Democrats Darien Wilson and Lisa Neal-Graves are both running for seats on the Douglas County Board of Commissioners. The heavily funded races are in the fast-growing, once-sleepy county south of Denver that was deep red in 2016. The commissioners oversee an annual budget of close to half a billion dollars and oversee important infrastructure projects for the county; they also work on public-safety matters and handle public-health issues.
Wilson is up against Republican Lora Thomas, a former Colorado State Patrol trooper who's running for re-election. Neal-Graves is going for the seat being vacated by term-limited Republican commissioner Roger Partridge; she's up against George Teal, a Republican member of the Castle Rock City Council. Republican Abe Laydon holds the third commissioner seat and isn't up for re-election this year.
"I know it’s a long shot, but I feel a moral responsibility to run for this office. I feel a moral responsibility to give it everything I've got," says Wilson, a small-business owner who has been involved in Democratic political organizing in recent years.
Do Wilson and Neal-Graves have a chance?
Douglas County is a conservative stronghold. In 2016, 54.71 percent of the presidential votes cast in the county were for Donald Trump, compared to just 36.62 percent for Hillary Clinton. And in 2018, the county voted overwhelmingly for Republican candidates for state office, including governor and attorney general.
But as of the beginning of October, the number of registered Republican voters in Douglas County had shrunk from 109,469 in 2016 to 106,176. Meanwhile, registered Democrats rose from 48,676 in 2016 to 54,354 now.
The category of voters that's seen the biggest increase, though, is unaffiliated, going from 79,774 in 2016 to 113,270 today in Douglas County.
That doesn't mean that Douglas County is turning purple, cautions Ted Trimpa, a Democratic strategist based in Denver. "Unaffiliated doesn’t mean independent," he says. "They tend to lean one way or another. I bet a lot of them lean Republican when it comes to county commissioner."
While Wilson recognizes the long odds, she still sees a path to victory.
"We need 70 percent of the unaffiliated to vote with us. And we have to peel off some Republicans. And get all the Dems to vote for us," she says. "With this Tri-County Health Department thing, that's a possibility."
Over the summer, Thomas, Partridge and Laydon announced that the county would give notice to the Tri-County Health Department, which also covers Arapahoe and Adams counties, that it would be leaving the group in a year; they said the county would explore starting its own health department. The decision by the Douglas County commissioners came after the Tri-County Health Board of Health, which includes representatives from the three counties, voted to enact a mask mandate across the department's entire jurisdiction.
The Board of Health edict actually went against the recommendation of the head of Tri-County Health, Dr. John Douglas, who'd suggested that Douglas County be exempted from the mask mandate and allowed to opt in.
But the speed with which Thomas and the other commissioners announced Douglas County's departure from the Tri-County partnership in the middle of a pandemic struck commissioners in Arapahoe and Adams counties as foolhardy, and the two Democrats running for Douglas County commissioner seats agreed.
Wilson views that moment as "absolutely" a turning point in her campaign. In recent months, she's been playing up her respect for science and data; she describes Thomas as an "anti-science zealot" and an "extremist who is on a power trip."
"It wasn’t that I smelled blood," explains Wilson. "It was just that finally some light was shining on what a nut job we have running our county."
Not surprisingly, Thomas sees things very differently. "As a voter, I look at what she’s putting out there, and I’m not sure what else she’s running on," she says of Wilson's focus on the Tri-County Health Department issue.
Recently, the Douglas County Commissioners reached a breakthrough with the Tri-County Health Department, accepting a proposal from the department that "would increase the role of individual counties regarding public health orders, as they are being developed and before they are issued," according to an October 22 statement from a Douglas County spokesperson.
The Tri-County Board of Health will still need to approve the new deal. If it does, Douglas County will stay with the department through at least the end of 2022, the commissioners say.
While that defuses Tri-County as a major issue in the campaign, the commissioners' original decision to leave the department may not be far outside mainstream thinking in Douglas County, according to Dick Wadhams, a Colorado Republican strategist.
"I don’t think Douglas County voters think the commissioners are wrong about that. There’s a reason why people live in Douglas county and not Adams or Arapahoe," he says, laughing.
Wadhams expects incumbent Thomas to win a "solid victory." He's not so sure about the race for Partridge's seat.
"In counties like Douglas, when you have a county with one party that dominates, you end up having these knockdown, drag-out primaries within the dominant party, and that’s what I saw from afar with the George Teal primary," he explains. "A lot of times there is some stigma that attaches to the winner that they have to deal with in the general election. That's probably the case here."
In this case, the stigma arose from an accusation by supporters of Clint Dorris, Teal's primary challenger, that Teal had embellished his military service record. On his official bio, Teal identifies himself as a former "wartime Infantryman" and a "veteran of Operation Desert Storm."
But Teal didn't see combat in the Middle East in the early ’90s; instead, he was stationed in Germany. This alleged embellishment led to Teal being disqualified from the Veterans for Foreign Wars organization, according to the Denver Post.
"George Teal having served as a veteran was enough, and I feel like his need to say that he did something that he didn’t do speaks more to a character flaw that I just fundamentally don’t understand," says Neal-Graves, a Parker resident and lawyer. "To take it to another level says something about him feeling uncomfortable and insecure about what that part of him represents."
Ryan Lynch, a spokesperson for Teal's campaign, says that Dorris's supporters made it an issue. "I don’t believe George has ever, ever misrepresented his military service record," Lynch says.
Post-primary, though, another wrinkle was added when Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock, who's a Republican, endorsed Neal-Graves. Spurlock, who had backed Dorris, has had a contentious relationship with Teal, who once donated money to a recall effort against the sheriff and said that "Tony betrayed the Republican Party who nominated him" with his support of Colorado's red-flag law.
"He has no level knowledge of what goes on in the county whatsoever," Spurlock says of Teal. "He’s so blinded by his belief in one area that he can’t see the whole county, which scares me." Spurlock, who is term-limited and will retire in 2022, says he views Neal-Graves as a solid supporter of law enforcement: "I don’t see Lisa as a Democrat. I saw Lisa as a citizen who wanted to make a difference in Douglas County. She just happens to be on the Democrat side."
Lynch rejects the significance of Spurlock's endorsement. "Clearly his endorsement doesn’t carry much water in Douglas County, because if it did, Clint Dorris would be the Republican nominee for commissioner," he says.
Wadhams thinks Teal will probably win, though not by as large a margin as Thomas.
And both he and Trimpa think that Republicans avoiding voting for Trump won't have a trickle-down effect on the county elections.
"I have a difficult time believing that the animosity that suburban white Republican women have toward Trump is going to translate toward 'I’m going to vote for a Democratic county commissioner,'" Trimpa says.
Adds Wadhams: "What you’re probably going to find is that Republicans are not going to get near the margin, especially on the president and U.S. senator, that they traditionally have gotten."
But he still believes that Douglas County Republicans on the ballot will win, just "by narrower margins than probably they would have otherwise."