It's been a solid fourteen months since we've had an election of consequence in Colorado. Well, that's about to change, because 2018 is filled with juicy races that should interest political nerds and novices alike.
Up for grabs in Colorado is, of course, the governor's mansion, in addition to statewide offices ranging from attorney general to secretary of state, seventeen of 35 state senators, all 65 state House members, and Colorado's entire seven-person congressional delegation. Neither of our two U.S. senators (Democrat Michael Bennet and Republican Cory Gardner) are up for re-election, but this fall's votes will have big implications for Gardner's 2020 campaign in particular.
Wondering which races you'll really want to track on November 6? Here's what to watch:
5. Dean Heller
Sure, Dean Heller is a Republican senator from Nevada. But how Heller fares — he's considered by most pundits to be an early underdog against likely Democratic challenger Jacky Rosen — could very well have major implications for Gardner. Like Colorado, Nevada is a western purple swing state that has a Republican senator, yet it voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Heller's performance in November will be closely monitored as an early litmus test for Gardner's 2020 chances.
Should Heller go down, it could influence Gardner's polices as he seeks to shape himself as an independent-minded moderate heading into his 2020 re-election campaign. Should Heller survive, it could give the Gardner camp — and the GOP nationwide — a big boost.
4. 6th Congressional District primaries
For the first time in recent memory, a competitive primary in Colorado's only truly swingy congressional district will be the early bellwether of how much inter-party political divides — establishment versus progressive, Trump versus moderates — from the last two years still hold.
Attorney and Iraq War veteran Jason Crow, a Democrat, has racked up the lion's share of endorsements and posted solid fundraising dollars, pitting him as most pundits' early favorite and the pick of the establishment (Crow dislikes those claims).
But in a state where Bernie Sanders's popularity still holds plenty of value, Levi Tillemann, a former Obama-era Energy Department official noted for progressive views similar to those of the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party, has a fighting chance.
In order to seriously compete with Crow, however, Tillemann will likely have to post improved fundraising dollars in the next few quarters.
Republican Roger Edwards is taking on incumbent Mike Coffman in the GOP primary. In a more moderate, suburban seat such as CO-6, running against the established and well-funded Coffman, Edwards's Trumpian views probably won't get him far, but it's worth a watch. CO-6 chose Clinton by about 8 percentage points in November 2016 despite electing a Republican in Coffman, showing the seat's moderate lean and Edwards's massively uphill battle.
3. Senate seats three and twenty
With seventeen of Colorado's 35 state senators up for re-election in November, the balance of power is up for grabs in Colorado's upper legislative chamber. We predict seven of those races will be competitive, based on past results. Right now, Republicans hold a narrow two-seat majority in the senate, but it's a majority that increased just weeks ago when Cheri Jahn defected from the Democratic Party.
Jahn is term-limited, meaning she can't run again in 2018. Her replacement is one of the two seats we'll highlight here. Jahn won re-election in District 20 (Wheat Ridge) as a Democrat by a razor-thin 439-vote margin in 2014 (out of nearly 77,000 votes cast). This district moved left in the 2016 presidential elections, with Clinton taking it by almost nine points (Obama won here by fewer than six points in 2012). Democratic state representative Jessie Danielson and Arvada Republican Christine Jensen are the only candidates vying for this seat so far.
The other state senate race of note comes from Pueblo's District 3, where Democrat Leroy Garcia booted then-Republican incumbent George Rivera by 9.7 percent in 2014. However, Pueblo County voted for a Republican at the presidential level for the first time in 44 years in 2016, swaying heavily toward Trump. This race should offer insight as to how Pueblo, a traditional Democratic stronghold, is leaning after Trump's populist message did well here.
Of the aforementioned seven competitive state senate races to watch, four are currently held by Democrats, two by Republicans, and one by an independent. We think that in addition to districts 3 and 20, districts 5, 11, 16, 22 and 24 will determine who gets control of the upper chamber. It should be noted that all seven competitive state senate districts this fall were won by Clinton in 2016 and four of the seven moved further left from 2012 to 2016, perhaps indicating that Trump's unpopularity is impacting down-ballot candidates.
2. 6th Congressional District
Colorado's only truly competitive congressional seat is listed by Cook Political Report as a "toss-up." Big money is being thrown into this race once again, as Coffman will weather what polls are indicating as a possible Democratic wave coming from a deeply unpopular president.
Crow and Tillemann also represent a different type of candidate: Both are first-time candidates for elected office, unlike previous challengers and former state representatives Morgan Carroll, Andrew Romanoff and Joe Miklosi. Early polling may hint at some wind at the Democrats' backs, but we won't have a clear picture of this one until this summer's primaries wrap up.
Coffman, meanwhile, has survived three re-elections in a district that was redrawn severely to his disadvantage in 2011. His carefully crafted image as a moderate has won him bipartisan popularity in immigrant communities, and he's successfully created his own political brand that has distanced himself from Trump's unpopularity in this district. Should Coffman triumph again in a likely heavily pro-Demcoratic national environment, he may cement himself as a true iron man in Colorado politics.
The rest of the congressional races, at this point, look to be a snooze, though a major Democratic wave could put CO-3, a GOP-held seat that includes the Western Slope and Pueblo, in play. Incumbent Scott Tipton won this seat by a comfortable fourteen-point margin in 2016, though two Democratic challengers have recently stepped forward.
1. Gubernatorial race
Well, duh. With everyone and their mothers running for governor in our purple, rapidly evolving state, this is the marquee event.
From Tom Tancredo to Jared Polis, the full political spectrum is covered in this race, and it's being watched nationally as a barometer for the overall national political environment. A long-shot Tancredo win would rock the American political sphere and receive a slew of congratulatory tweets from @RealDonaldTrump, while a Democratic victory would be another sign that our purple is turning increasingly blue.
But a convincing win by a Democrat, by, say, five or more points (current Democratic governor John Hickenlooper won re-election by a bit over three points in 2014) would be an added sign of Colorado's blue-ification. An improbable double-digit Democratic win here could send alarm bells as far up as the White House, and it would certainly have Gardner's camp privately swearing and sweating 2020.
On the flip side, a Republican win by a non-Tancredo candidate — by any margin — would be equally huge. This would be the kind of boost that local GOP operatives need after being locked out of the governor's mansion for 36 of the last 44 years. For the Gardner/Coffman centrist camp, depending on the victorious Republican candidate, this could prove that the moderate wing of the party still holds plenty of clout, and it could go to show that an arm's-length relationship with Trump could be the GOP's path to victory in Colorado.
Whatever happens, this race — and to a lesser extent, CO-6 — will give Colorado, and America, a pretty darn good idea of the local and national political mood at the halfway mark of Trump's first term in office.
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