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Opinion: Most candidates are ignoring the issue Coloradans care about the most

June 21, 2024, 8:39 am

There is a huge gap in Colorado between campaign rhetoric on political issues and what voters in the state say they want candidates to talk about: democracy and good government

Many voters worry that democracy is vanishing and public institutions are threatened. Candidates rarely touch on this topic in their pitch to voters. But they should.

Colorado’s primary elections are Tuesday, when voters will determine which candidates go on to represent their party on the ballot in the November general election. If the victors next week want to address a top concern of constituents throughout the state, they will add to their stump speech an explanation of how they would reinforce democracy and improve the health of government functions.

Quentin Young

Colorado Newsline and more than 30 other news organizations in the state have undertaken an unprecedented effort this year to gauge what’s most important to voters. The project, called Voter Voices 2024, centers on a survey we distributed across the state, and respondents told us what candidates should focus on as they compete for votes. Voters had the opportunity to respond in their own words, and they also selected from a list the three issues that are most important to them. (The survey will be open throughout the 2024 election season. Click here to fill it out.)

The results were striking. Among those who identified themselves as liberal or moderate, most, by far, said democracy and good government were their top issues. Other major concerns included the economy/cost of living, immigration, the environment, abortion and health care. 

Conservatives generally put democracy and good government in third place —  ahead of 10 other issues on the list.

Part of the goal of the project was to enable journalists to challenge candidates when their rhetoric doesn’t match the priorities of the people they mean to represent.

One respondent to the Newsline survey said they want candidates to talk about “how they will protect the federal and state constitutions from wannabe dictators.” Another hopes candidates will “describe their understanding of the relationships between our American Democracy, our national economy and our international partnerships.” One said simply: “Democracy and our way of life is on the ballot.”

Many respondents complained about a related matter: the vitriolic tone of contemporary politics and the erosion of bipartisanship. Newsline reporter Sara Wilson recently conducted Q&As with primary candidates for statehouse seats. In one question, she mentioned that voters told us they’re concerned about democracy and good government, and she asked, “Do you find any common ground with members of the opposite party, and how important is bipartisanship in your political philosophy?”

Almost every candidate was quick to answer that they value working across the aisle to get things done. But some candidates, both Democrats and Republicans, said there are limits to their willingness to work with the other side. And some do not seem to be interested in bipartisanship at all.

“I do not find a lot of common ground with Democrats,” Terri Goon, a Republican running in House District 11, said, while Tim Hernández, an incumbent Democrat who’s running in House District 4, said, “Good governance is contextual, and in our current context, it means that rather than asking if we should work with a super-minority on the other side of the aisle we should be asking why we are not passing bills that supermajorities of our Democratic constituents are asking us to.”

And when Wilson asked candidates to name their top three priorities, exactly one — Rep. Elisabeth Epps, a Democrat running for reelection in House District 8 — specifically included “good governance,” citing such values as transparency and compliance with open meetings law. It’s her No. 1 priority, she said.

Neglect of an issue that voters told us is important is apparent elsewhere, on campaign websites, during debates and across other avenues of candidate communication. We might not have recognized this disparity without the Voter Voices project. But now we do.

Part of the goal of the project was to enable journalists to challenge candidates when their rhetoric doesn’t match the priorities of the people they mean to represent. As winners emerge after the polls close Tuesday and general election candidates begin retooling their campaigns for the months ahead, they should consider their response to the question, “What will you do to protect democracy and ensure the health of government?”

We’ll be asking.

Editor’s note: This opinion column first appeared on Colorado Newsline, which is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: info@coloradonewsline.com. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and X.

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