It’s a year and a half until Colorado voters go to the polls to elect the next General Assembly.
The 2020 election won’t come soon enough for Republicans, who are still reeling in the wake of the just completed legislative session, when majority Democrats sent a steady stream of legislation to Democratic Gov. Jared Polis for his signature.
There’s already talk among Republicans that the party’s candidates can win control of at least one chamber in next year’s election, enabling the GOP to put the brakes on the kind of legislation that sent Republicans’ heads spinning.
Don’t count on it.
Put simply, there aren’t enough competitive seats up for grabs in 2020 for Republicans to win the majority in either the House or the Senate.
It’s a matter of the calendar, the map — and math.
The GOP could run the table but still come up short — barring an electoral cataclysm in a year when Democratic-leaning voters are nearly certain to turn out at higher levels than they did in last year’s blue wave.
That’s the picture that emerged in interviews with strategists, operatives, candidates and neutral observers, who agreed to discuss the electoral landscape without being named so they could speak frankly.
One of the cardinal rules of Colorado politics — at least in recent decades — has been that Democrats tend to do better up and down the ballot in presidential years, while Republicans do better in midterms, largely due to the differences between the electorates that turn out for the two types of contests.
Lightning can strike, upending the rules and throwing the board in the air — scandals blow up campaigns, and national events like the 9/11 attacks or the backlash against Obamacare can swing the electorate — but it’s as likely to favor Democrats as Republicans.
That’s what happened last year, when Democrats and Democratic-leaning unaffiliated voters turned out in unprecedented numbers for a midterm, helping the party win seats that had been solidly in Republican hands for decades.
Pundits debate whether Colorado’s 2018 vote points to a fundamental leftward shift in the state’s growing electorate. But hardly anyone disputes that the results were driven by voter reaction to President Donald Trump, who is unpopular with unaffiliated voters — the state’s largest bloc — according to polling.
With Trump’s appearance on the ballot next year fueling voter intensity, coupled with an even more Democratic-leaning electorate than showed up for last year’s midterm, the most die-hard Republican consultants are warning against expecting a more Republican-friendly environment than the one that led to historic GOP losses in 2018.
Democrats hold a commanding 41-24 majority in the House ahead of the 2020 election, when all 65 seats will be on the ballot. The Democrats hold a more tenuous 19-16 majority in the Senate, which will see 18 seats up for election next year.
In the session that just ended, Republicans and others opposed to the Democrats’ policy agenda used plenty of tools to mold some legislation and block a few bills.
Among those tools: slowing legislative business to a crawl by demanding bills be read at length, and flooding the Capitol with constituents and representatives of various interested parties on matters like vaccination and sex education, regularly pushing committee hearings late into the night.
But nothing beats a gavel, which gives the majority party the power to control the calendar and send bills to committees to impose the party line, on top of the sheer numerical advantage on committees and in the chamber as a whole.
It’ll be nearly impossible for Republicans to win a majority next year in the Colorado House, where GOP candidates could win every competitive district and still fail to net the nine seats necessary to control the chamber.
In 2018, only three House contests — all in historically Republican districts — were decided by less than 5%, typically the margin that defines competitive races: In Jefferson County’s House District 27, Democrat Brianna Titone won by 0.88%; in Arapahoe County’s House District 38, Republican Susan Beckman won by a narrower 0.78%; and in southeastern Colorado’s House District 47, Democrat Bri Buentello won by 1%.
Democrats will also be defending House seats they flipped from longstanding Republican control, including Lisa Cutter in rural Jefferson County’s House District 25, who won by 5.5%, and Tom Sullivan in Arapahoe County’s House District 37, who won by 8%.
Throw in several traditionally hard-fought swing seats, all won in 2018 by Democrats by double-digit margins — Meg Froelich, appointed this year to Arapahoe County’s House District 3; Tony Exum in El Paso County’s House District 17; Rochelle Galindo in Weld County’s House District 50; and Barbara McLachlan in southwestern Colorado’s House District 59 — and there still aren’t enough House seats on the table, even if Republicans oust every Democratic incumbent and successfully defend Beckman.
The real prize in next year’s election is the gavel in the Senate, where Republicans held an 18-17 majority from 2015 to 2018. Under split legislatures, even though Democrats held comfortable majorities in the House, Republicans managed to put their stamp on every piece of legislation sent to the governor.
(Over the last two decades, Republicans have controlled both legislative chambers for just three years, while Democrats have held the majority in both chambers for nine years — including this year’s session — with split legislatures for the remaining eight years.)
Democrats broke the GOP’s hold on the Senate last year by sweeping all five of the most-contested races by double-digit margins, ousting two Republican incumbents in the process.
Next year, there won’t be as many narrowly divided districts on the ballot — and Republicans will be playing defense in some tough races, including an open seat in a district that’s trending Democratic.
By general agreement, the Republicans’ top target next year will be Jefferson County’s Senate District 19, held by Democrat Rachel Zenzinger, while the Democrats’ top targets will be Adams County’s Senate District 25, held by Republican Kevin Priola, and Arapahoe County’s Senate District 27, held by Republican Jack Tate, who won’t be seeking another term.
Decidedly second-tier races — certain to be contested, though both sides agree they’re unlikely to switch columns — include northwestern Colorado’s Senate District 8, held by Republican Bob Rankin; Arapahoe County’s Senate District 25, held by Democrat Jeff Bridges; and southeastern Colorado’s Senate District 35, held by Republican Larry Crowder, who is term-limited. (Rankin and Bridges, both former House members, were appointed to fill those seats following the incumbents’ resignations.)
That’s it for next year’s competitive Senate map, at least at this point — three toss-up districts Republicans could sweep against the odds, and still wind up one seat shy of the majority.
There is a wild card, however, that could tilt the balance of power in the Senate after the 2020 election. Several threatened recall elections might put additional, off-cycle Senate seats in play next year, opening the door at least a crack to a Republican majority in the chamber.
Nothing is set in stone — candidates, campaigns and external events matter, even in the face of daunting fundamentals, political insiders stress, and any gains the GOP makes next year will make future majorities more likely — but the Republicans’ best hope of reclaiming a gavel at the Capitol could be in 2022, after an independent redistricting commission draws more competitive lines.