominated among assembly voters. He is one of the most conservative members of the state legislature and, like Boebert in 2020, he’s attempting to unseat a longtime congressman by being louder, more controversial and more uncompromising.
Williams even tried to make the Republican meme “Let’s Go Brandon” his official nickname on the ballot. He was shot down, but his and Boebert’s business is not about winning court cases or policy fights, but rather making points and generating attention. The world outside of Colorado doesn’t know his name yet, but it will if he beats Lamborn.
GOP race for Colorado’s 8th Congressional District
The congressional redistricting process in Colorado, performed by an independent commission and stamped by the state Supreme Court, was pitched to voters as a way to increase competitiveness without unfairly tipping the scales in either party’s favor. That process, however, wound up protecting incumbent members’ partisan advantages. Generally speaking, conservative districts were redrawn to be a little more conservative, and vice versa in Democratic districts.
But Colorado’s 8th Congressional District, covering suburbs north of Denver, is brand new. That means there’s no sitting representative for anyone to work to protect. It’s no coincidence, then, that this district figures to be the most competitive in the state this cycle.
The district was created because U.S. Census data showed Colorado gaining enough population between 2010 and 2020 that it merited a little more representation in Congress. On paper, voting trends in this district suggest something close to a toss-up on a generic ballot — good news for Republicans, who figure to trend a few points higher on average this year.
The degree to which the GOP will be able to capitalize will depend in large part on whom they nominate. They’ve got four candidates for this seat: former Army Special Forces Green Beret Tyler Allcorn, state Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, Thornton Mayor Jan Kulmann and former state Rep. Lori Saine. These candidates promise different stripes of conservatism, with Saine being the far-right choice and the rest vying in a more moderate lane.
Whichever candidate makes it out of this primary will face state Rep. Yadira Caraveo, a pediatrician and the lone Democrat left in the race.
GOP race for state House District 51
Williams is a longtime member of the right-most flank of the legislature, which for years held control of the GOP caucus in the state House of Representatives. There’s an ongoing tug of war in that caucus between two kinds of Republicans: those who want to pass legislation and are willing to work with Democrats on some areas of compromise, and those who propose policies with no chance of success — bans on abortion and vote-by-mail, to name a couple — and seek to undermine and eventually replace as many moderate Republicans as possible.
The more moderate faction seized control of the House GOP caucus after the 2020 election, when it replaced its far-right minority leader, Patrick Neville of Castle Rock, with Hugh McKean of Loveland. McKean is no liberal, but he’s much closer to the center than people like Williams and Neville. As minority leader he has struggled to bring his caucus together over the past two years, though it’s not clear that any of the House GOP members could successfully wrangle such disparate groups.
Hanks, Williams, Neville and others tried and failed to oust McKean after the 2021 session. They forced a caucus vote and McKean hung on. Now that side of the caucus is running a primary opponent against him: Austin Hein, former Neville communications director. (He technically served the entire House GOP caucus, but more moderate members felt clear that his loyalty was to Neville.)
Hein is much younger and less experienced than McKean, and would be one of the most conservative legislators if elected. After McKean took over the caucus, Hein left the Capitol to work in conservative gun advocacy. Like other Colorado candidates of his strain, Hein easily won over assembly voters. But Loveland is a more moderately conservative community, and McKean, a former member of city council, is much better known.
Democratic race for state House District 6
The Democrats at the state Capitol have their own ideological tug of war — progressives versus centrists — but they’re much better at projecting unity than Republicans are. Crucially, they’ve also been better at winning elections.
Very rarely does the ongoing fight for the future of the Colorado Democratic Party spill over into public view, but that is happening now in House District 6, a skinny, dense district that runs from Capitol Hill east to the Aurora border, mostly between Colfax and 6th avenues.
The race pits Katie March against Elisabeth Epps. The district is a Democratic stronghold, so the primary contest is much more interesting than the general election.
March is a former aide at the Capitol and is married to the man who runs the House Majority Project to elect Democrats to the state House. Epps is a lawyer, activist and bail-fund founder who has lobbied successfully on a number of criminal justice reforms in recent years. Epps is also well to March’s left, arguing for much bolder changes in spaces where March seeks incremental steps.
This has become the most expensive statehouse primary in Colorado, and could break state records in that category. Corporate interests and the Democratic establishment have united behind March, while Epps, a minor celebrity with a social media following, enjoys enormous grassroots support both in and out of the district.
The outcome of this primary is very unlikely to make or break Democrats’ chances of holding on to a legislative chamber in which they currently have a 41-24 advantage over Republicans. But Epps could be a transformative presence if elected. Power brokers in the party and in the lobby know that, and so do more progressive voters who are sick of centrism. Thus, the race has become something of a proxy fight over how Democrats should seek to build, wield and maintain power as Colorado trends bluer.
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