As the top-ticket races started falling in Democrats’ favor Tuesday night, U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper predicted his party might be on the precipice of a “wave-lett” in Colorado.
Colorado’s junior senator, who’s had his own electoral close calls as governor before being on the winning side of 2020’s blowout, underestimated the outcome.
Colorado Democrats — facing a shaky, inflationary economy, a typically baleful midterm environment where their party controls the White House, and relentless attacks over drugs and crime — swept the statewide constitutional offices, fended off Republicans’ “perfect candidate” for the U.S. Senate and celebrated what appeared to be a continued trifecta control of the legislature and governor’s office.
Republicans had run their best slate in recent memory, one party official said, and yet they ended the night wondering how much the state had shifted away from them.
Here are four takeaways from Democrat’s surprisingly good night.
Democrats claim continued control of the state legislature
“Everybody was counting the Senate Democrats out,” Steve Fenberg, leader of Colorado’s Senate Democrats, said at his party’s election night get-together. “This was the chamber that was going to flip. There was a new frontier for the GOP in Colorado. But today, not only are we going to keep the majority we are going to be exceeding all expectations.”
It was too soon to know the exact size of the majority, he said, but he was confident that the majority first delivered in 2018 would continue apace, if not grow.
Heading into election night, officials from both parties had predicted that the Democrats’ majority in both the state House and Senate would narrow. But as of 11 p.m., none of the races that needed to swing Republicans’ way had done so. Though several races were still returning votes by 10 p.m., Democrats were leading in every single race that Republicans had targeted as potential flips.
If trends from Tuesday night hold, the Democratic majority in the senate looks set to hold firm. In Pueblo, Democrat Nick Hinrichsen — appointed to the seat in February — was beating Republican Stephen Varela by 3,300 votes. In northwest Colorado, Democrat Dylan Roberts was ahead of Matt Solomon by more than 8,000 votes.
The same was true in the House, where Democrats had hoped to lose only a handful of seats. But close, targeted races in El Paso County, in the mountains and in northwest Colorado were trending blue. Even Rep. Colin Larson, the Ken Caryl Republican set to be elected minority leader on Thursday, was trailing Democratic challenger Tammy Story. Larson did not return a message seeking comment Tuesday night.
Republicans cautioned that many of those races were still to be decided and that votes are still being counted. But if the results hold, Democrats will return to the Capitol in January with their majorities intact and with a mandate, officials said.
Good night for Democrats, though they say Colorado is still “a purple state”
Alec Garnett, the outgoing speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives, rattled off a slew of his party’s recent victories since voters delivered Democrats control of state government in 2018: Codified protections for abortion rights; caps on insulin; free preschool for 10 hours a week.
Accomplishments that Democrats ran on, he said, and put the party on the precipice of a “vast majority” in a chamber they’ve had comfortable control over for years.
“Democrats delivered on what they said they were going to deliver on, and that’s why we have such a huge majority,” Garnett, of Denver, said.
Fenberg, of Boulder, said affordability, climate, and eliminating the deficit in education funding will be among his caucus’s top priorities for the upcoming session. If this election cycle was a referendum on Democratic leadership, he takes it to mean voters like the party’s priorities.
“We’re going to consider this a mandate to continue doing what we think is in the best interest of our entire state — Republican, Democrat, rural, urban, suburban,” Fenberg said.
But, despite the slate of Democratic victories over the years, Fenberg said he thinks “Colorado will always be a bit of a purple state.” It was a sentiment shared by U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet. Bennet won his third full term over Republican businessman Joe O’Dea. O’Dea rejected former President Donald Trump’s claims that 2020’s election was stolen and avoided third-rail issues like abortion in favor of a consistent economic message. Leader of U.S. Senate Republicans Mitch McConnell called him a “perfect candidate” for a state like Colorado.
Even as Bennet was set to mark his largest margin of victory yet, he said “Colorado absolutely remains a swing state.” He chalked up his party’s victories to nominating “very serious public servants” who ran serious races.
Republicans see a “fundamental change”
Shortly after he conceded to Treasurer Dave Young, Republican Lang Sias wondered what comes next for the Republican Party. His race was targeted as the most winnable for the GOP of the four constitutional offices, a quasi-referendum on Democrats’ economic policy in a midterm dominated by inflation and the cost of living. And yet, by night’s end, he was down 10 percentage points.
“Do we have a brand problem?” he asked of Republicans in Colorado. “We certainly have in past elections — is that lingering? I don’t know. Or has the state fundamentally changed?”
Kristi Burton Brown, the chairwoman of the Republican Party here, was unequivocal when asked about Sias’s musing: The state has “fundamentally shifted.” Republicans ran on the economy and on crime, and their positions were “not what voters chose” Tuesday.
“We ran one of the best slates of candidates Republicans have had in a long time, people who talked about the issues, people who brought solutions, professionalism, experience,” she said as volunteers for the Aadland campaign broke down signs at the GOP’s watch party in Greenwood Village.
Burton Brown declined to say if she’ll run for re-election to lead the party, and she noted that legislative races across the state were still too close to call. But the night was a clear miss for the party, with races she and others had felt were secure — like the new 8th Congressional district — were up in the air.
Regardless of final results, she said, the party has to keep talking about its issues and working to make inroads.
“We have to fight in the districts, we have to fight in local races,” she said, “and like I said, we’re the pro-life party, we’re the party that defends the Second Amendment, and we’ll continue to bring solutions to the table.”
Minimal Election Day drama
Five hours after polls opened Tuesday, Secretary of State Jena Griswold was cheerful, for someone watched closely by security guards. Fears about threats to election workers and voter intimidation had run high in the days and weeks ahead of Election Day, but those fears had been assuaged.
“I’m happy to report everything is running really smoothly today,” she said.
Her office had received no substantiated reports of voter intimidation, she told the Post. As of 3:30 p.m., just over 2 million Coloradans had voted — about 46% of registered voters, though that number’s likely to rise as more results come in.
Still, she and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock decried the “vitriol” that’s come to dominate election rhetoric, and they hoped Tuesday’s results – still hours away from showing just how much their party controlled the state’s political future – would instill calm and trust.
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