Twenty years ago, Colorado's political landscape was nearly an exact mirror image of where things stand today.
Where last year's election saw Democrats run the table — winning every statewide race and Colorado's new congressional seat on top of gaining seats in both chambers of the legislature — in the wake of the 2002 election Republicans were celebrating their dominance after achieving almost the same feats.
That year, Republicans made it look easy by notching impressive wins for the third general election in a row, just like Democrats did in Colorado last year.
Before they knew it, though, the Republicans who ruled the roost in a state that seemed solidly in their corner would see their power erode. Within a couple of cycles, the GOP had lost its firm hold on the state, though the Democrats would take another decade to cement the position they now enjoy.
In retrospect, 2002 was the Colorado GOP's high point, even though, by all appearances, the state's political scene had settled into a comfortable equilibrium — perhaps a reminder that there's nothing so constant in politics as change.
As both parties set about choosing new leadership for the next two years — Colorado Republicans pick new party officers on March 11, and Democrats are doing the same on April 1 — it's illuminating to remember a time very like our own, only its opposite. It's like trying to make out familiar features in a photograph's negative, if anyone remembers those.
Film cameras were still hanging on — barely — in 2002, but the world was rapidly changing, just as Colorado's political arena would soon undergo a series of upheavals that would remake it entirely in a matter of years.
In 2002, the last year Republicans romped in Colorado, the iPod was just a year old and the first iPhone was still five years in the future. No one had heard of the Blueprint or super PACs. Outside of Oregon, which adopted the method two years earlier, few had heard of all-mail balloting.
People still memorized phone numbers, and the closest thing to a social network was a mimeographed church directory or the sign-up sheet for the summer softball league. The notions of legalized marijuana, a Black president or even a gay governor were all the stuff of whimsical, futuristic fiction — maybe someday, but no time soon.
A lot has changed in just 20 years.
Colorado voters endorsed the Republican ticket nearly across the board in 2002, reelecting a Republican governor, U.S. senator, secretary of state and state treasurer. Republicans won five of the state's seven congressional seats, including in the newly created, ultra-competitive district anchored in the Denver suburbs. After the 2002 election, Republicans held the gavels in the state House and Senate, as they'd become accustomed, with the rare exception.
Fast-forward 20 years, swap "Democrat" for "Republican," and that's almost what happened in last year's election.
In 2002, Republican Bill Owens sailed to a second term as governor, fending off a nominal challenge from Democrat Rollie Heath with a nearly 20 percentage-point win. This year, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis easily won a second term over GOP nominee Heidi Ganahl, also by almost 20 percentage points.
Republican Wayne Allard won reelection to the U.S. Senate in 2002 in a rematch with Democrat Tom Strickland, while Democrat Michael Bennet won another Senate term last year over GOP nominee Joe O'Dea, though Bennet's roughly 15-point winning margin was about three times as wide as Allard's.
Republican Bob Beauprez won the state's new 7th Congressional District in 2002 over Democrat Mike Feeley in a squeaker, like how Democrat Yadira Caraveo defeated Republican Barb Kirkmeyer last year to represent the new 8th Congressional District, also by an exceedingly slim margin.
Republicans carried four of the state's six other U.S. House elections in 2002, sending Scott McInnis, Marilyn Musgrave, Joel Hefley and Tom Tancredo to Washington — all but Musgrave for additional terms — the same way Democratic congressional candidates won election in four additional House districts this year: Diana DeGette, Joe Neguse, Jason Crow and Brittany Pettersen, with all but Pettersen returning to D.C.
Two decades ago, Republican Donetta Davidson won a second term as secretary of state like Democrat Jena Griswold did last year, and Republican State Treasurer Mike Coffman won reelection 20 years before Democrat Dave Young did the same.
But the parallels across the decades aren't identical.
In 2002, Ken Salazar — the lone Democrat holding major statewide office at the time — won a second term as attorney general, like Democrat Phil Weiser won reelection to the office last year. This time around, however, in a wrinkle from the 20-year-old lineup, Republicans don't occupy any statewide office.
And unlike the 2022 election, when Democrats increased their majorities in the General Assembly to historic levels, Republicans only barely took the state Senate in 2002 — regaining the majority from the Democrats by precisely flipping the 18-17 seat ratio, compared to the 23-12 majority Democrats hold after last year's election. In the state House, the GOP lost a seat in 2002, slipping to a 37-28 majority, while Democrats gained five state House seats in the 2022 election and hold a 46-19 majority.
There was another fly in the GOP's ointment back in 2002, with Polis occupying the at-large seat on the State Board of Education after winning it in 2000, launching a political trajectory that included five terms in Congress before his two wins as governor.
The other 2002-vintage elected officials who still hold office are DeGette, who was elected to a fourth term in 2002 and won reelection last year to a 14th term, and Coffman, Aurora's mayor, who followed his terms as treasurer with election as secretary of state and five terms in Congress before winning the municipal office. Salazar, for his part, won a U.S. Senate seat in 2004 and was appointed secretary of interior in 2009, and in 2021 became the U.S. ambassador to Mexico.
There's a persistent myth in Colorado political circles that the state was reliably red before a group of wealthy Democrats — including Polis — came up with the spending and organizational plan known as the "Blueprint" ahead of the 2004 election and began to take over the state.
While the latter development is grounded in reality — the oft-told story was first documented in depth in the 2010 book "The Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado (and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care)," by Adam Schrager and Rob Witwer — the former was only true briefly, for a handful of elections from the late 1990s until the apex of the GOP's Colorado sway in 2002.
Prior to that, the state legislature had been controlled by Republicans — excepting a chamber here and there — since the mid-1960s, and Colorado's electoral votes had gone to the Republican presidential nominees all but once over the same period. But in top statewide races across the same stretch, Democratic candidates carried six gubernatorial elections to the Republicans' four, while Republicans won six U.S. Senate races to the Democrats' five, giving the state a purplish hue.
Since then, Democrats have held the upper hand in every category, winning control of both legislative chambers in 2004 and only losing a single chamber three times since. Republicans carried the state's electoral votes in the 2004 presidential race but have lost the four that followed. Additionally, Democrats won all five elections for governor since 2002 and won six of the seven elections of the U.S. Senate, marking a nearly complete U-turn in 20 years.