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Colorado's rapid growth sets stage for political war

December 20, 2017 Updated: December 21, 2017 at 6:15 am

Colorado's lightning-fast growth is lining up the state for an epic political battle in two short years.

Census figures released Wednesday show the state has the seventh-fastest growth rate in the nation, with a burgeoning population of more than 5.6 million. That's enough babies and newcomers to net the state an eighth congressional district in 2020, prompting a fight over where the lines will be drawn for the new district.

That means the Democrats and the GOP will go to war to protect their incumbents and set boundaries that will swing the new seat into their camp.

"It won't be World War III, but it could be close," predicted Josh Dunn who teaches political science for the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

The state grew at an annual rate of 1.4 percent, adding nearly 80,000 new residents. The population in Idaho grew by 2.2 percent during the same period, leading the national rankings dominated by states in the West.

Since 2010, Colorado has added about 600,000 people. With the average congressional district representing about 700,000 people, Colorado is all but a lock to add a seat in the House.

"I think that's a huge deal," said Republican El Paso County Commissioner Mark Waller. "I have thought for the past three or four years that we would end up with another congressional district."

While the boundary lines for state offices are drawn by a nominally nonpartisan redistricting commission in Colorado, the state's General Assembly handles the congressional map.

"I'm sure it will be a big fight," said state Sen. Michael Merrifield, a Democrat from Manitou Springs. "It will be exciting."

The last time Colorado gained a House seat after the 2000 Census, the General Assembly spent months in a bloody fight that resulted in no congressional map gaining passage. The legislature's inability to agree on a map threw the fight into court, where the parties engaged in a lengthy legal battle.

Any fight over new boundaries will likely pivot on Colorado Springs, the state's deepest pool of Republican voters. Dunn said Democrats will likely seek to fence the GOP in, putting Colorado Springs in a single district.

"Concentrating the Republican vote in El Paso county improves Democrat chances elsewhere," he explained.

Republicans, though, could split El Paso County, using its powerful vote to improve GOP chances in two or more districts.

Putting more Republicans in the House could boost El Paso County's profile in Congress, Waller said.

"If we end up with more Republicans it changes the focus," he said.

But Colorado Springs is also a place that has the state's second-deepest pool of Democrats. Merrifield said putting those Democratic strongholds into a swing district could get Colorado Springs its first Democrat in the House since Harry H. Seldomridge stalked the halls of Congress 102 years ago.

"It will be really awesome if we have an opportunity to get a more moderate congressional member from Colorado Springs," Merrifield said.

State forecasts show that Colorado Springs is on track to get a second congressional district in the future - the population of the county is expected to top 1 million by 2050.

Politicians, though, aren't setting their sights that far out. The lawmakers who could hold sway over congressional redistricting will face the voters next year.

Merrified said that will add fuel to political battles of 2018.

"That will add another weight on the scales for 2018," he said.

Waller said that will give El Paso County voters a clear choice in 2018 - their ballots will sway congressional power for the state for years to come.

It's a time when the state's second city could wield out-sized political power.

"Our responsibility isn't to react to things in Denver, we need to be proactive rather than reactive," Waller said.

Dunn said both political parties will need wins now to gain power to redraw the congressional map. That means the political war starts now.

"There's a lot at stake," he said.


Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240

Twitter: @xroederx

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