Editor’s Note: This story is part of an occasional series to capture views among Coloradans.
In 2015, Democrats in the statehouse tried to make amends, branding "rural Colorado" on any bill and talking point they could, to no avail. Republicans have only continued to flex their muscle in farm and ranch country, even as President Donald Trump got in tariff wars and pulled out of trade agreements that rattled Colorado’s agricultural industry. That’s the industry that has put dollars into households and communities out here for a century and a half.
The cratering economy in the wake of the pandemic has dried up oil and gas, while regulations pushed by well-meaning environmentalists have deepened cynicism toward the left.
“People around here might get mad at Republicans, if Democrats would give them half a chance,” joked Charles Davis, a retired cattle industry supplier who lives near Limon. Davis has been a Democrat all his life, he said, but he gave up trying to win over converts on the plains.
“Until Democrats have a message for farms, ranchers and families out here, it’s going to be tough to make changes,” Davis said. “They tried a few years ago, but I think they’ve accepted that their votes are on the Front Range, where the most people are, not out here on the eastern plains, where there’s a lot of driving between towns and not many votes for them.”
This is the region where 11 counties tried and failed to pass a referendum to secede from Colorado in 2013. Weld County, with nearly three-quarters of the region’s population, voted against it, but six counties passed it overwhelmingly. The 51st state initiative, as it was called, made the point that the region has eschewed Democratic leadership in government.
No one, however, could pinpoint anything that’s changed because of it.
That anti-Democrat spirit still lives here, however.
In his reelection bid in 2014, former Gov. John Hickenlooper lost all 10 northeast counties handily. Of the 18 counties that make up the eastern plains, Hickenlooper lost 10 of them by 70% or more.
In 2018, Republican Walker Stapleton lost the statewide race to Democrat Jared Polis, 53.8% to 42.8%, but the result was much different in northeast Colorado, where Stapleton had an average margin of victory of 74.4% to 21.4% over the congressman from Boulder. In Washington County, Polis got only 12% of the vote.
In 2016, Donald Trump averaged 74.8% of the ballots across the region.
When politicians speak to voters out here, they’re speaking to people who only have the expectation that politicians should do no harm.
“They’ve let us down in Denver my whole life,” said Tina Knowles, a 62-year-old homemaker, mother of six and a Republican who lives near Elizabeth. “If somebody running for governor could change it, they would win out here, but they would probably lose the state. I think that’s what Democrats have figured out.”
There is plenty of political hay for the barn in these parts: agriculture, oil and gas, teacher shortages, access to health care (particularly mental health services), slow internet and long-neglected roads and bridges. Several people here told Colorado Politics they suffer all the regulations coming out of Capitol in Denver, but few of the government riches that support communities such as Denver, Aurora and Douglas and Jefferson counties.
The median household income in Senate District 1, which sprawls across the 10 counties, is $51,746, well below the state median of $68,811. The percentage of households earning below the federal poverty level — $16,147 in 2018 — is 12%. Statewide, that percentage is 9.6%.
Educational services and health care account for about 18.5% of the workforce, while agriculture accounts for 12.33% and retail trade contributes 11.95% of the labor force, according to a legislative analysis of Senate District 1.
“We have a lower standard of living out here, but I don’t think you’ll find many people who would rather live in Denver,” said Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, a farmer and rancher who has represented the region in the House and Senate since 2006.
As hard as it was to get Hickenlooper to hear the concerns of rural Colorado, Polis has been a tougher challenge, the Republican lawmaker told Colorado Politics. Democrats give people in these parts few things to grab onto, with restrictions on the industries that give country people any chance to prosper, he said.
“With this governor, it far exceeds the problems we could get Hickenlooper to listen to,” Sonnenberg said, one of several who cited the urban-rural divide in Colorado.
Julie Garbus is a Democrat who lives in one of the few Democratic enclaves of the region, House District 50 in Greeley. The district is represented by Mary Young, who succeeded her husband, Dave, a former local teacher, when he was elected state treasurer in the 2018 blue wave that swept across the state.
A native of Massachusetts, Garbus came to Greeley to teach English at the University of Northern Colorado in 2002. For the past four years, she’s been teaching reading and writing to adult immigrants and refugees.
She doesn’t feel like an East Coast fish out of water in northeast Colorado’s sea of red.
“Greeley itself is changing,” she said. “We have a large Latino population, and a growing immigrant population — Somali, Burmese, Ethiopian. The thing I like best about this community is its diversity. They speak 40-something different languages in our schools.”
The university brings diverse political views, and so do the professionals that come and go with various industries, especially the medical professionals, she said.
Democrats, however, hurt their message by going too far on agriculture and oil-and-gas rhetoric in a region where a lot of jobs depend on those industries. If they lose people on those issues, they lose all of their appeal, Garbus worries.
“You’re asking a lot from these people” to be Democrats, she said. “For a lot of these folks in the oil field, those are good jobs, and the more you beat up on oil and gas, the less likely they are to vote for you. Saying, ‘What you do is bad and has no value’ is a reason somebody up here might vote Republican.”
The various communities of interest around Democratic values — immigration, environment, reproductive rights, LGBTQ — need to work together to have strength in numbers, Garbus said.
“It is completely a matter of getting people together,” she said.
Lupe Cardenas grew up hearing politics the only way it’s told honestly, around a pool table with a cue stick and a cold beer in hand.
The 50-year-old industrial salesman still tends the Kersey Pool Hall, the restaurant and game room his family has operated as a local institution for decades.
His father, Toby Cardenas, used to be a Democrat, but came around. Lupe Cardenas said he and his father together attended a Trump rally four years ago in Colorado Springs. The younger Cardenas chose a nonRepublican only when he voted for Ross Perot in 1992.
His political thinking is guided by the Constitution and the Bible, he said. People on the plains are independent in their thinking, but they still abide by their party, Cardenas said.
“It’s generational, I think,” he said. “That’s the way their granddad thought. That’s the way their mom and dad thought, and that’s the way they’re going to be. You’ve got people whose family has been working the land out here for 100 years, and you have new people who want to come in and tell them how it’s going to be. That’s not going to fly.”
The political issues out here are interconnected, partly because the people in small communities are, Cardenas said. Agriculture depends on oil and gas, and schools depend on both of them for tax revenue. The industry also means good jobs that are hard to come by, and without jobs or public investment in some of these rural communities, they’ll continue to dry up.
Audrey and Alex Rock have called Wray home for more than 20 years each. She was born in Greeley. He was born in Hudson, so they’re as local as the hay prices, and it’s where they’ve chosen to raise their three sons.
“It’s very progressive for being out on the eastern plains,” Audrey Rock said. “I think people think of a progressive nature more along the Front Range, but I’ve always been surprised by how progressive our county is about some things, like the way we raise our kids.”
The area also is progressive in the way it moves its industry forward to be more efficient, more profitable but more socially responsible at the same time, even if it doesn’t translate immediately into progressive politics. There are layers of complexity.
There are not as many farm and ranch dinosaurs on the plains as some folks in the city might think, in other words.
Agriculture dominates the political conversations still, as oil and gas has dropped off, she said. The exodus of the industry ripples across the plains, and more regulations means less of it. “We’re 15 or 20 minutes from Kansas and Nebraska, so it’s pretty easy for these guys to jump the border and go to a state that will welcome them,” she said.
Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, considered among the most vulnerable incumbents in November, is in no danger of doing worse here than his commanding win in 2014.
“The issues have changed, but he’s going to have that local support, because everyone wants him to be successful,” Audrey Rock said. “Some of the issues have changed, but overall I think Cory has done a good job of staying apprised of all those issues, good, bad and otherwise.”
Despite his otherwise famous name, Kenny Rogers is a real cowboy out on the Colorado plains. His family operated Wagon Wheel Ranch for four generations, at least 70 years, with the fifth and sixth generation in the wings, he said.
The family homesteaded in the area as far back as 1899.
Rogers is involved in state cattle and agriculture organizations and one of the people Sonnenberg cited as a wise counsel about what’s right and wrong about the region.
Regulations hit hard in farm and ranch country, and he thinks politicians that haven’t faced a loan payment in a drought year don’t understand the thin margins, whims of nature and pressure from governments at every level.
“We’re trying to feed the world here,” he said of Colorado’s ag producers. “We take that seriously, and we need them to understand that, too.”
Mike Benson operates Benson Ag Land Realty in Julesburg, selling homes and farmland in the stagecoach community on the Nebraska line. The population is 1,100, according to the census, 40 fewer than last year, 119 fewer than in 2010.
He called Julesburg “almost an old folks home,” for the age of its population, where about one in three adults is older than 65. The poverty rate here is among the highest in the state, nearly 14.9%, second in the region to only Lincoln County with 16.2% (while in neighboring Douglas County in the Denver metro region, the rate is just 2.9%).
That’s changing slowly with a few people who want to get away from the Front Range for reasonable home prices but a tight market for rentals.
“President Trump is doing a great job eliminating regulations, but I think King Jared Polis is up there on his throne, telling us how to live our lives. If he could keep his mouth shut, we’d be fine. If he wants to wear a face mask, that’s fine, but we’ve had three cases of the virus in our entire county,” Benson said, quoting a number that was accurate at the time.
“To shut down the economy in our community because Denver has an issue, it’s ridiculous.”
Grievance with the Front Range’s efforts to dictate state policy runs thickest in these parts.
“We’re not Denver,” Benson said. “We’re agricultural. We’re small. But we can take care of ourself, if we have the autonomy to do that.”
A politician with that message is saying what a large majority in these parts wants to hear.