Colorado’s 2018 midterm election was an across-the-board smackdown to Republicans. Democrats won every statewide office for the first time in 80 years and gained their largest legislative majority since 1958.
In several local elections, voters rejected Republicans and chose Democrats who were either unqualified or outside the mainstream.
Shellshocked Republicans are asking, “Want went wrong?” The answers might not be what Republicans want to hear.
First, a little good news: Coloradans do not want to pay more taxes.
Voters rejected a $1.6 billion tax increase for education by 53 percent to 46 percent, while ranking education as one of their priorities. A sales tax hike for transportation fared worse, failing 59 percent to 40 percent.
For Republicans, that’s where the good news ends. Comparing 2018 to 2014 is instructive. While 2014 was a Republican wave election nationwide, results in Colorado were mixed. Republicans won the U.S. Senate with Cory Gardner (by less than 40,000 votes); lost the governor’s race (by 68,000); elected the secretary of state, attorney general, and treasurer; gained a one-vote majority in the State Senate; and fell two seats short in the State House.
In 2018, 28,200 more Republican voters turned out than in 2014. However, Democrat (up 157,698) and unaffiliated (up 256,140) turnout surged.
In 2014, Republicans cast 110,000 more ballots than Democrats and accounted for 37 percent of voters. In 2018, Republicans accounted for only 31 percent of voters, and Democrats cast 46,000 more ballots.
For the first time, more ballots were cast by unaffiliated voters than by either party. To win in that environment, Republicans must be attractive to them. Unfortunately, unaffiliated voters in Colorado have been trending Democrat for several elections and did so even more decisively in 2018.
In 2012, 60 percent of unaffiliated voters preferred Barack Obama over Mitt Romney. In 2016, 62 percent of unaffiliated voters preferred Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.
Historically, a significant portion of unaffiliated voters are “ticket-splitters” — voting for some Democrats and some Republicans. In 2014, John Hickenlooper won 68 percent of them. However, Republican Cynthia Coffman won 58 percent in the race for attorney general.
Jared Polis won unaffiliated voters by 65 percent to 35 percent, while the leading statewide Republican, attorney general candidate George Brauchler, lost unaffiliated voters 58 percent to 42 percent.
Most unaffiliated voters were sending a message that they are animated by their dislike for Trump.
To be sure, unaffiliated voters are not all alike. In Pueblo County, Hillary Clinton received fewer votes than the number of Democrat ballots cast. The same thing happened in 14 other rural counties. Meanwhile, in Park, Jackson and Hinsdale counties, more Republicans voted than the total for Trump.
Along the rest of the Front Range, home to 80 percent of Colorado voters, the story is different. Only in Weld County did unaffiliated voters vote for Trump (59 percent) in 2016 and for Republicans in 2018. Sobering numbers come from Republican strongholds. Clinton won 53 percent of unaffiliated voters in El Paso; Polis won 60 percent. In Douglas, Clinton won 72 percent; Polis 64 percent.
Elsewhere, Polis racked up 82 percent of unaffiliated voters in Boulder, 80 percent in Denver, 71 percent in Larimer and 68 percent in Arapahoe.
Magellan Strategies, a Colorado-based Republican polling firm, found that 62 percent of Colorado unaffiliated voters disapprove of Trump — 48 percent strongly disapprove. Two years ago, unaffiliated voters slightly disapproved of both parties, but by 2016, they approved of Democrats 45 percent to 31 percent but resoundingly disapproved of Republicans, 25 percent to 53 percent.
A Magellan analysis of 2016 explains why Colorado is different from Michigan and Wisconsin, “purple” states where Trump won. In those states, Trump outperformed Mitt Romney’s 2012 numbers in several large counties where the economy was struggling, whereas he underperformed Romney in the largest counties. The strength of Colorado’s economy seems to work against Trump, but also explains why Adams and Pueblo counties were more receptive to Trump. Republicans face no easy options. The party is loyal to Trump, and though Republicans defend him, swing voters judge for themselves based upon what he says and does. That Trump will change his tactics appears no more likely than suburban swing voters changing their minds.
Mark Hillman was elected to the Colorado State Senate in 1998. He served as majority leader from 2003 to 2004 and minority leader in 2005 before serving as state treasurer. To read more about how unaffiliated votes were calculated, go to www.MarkHillman.com.