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The last time Republicans controlled the Colorado Senate, it was 2018.
Before 2018, the state was considered reliably “purple.” Democrats controlled the governor’s office and state House, but Republicans had the treasurer, attorney general and secretary of state’s offices, along with the Senate.
But that was the midterm election when widespread disdain for then-President Donald Trump among Colorado voters handed a “blue wave” of victory up and down the ballot to Democrats, drowning out the red.
Now, Colorado Republicans and their out-of-state allies are hoping they can turn the tables on the current “trifecta” of Democratic power — the state Senate, House, and governor’s office — and return some of that power to the GOP. The latest polling suggests it’s unlikely that current Gov. Jared Polis will lose his bid for reelection to CU Regent Heidi Ganahl, and the Democrats’ 17-seat lead in the House would be difficult to overcome. But the Senate represents the GOP’s best chances. There, Republicans need only flip three seats to give them a much greater say in Coloradans’ daily lives.
“The people of Colorado are saying, ‘We can’t afford to fill our car with gas. Our utility bills are getting out of control. Our grocery bills are more than we’ve ever seen before. We can’t afford life in Colorado,’” said state Sen. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican.
“As Republicans, we’ve been working to make life less expensive,” Lundeen added. “We’ve been working to make housing more affordable. … So the reality is, we’re in a great position, we believe, to flip the state Senate.”
Democrats argue they have a track record that shows they care about reducing costs, including by implementing the voter-approved universal free preschool program, which is set to roll out in 2023, and making large investments this year into expanding the supply of affordable housing.
“At the end of the day people are going to vote based on if they think those who have been in charge delivered on their promises,” said state Senate President Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat. “And I think on issue by issue, we really have delivered on what we promised the people in Colorado.”
Democrats also call on voters to support them based on the Supreme Court’s June 24 ruling that overturned the Roe v. Wade decision and subsequent case law protecting abortion rights.
Republicans are hoping voters decide to “sit this one out,” state Sen. Julie Gonzales told abortion-rights supporters at a June 27 rally, where Democratic politicians including Polis and U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette also spoke. “The Republican Party right now is putting up insurrectionists, election deniers, anti-abortion, corporatists who are more interested in seeing their bottom lines rise instead of ensuring the bodily autonomy of the people they are elected to serve.”
While Colorado law currently guarantees the right to abortion at any point in a pregnancy, a future Republican majority in both chambers of the Legislature and the governor’s office could repeal those protections. No Republicans voted “yes” on this year’s bill to protect long-existing abortion rights under state law.
“Colorado has already dramatically expanded abortion rights beyond the limitations of Roe v. Wade,” Lundeen said when asked how Republican candidates would respond to Democratic messaging on abortion. “So it’s not actually a policy issue that is available for debate in this session or in this campaign. In Colorado, the law is already far more broad than what Roe v. Wade would have allowed for, and so that policy conversation has been asked and answered.”
Instead, Republicans plan to focus on “three things that people are talking to us about, and that is, making life more affordable in Colorado, making neighborhoods less dangerous in Colorado, and giving parents greater authority over their child’s education,” he added.
National spending in Colorado, Minnesota
Significant spending from national groups could play to the GOP’s favor, too. The Republican State Leadership Committee, a group working to elect GOP state lawmakers and governors, has homed in on Colorado and Minnesota as two states where the GOP sees an opportunity to flip chambers. The RSLC is a 527 political organization that’s given tens of millions to various candidates and groups since forming in 2002, according to the campaign finance nonprofit OpenSecrets.
Recent statements and videos publicized by the RSLC seek to highlight legislation passed by a Democratic-majority legislature, arguing that Democrats’ policies are driving up the cost of living. One example the group gives is Senate Bill 21-260, a law passed last year that implemented various fees — including a 27-cent charge on retail deliveries that took effect Friday — to help pay for transportation infrastructure.
“Democratic leadership in Colorado has completely destroyed the local economy as Democrats in Denver continue to stand in lockstep with the failing Biden Administration,” RSLC spokesperson Mason Di Palma said in an emailed statement on the retail delivery fee. “At a time when Coloradans are struggling to get by because of record high inflation, Democrats think now is a good time to implement a new tax that will make doing business harder than it already is in the Centennial State. This can’t continue to go on and state Republicans will hold Democrats accountable for their actions.”
Amid record-breaking gas prices, Democrats passed a law delaying the implementation SB-260’s gas fee from July 2022 until April 2023. Democrats in legislative leadership, along with Gov. Jared Polis, made “saving people money” a top policy priority this session, passing laws to lower the cost of professional licenses for health care workers, allow businesses to retain sales tax revenue, and invest in expanding access to child care, among others.
Republicans counter that other Democratic policies, including those aimed at stemming the worst effects of climate change, have had the opposite effect. Lundeen pointed to House Bill 22-1362, which requires local governments to adopt building codes that meet minimum standards for energy efficiency, rooftop solar, electric vehicle charging and more. During debate on the bill, Democratic sponsors said it would help the state reduce air pollution and cut utility costs by making buildings more energy efficient.
A recent analysis by the Common Sense Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank, found that the law could increase the cost of an average home by tens of thousands.
“That is detrimental to affordability of life in Colorado, and Democrat politicians own it,” Lundeen said.
Five key races
In order to gain an edge on Democrats, Republicans need to maintain their current seats in competitive districts and flip three others. Last year’s redistricting process put new areas of the state in play.
The most straightforward path to GOP Senate control, based on an analysis of district-by-district competitiveness by nonpartisan legislative redistricting staff, involves races in five key districts.
In this scenario, Republicans need to keep competitive seats in Senate District 11, which covers Southeast Colorado Springs, Cimarron Hills and part of unincorporated El Paso County; and Senate District 15, which includes parts of Larimer and Boulder counties. Republican Sens. Dennis Hisey of Colorado Springs and Rob Woodward of Loveland are running for reelection in the two districts. Hisey faces state Rep. Tony Exum of Colorado Springs, while Woodward will defend his seat against middle school teacher Janice Marchman.
District 15 is the most competitive district in the state Senate. Neither party has even a slight advantage based on the redistricting staff’s’ analysis, which looked at results from eight recent statewide elections. District 11 holds a 2.4 percentage-point advantage for Democrats.
Assuming they kept those seats, the GOP would then need to win Senate District 27, an open seat that covers parts of Aurora, Centennial and unincorporated Arapahoe County. Here, Republican business consultant Tom Kim is facing Democratic state Rep. Tom Sullivan. Democrats have a 4.7 percentage-point advantage in this district.
Two more seats are the next to come into play, both of which have a slightly larger advantage for Democrats. The redrawn Senate District 3 includes all of Pueblo County. Incumbent state Sen. Nick Hinrichsen, a Democrat, was appointed to replace Senate President Leroy Garcia after Garcia resigned earlier this year for a Pentagon post. Pueblo County Planning Commission member Stephen Varela is vying to replace him.
Finally, Senate District 8 is an open seat where former Eagle Town Council member Matt Solomon, a Republican, is facing state Rep. Dylan Roberts of Avon. The district includes Summit, Routt, Grand, Moffat, Clear Creek, Rio Blanco, Gilpin and Jackson counties, plus parts of Eagle and Garfield counties. [Both Roberts and Solomon answered a wide range of questions from RealVail.com prior to last month’s primary election.]
If Republicans won those five seats, they could flip the majority in the state Senate.
Could primary turnout provide any clue?
Republicans outvoted Democrats in the June 28 primary, something Lundeen says could point to an advantage for the party among unaffiliated voters, who make up the largest portion of the Colorado electorate.
As of July 1, 654,805 Republican primary ballots had been counted compared with 542,067 Democratic ballots, according to data from the Colorado secretary of state’s office. Unaffiliated voters were significantly more likely to vote in the Republican primary than the Democratic one. Last midterm election, when Democrats gained a trifecta of power in Colorado, the opposite was true.
“When people show up to vote for a candidate once, they tend to vote for that candidate again, and a lot of unaffiliateds reached for the Republican ballot,” Lundeen said.
Others, including Fenberg, dismiss that argument, noting that Republicans had competitive primaries for the U.S. Senate and governor’s races, while Democrats didn’t.
Regardless of the forces shaping primary turnout, Colorado voters can except to see messaging from both parties kick into high gear over the months leading up to the general election. Republican control over the so-called upper chamber, even by a slim margin, would mean Democrats couldn’t pass any laws without some amount of GOP support. The leverage could have lasting impacts beyond Colorado on issues like climate policy and abortion rights, Fenberg argued.
“Right now, Colorado is a place that respects a woman’s ability to make decisions about her own body, and we are surrounded by states that are in line that ban abortion,” Fenberg said. “So it’s incredibly important, I think, that we continue to have pro-choice majorities.”
The five districts Republicans must win to flip the state Senate:
Editor’s note: This story first appeared on Colorado Newsline, which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus 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: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.