Official results for Colorado’s 2018 midterm elections are now posted on the internet site of the Secretary of State’s Office. More than 2.5 million Coloradans voted in the Nov. 6 election. We had one of the highest voter turnouts in the nation. This was aided by our making it easy to vote, and there were a handful of hotly debated issues on the ballot. So this is a good time to take one last look at the patterns and probable forces at work.
Colorado voters have a history of electing statewide officials from both major political parties — often electing a Democrat or two along with a Republican or two on the same day. Thus in 2014, Coloradans elected Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper and Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner. In the 1970s and 1980s, we regularly elected Democratic governors along with Republican secretaries of state.
Election 2018 was different. Colorado voters, with the exception of three gerrymandered Republican congressional districts, voted consistently, within about a percentage point or so, for the four Democrats running for major statewide positions. Thus Democratic Gov.-elect Jared Polis won 53.4 percent of the votes cast; Democratic Secretary of State-elect Jena Griswold won 52.7 percent; Democratic Treasurer-elect Dave Young won 52.2 percent, and Democratic Attorney General-elect Phil Weiser won 51.6 percent.
Their Republican opponents trailed from 6 to 10 points behind.
Walker Stapleton received 42.8 percent of the vote for governor. Republican incumbent Secretary of State Wayne Williams polled 44.7 percent; GOP treasurer candidate Brian Watson got 44.9 percent, and Republican attorney general hopeful George Brauchler took 45.1 percent.
That looks a lot like, as several commentators noted, straight party line voting. Registered Democrats, however, probably made up only 32 or 33 percent of the vote. Most of the rest of the support for the Democratic candidates came from unaffiliated voters. About 3 percent or so of those voting were voting for a third-party candidate, such as a Libertarian, American Constitution or Unity Party member.
It is highly likely that about 92 or 93 percent of registered Democrats voted for the four Democratic candidates for major statewide offices. Similarly, 90 percent or more of registered Republican voters likely voted for Republican candidates.
Unaffiliated voters, often called independents, made up at least a third of those voting — and it is clear that majorities of these voters veered over to the Democrats, especially, as we will note, in the Denver metropolitan area.
Also significant is that there was an open statewide position on the ballot for the CU Board of Regents. These candidates were even less well-known than the other statewide candidates. Democrat Lesley Smith won this election by essentially the same percentage of the vote (52 percent) as Democrats won in the governor’s race and the other statewide elections.
The Republican candidate, Ken Montera, was at 43 percent, strikingly similar to the other Republicans running statewide.
Candidate quality, experience, and character seemed to play a secondary role to partisan preferences in the midterm elections in Colorado. There were qualified Republican candidates. Secretary of State Williams had won national plaudits for the efficiency and transparency of Colorado’s election procedures and for the state’s widely acknowledged high voter registration and high voter turnout. But that did not seem to matter. Democrat Griswold, who had never held elected office, easily defeated Republican Williams.
We believe three factors, two small ones and one large one, help explain the nearly 6 to 10 percent advantage Democrats had in the midterm election results.
First, Hickenlooper, the term-limited outgoing governor, had a very positive record on the economy. Republicans could not mount a serious charge that his administration had failed to produce prosperity and good economic times.
Second, Polis had better name recognition than Stapleton and had the personal wealth to add to and embellish his name recognition and his advocacy for education and health care. He had 16 years serving in public office at the state level compared with only eight years for Republican Stapleton (as state treasurer).
That Polis only ran a percentage point or two ahead of the other Democrats is a bit surprising because, compared with Polis, the other Democrats ran comparatively low budget campaigns.
By far the biggest factor in the race was that a large number of Coloradans, rightly or wrongly, viewed their votes as a way of sending a message to President Donald Trump. And not unlike Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ recent letter of resignation, the message was one of rebuke and dissent on issues such as immigration, health care, tariffs, strategic foreign alliances, and how Trump has treated the Department of Justice.
Trump was the elephant, and in this case, the rogue elephant, in the room.
So the anticipated “blue wave” of Democratic victories occasioned by Trump’s unpopularity hit Colorado hard and seemed to make candidate quality or character marginal to the election outcome.
It was a tough day for the Republicans. In Brauchler and Williams, the GOP might have lost two of its stronger future candidates for such statewide offices as governor and U.S. senator. A political comeback will be difficult for them.
Another takeaway from the 2018 midterms is the extent to which the Democrats are solidifying their control in the close-in Denver suburbs, a populous part of the state that use to be a swing area between the two parties yet went strongly for Polis.
Jefferson County, the western suburbs of the Denver metropolitan area, went 54.4 percent for Polis and only 41.5 percent for Stapleton, a spread of 12.9 points. Arapahoe County, the southern and southeastern suburbs of Denver, gave Polis 57.2 percent and Stapleton only 39.4 percent, a Democratic lead of 17.8 points. Adams County, the northern and northeastern suburbs of Denver Metro, favored Polis by 54.6 to Stapleton’s 40.6, a 14-point spread.
If the Republicans want to return to winning statewide elections in Colorado, they are going to have to craft policies and recruit candidates that can appeal to independent voters in these three populous Denver suburban counties.
And there is trouble for the Republicans brewing to the north in Larimer County (county seat, Fort Collins). That previously swing county checked in at 54.8 percent for Polis and 41.8 for Stapleton, a 13-point advantage for the Democrats.
Tom Cronin and Bob Loevy are political scientists at Colorado College.