In 2016, Senator Michael Bennet beat Darryl Glenn 50% to 44%. Six years later, he bested a much better-funded opponent, Joe O’Dea, by almost twice as much — 54% to 43% percent of the vote. Over the past six years, a deep blue high tide has rolled into Colorado for reasons that will continue to challenge the GOP.
The last year that the number of registered Republicans outnumbered Democrats or unaffiliated voters in Colorado was 2013. In 2014, unaffiliated voters surpassed Republicans, as did Democrats in 2017. The state’s population grew by more than half a million people over those nine years, but today the GOP has only 34,185 more registered voters than it did in 2013.
Democrats and unaffiliated voters enjoy a strong majority statewide. Even in conservative-leaning El Paso, Mesa, and Douglas counties, there are more unaffiliated voters than Republican voters. These numbers alone give Democrats a significant advantage.
Secondly, President Donald Trump and his supporters continue to cast a shadow over Republicans even though they represent a minority within the party. Never popular in Colorado, Trump lost by a larger margin here in 2020 than he did in 2016. After he pushed lies about the election and fomented the January 6 riot, he lost credibility among mainstream Republicans.
In the 2022 Republican primary, all Trump-aligned candidates for statewide office lost, as did conspiracy theory-minded candidates for U.S. House. The exceptions were Erik Aadland and Congresswoman Lauren Boebert. In the general election, Aadland lost handily to Brittany Pettersen in the 7th Congressional District. The race between Congresswoman Lauren Boebert, the only Trump-endorsed candidate, and Adam Frisch is so close that it will likely require a recount. The district enjoys a +9 Republican registration advantage and would have been a landslide win for a Republican who doesn’t embrace Trump and his tactics.
Although gubernatorial candidate Heidi Ganahl is no election denier, her efforts to mollify those voters likely cost her; Republican candidates for other statewide races performed better by three or four percentage points. In the end, only Republicans who had distanced themselves overtime from Trump in safe congressional districts kept their heads above water.
Across the country, MAGA candidates for statewide offices lost in blue and purple states. In Ohio and Georgia, where they won or nearly tied (pending runoff), they underperformed relative to fellow non-Trump candidates by significant margins. Trump’s influence is fading but not fast enough for Republicans running in states where they do not enjoy a clear majority.
Lastly, Democrats made smart choices to maximize their numerical advantage. They spent twice as much money on candidates, $24 million to the GOP’s $10 million. They also effectively repurposed Republican talking points about taxes and the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR). TABOR, amended to the Colorado Constitution by voters in 1992, limits governments’ spending by requiring excess revenue be refunded to the taxpayer and requires voter approval for tax increases.
In the past, Democrats tried without success to repeal TABOR through legal challenges or by asking voters to permanently give up their refunds. Now they portray themselves as TABOR’s biggest fans. The Democrat-controlled legislature engineered a way to send out TABOR refund checks before the election rather than next year while rebranding the refund as the Colorado Cashback. They don’t mention all the tax increases disguised as fees. Instead, they’re all about saving Coloradans money!
Thanks to TABOR, Republicans have lost their most powerful campaign issue — opposition to tax increases — which could unite the fractious Republican Party and draw moderate Democrats and unaffiliated voters. Voters can safely elect a slate of liberal Democrats to statewide offices without worrying about higher taxes or overspending. The price of TABOR, for all benefits, has been the demise of its champions.
That old metaphor about the perils of habituation is wrong; a frog will leap out of a hot pot of water long before it hits the boiling point. In Colorado, as long as TABOR stands, the tax climate will never get hot enough to prompt a leap from the Democrats.
Republicans may be in the minority for the foreseeable future.
Krista L. Kafer is a weekly Denver Post columnist. Follow her on Twitter: @kristakafer.
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