Heading into the 2022 election year, it’s important to keep in mind a couple of indisputable political realities: Colorado tends to really like its governors, and Democrat Michael Bennet is one of the luckiest politicians on the planet.

Those were among the nuggets dispensed by a tripartisan trio of veteran strategists who convened for a panel discussion at the monthly meeting of the Foothills Republicans on Dec. 9 at the clubhouse at Fox Hollow in Lakewood.

The strategists were Dick Wadhams, a former chairman of the Colorado GOP, on the right; Eric Sondermann, a longtime political consultant and columnist for Colorado Politics, in the middle; and Mike Dino, a principal at the Denver office of government affairs powerhouse Squire Patton Boggs, on the left.

With more than a century of political experience between them, they’ve had a hand in too many campaigns to list, though each is known for big wins that propelled their careers: Wadhams helped elect Gov. Bill Owens and U.S. Sens. Bill Armstrong and Wayne Allard; Sondermann helped Dick Lamm; and Dino helped Wellington Webb become mayor of Denver.

Over an hour and a half, they gave their assessment of the state’s political climate, traded war stories, took questions, and made some predictions about next year’s election. Their verdict: Colorado Republicans have a shot at regaining some of the ground they’ve lost in a series of elections that have left the party with less power than the GOP had held in generations.

Primarily, that’s because the electorate could take out their frustrations on those in power, and Democrats hold almost all the reins, from the White House to Congress to Colorado’s executive branch and both chambers of the General Assembly.

It’s similar to the situations in 2010 and 2014, when the Colorado GOP reversed some of the wins notched by Democrats in previous elections — unseating two U.S. House members, replacing the state treasurer and winning control of the state House of Representatives by a narrow margin in 2010; and, ousting a U.S. senator and taking control of the state Senate in 2014.

Last month’s off-year elections in Virginia and New Jersey, where Republican gubernatorial candidates outperformed former President Donald Trump’s share of the 2020 vote by double digits, suggest are either a portent of things to come in Colorado or a well-timed wake-up call for Democrats, the strategists said.

Glenn Youngkin, the Republican who won the governor’s office in Virginia, swung the Virginia electorate roughly 13 points from Trump’s performance a year earlier, when the former president lost the state to Democrat Joe Biden by 11 points, and the vote swung toward the Republican at the top of the ticket by roughly 15 points in New Jersey, a state carried by Biden by about 16 points, though the swing wasn’t quite enough to hand a win to the GOP candidate this year.

A swing of around 14 or 15 points would throw Colorado to the Republicans, since Biden won the state by 13.5 points, but that could be a high hurdle.

Wadhams said Biden’s tumbling approval ratings could spell an opening for Republicans.

“President Biden, we all know, has got horrible poll numbers,” he said. “Biden is struggling right now. The question is, how does that relate to the 2022 election?

“His numbers are now as bad as what Obama’s numbers were before the 2010 and 2014 election. And that’s when Republicans swept Congress. The question is, can he come back? Can he can he get this ship righted? Are Republicans too overconfident?”

Dino warned against drawing too many parallels between an off-year election in Virginia and a midterm in Colorado, even though the states’ demographics and political history share some common characteristics, including growing, well-educated suburban electorate and a steady move from red to blue over the past dozen years.

Still, he added, the Virginia election should jolt Colorado Democrats into preparing for a tough fight next year.

“I think some issues did arise — on education, critical race theory — that Democrats have a hard time with, particularly in states like Colorado, where a lot of Democrats have really felt pretty emboldened because of a lot of victories,” he said.

“The biggest lesson I took from this year’s elections was that Republicans were successful when they kept President Trump in the background and really kept him at arm’s length. And I think that’s going to be hard for some, because if Trump is out front here in Colorado. That’s going be hard for Republicans.”

“This is not a 14-point Democratic state if you take Donald Trump out of the equation,” Sondermann said. “It is still a Democratic state, but not at the 14-point magnitude. Before Donald Trump came along, Democrats in Colorado were reasonably, consistently in the 5, 6, 7-point ballpark. Donald Trump managed to double that number. Is there a reversal of that magnitude in store in Colorado? It would take all the stars lining up correctly. Lord knows the Democrats and the president are helping to align some of those stars. It’ll take local people on the ground here running the best campaigns in their lives. It’ll take this party being willing and able to put the former president in the rearview mirror.”

Wadhams reminded Republicans that Owens is at this point the only Republican elected governor of Colorado in the past 50 years, since John Love won reelection in 1970.

Moreover, it will have been 60 years since Colorado voters have sent an incumbent governor packing, when Love defeated Democrat Steve McNichols in 1962.

“There’s something about Colorado. We love to love our governors,” Wadhams said, adding, “I certainly haven’t, but I think that the state at large has.”

He said that Polis could be vulnerable in ways that his Democratic predecessors Lamm, Roy Romer and John Hickenlooper weren’t, since his approval numbers aren’t as high as those belonging to his Democratic predecessors ahead of their runs for reelection, though Polis, a tech entrepreneur who bankrolled his 2018 win to the tune of $23 million, also has an enormous advantage by being able to self-fund.

“He can put $20 million into a race as easily as I can put a five-dollar bill on that table,” Wadhams said, adding, “It will take an outstanding candidate who can aggressively go after votes with a clear agenda to win that race.”

Over the same 60-year stretch Coloradans have declined to fire a governor seeking reelection, the state’s voters have turned out four incumbent senators — Republican Peter Dominick in 1974, Democrat Floyd Haskell in 1978, Democrat Mark Udall in 2014 and Republican Cory Gardner in 2020 — possibly opening the door to Republican chances next year as Bennet seeks a third full term.

Senators, the panelists agreed, are more subject to national winds than other elected officeholders, which could affect Bennet’s chances.

“Michael Bennet is probably more exposed here than Jared Polis is,” Sondermann said.

Noting that Bennet “probably commands more respect in D.C. than he necessarily does around Colorado,” Sondermann added that Bennet has tended to underperform when he’s been on the ballot in Colorado, including a skin-of-his-teeth win over former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton in 2010 and a smaller-than-expected margin over former El Paso County Commissioner Darryl Glenn in 2016.

Both victories, Sondermann observed, were largely the result of Republican missteps.

Those included attacking Norton for her loyalty to Owens and delivering the nomination to Glenn, who Sondermann described as “an able guy (who) was not ready for the big stage in any way, shape or form.”

Dino said he anticipates Bennet will have a tougher time winning than Polis another term but expects both to prevail.

Wadhams said he’s struck by a statistic many don’t realize — that if Bennet is reelected and serves out his next term, he will be the longest-serving senator in Colorado history, since he was appointed to the seat in 2009, nearly two years before facing voters for the first time.

“For a guy who just kind of stumbled into the office and then our candidates, unfortunately —” Wadhams said, shaking his head.

“He is the luckiest guy on earth. The question is, do we let him be lucky again?”

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