In Colorado’s U.S. Senate races, blowouts have been more common than nail-biters in the modern era.
In the past 16 races for Colorado’s two Senate seats— going back just over 50 years, to 1968 — nine of the contests were decided by more than 5 points, two fell right on that line, and five were close, including a couple decided by a whisker that weren’t called until the next day.
The 13 races for governor during the same period were nearly all decided by double-digit margins, with only one turning into a close race and another one ending in a photo finish.
While Colorado has earned its reputation as a purple state at the federal level over the decades — electing Republicans to the Senate eight times and Democrats eight times since 1968 — its voters tend to deliver a decisive win in top-ticket, statewide races.
Over the same span, the state has elected Democrats as governor in 10 of the 13 elections, including across a 24-year stretch from the mid-1970s to the late 1990s, when just two men — Dick Lamm and Roy Romer — occupied the office, in the era before term limits kicked in.
The closest Senate race in Colorado in the past 50 years was in 1972, when Democrat Floyd Haskell ousted GOP incumbent Gordon Allott by just over 1 percentage point the same year Richard Nixon carried the state in a Republican landslide.
The other Senate races decided by Colorado voters by under 2 points were in 1986, when then-Democratic U.S. Rep. Tim Wirth defeated U.S. Rep. Ken Kramer by 1.5 points. Six years earlier in 1980, Democrat Gary Hart won a second term over Republican Secretary of State Mary Estill Buchanan by 1.6 points.
Colorado’s senior senator, Democrat Michael Bennet, won his first full term by 1.7 points in 2010, defeating Republican Ken Buck, who, four years later, was elected to Congress.
Republican Cory Gardner won the seat he’s attempting to defend this year by a hair under 2 points in 2014, when he defeated Democrat Mark Udall.
Gardner is facing a challenge from former Gov. John Hickenlooper.
The widest margin posted in a Senate win over the same period was in 1984, when Republican Bill Armstrong secured a second term over former Lt. Gov. Nancy Dick by just under 30 points. Republican Ben Campbell, who was elected as a Democrat before later switching parties, won his second term over Democratic challenger Dottie Lamm in 1998 by 27.5 points.
Since 1970, the only real squeaker of a gubernatorial contest was in 1998, when then-State Treasurer Bill Owens defeated then-Lt. Gov. Democrat Gail Schoettler, a former state treasurer, by 0.7 points.
Hickenlooper prevailed over Republican former U.S Rep. Bob Beauprez in 2014, in the other gubernatorial election that wound up close, winning by a comfortable 3.3 points in results that weren’t clear until the next morning.
Lamm won his third term as governor over Republican John Fuhr by 34 points, racking up the widest margin of any gubernatorial race in the modern era.
When Owens sought a second term in 2002, he notched the second-place margin, dispatching Democrat Rollie Heath by 29 points.
Romer’s 26.5-point win over then-state Sen. John Andrews marked the next-largest margin in 1990.
Although with polls showing the Democratic ticket of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris maintaining a comfortable lead over Republicans Donald Trump and Mike Pence, Colorado isn’t considered a battleground state in the presidential election this year — ceding the key role it’s played in the last three elections to states like Wisconsin and Arizona — all eyes will be on the Senate race.
The race hardly gets a mention without noting that its outcome could determine which party will control the Senate after November, as it’s considered one of the three most likely seats to flip in 2020, and Democrats need to net three seats to take the gavel from Republicans.
But, even though Hickenlooper has spent the last year with a steady lead in the polls, hovering around 10 points, Gardner and his allies aren’t throwing in the towel.
With less than three weeks to go until ballots are due, the Republican’s super-PAC gained a big infusion of cash from Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell’s leadership PAC, and a billionaire who had been staying on the sidelines dropped $1 million in independent expenditures on ads attacking Hickenlooper.
So while polls show the former governor poised to swamp Gardner by double digits, the race is approaching the finish line more like the match-ups that ended much closer. Operatives on both sides agree, saying they’re taking nothing for granted in the strangest election year anyone can remember.
Compared with how many other states vote, the way Colorado conducts its all-mail ballot system probably means most of the state’s races will be decided on election night, possibly making the outcome of the competition between Gardner-Hickenlooper an early harbinger of the nation’s tilt.
Unlike some states that will complete most of their voting before Nov. 3, Colorado allows election officials to start processing ballots as soon as they’re received, so the totals reported soon after polls close at 7 p.m. could provide a strong indication which candidates will be celebrating that night and which won’t.
A few states — including ones considered possible swing states — forbid doing more with mail ballots than minimal checking-in before Election Day, possibly creating a big bottleneck that could delay reporting returns well beyond election night.
Other states will also be expecting the bulk of their votes to be cast with mail ballots — a significantly higher number this year due to the pandemic and efforts by some election officials to encourage absentee balloting in states that don’t conduct all-mail elections like Colorado and a handful of other states. But many of them won’t have all their ballots in hand until days after the election, because they allow ballots postmarked by Election Day to count, compared to Colorado, where ballots must be received by the time polls close.
The exception in Colorado — and the reason a few down-ballot races might not be decided until later in November — are military and overseas ballots, which will be counted so long as they’re postmarked on Nov. 3, plus a smaller number of provisional ballots and ballots delivered to the wrong county. In addition, voters whose signatures don’t match the signature on file have the ability to “cure” their ballots in Colorado, delaying the final, official count past election night.
Some Democrats are expressing concern that Trump might try to declare victory on election night when the early count won’t reflect millions of mail ballots, which surveys show are far more likely to be cast by Biden supporters than Trump supporters.
To forestall that, election officials and some media outlets have been trying to make clear that election night could stretch into election week simply because of the hodgepodge of deadlines and rules in place across 50 states.
Throw in legal challenges or the kind of close or contested results that delayed resolution of the 2000 presidential race, which some warn could turn election night into election month.