Is Adams County the new bellwether for Colorado politics?

House District 31 candidate Jessica Sandgren and former state Rep. Jeannie Reeser, Adams County

The winner of Adams County’s House and Senate races will likely determine which Party controls Colorado’s legislature.

State GOP Chair Steve House, who hails from the county, told The Colorado Independent that of the 11 seats Republicans need to hold the Senate and take back the House, three or four are in Adams County alone.

More than 400 GOP faithful gathered at the Adams County fairgrounds Saturday to hear speeches from state and national candidates, choose delegates for the state assembly and decide who will run for those coveted House and Senate seats.

The latter was little more than a formality, since the Republicans running for the Senate and House seats have no opponents in the primary.

To win the House, the GOP would have to beat incumbent Democratic Rep. Joe Salazar, whose Capitol career has focused on social justice issues, such as trying to stop schools from using Native American mascots, a homeless person’s bill of rights and bills to reform police procedures. He’s also taken on the oil and gas industry, both through legislation he’s carried as well as behind-the-scenes.

But Salazar also has made his fellow Dems nervous at times. He was thought to be a possible “yes” vote on a Republican bill to repeal the state’s gun magazine limit as well as on a construction-defects-reform bill that has died twice in the past two years.

Salazar’s Republican opponent is Jessica Sandgren, a science teacher at a Broomfield charter school. Sandgren told The Colorado Independent at the assembly that she’d like to see a full review of how education is funded. The system needs more transparency, particularly on how taxpayer dollars are distributed in each school district, she said.

Sandgren also addressed the hospital provider fee, the hottest topic at the state Capitol this session. Democrats and a coalition of business groups believe the fee should be reclassified to take those dollars out of the state’s TABOR-limited revenue. That could free up hundreds of millions of dollars, which supporters say could be used to fund public education.

Sandgren is skeptical that the money would actually go to public education, despite the backers’ pledges. “I don’t know that we’ve seen our money spent in a way that would make me believe those dollars would be spent the way it’s been tagged,” she said.

Another seat Republicans want to hang onto is the open House seat now held by Republican Rep. Kevin Priola, who is term-limited. Priola, a resident of Henderson, counts among his issues education, and oil and gas. Priola also has signed onto legislation banning abortion and other bills that would place freedom of religion above state enforcement of other laws.

Priola earned attention earlier this year for voting against a bill that would allow parents unpaid leave to attend their children’s critical school activities, while at the same time taking time off from his legislative duties to attend one of his children’s doctors’ appointment.

There are five candidates vying to replace Priola: three Republicans, an unaffiliated contender and a Democrat. Voter registration in the district favors Republicans, which means whoever wins the June primary will be the odds-on favorite to take the seat in November.

The last seat Republicans need to hold is Rep. JoAnn Windholz’s House District 30 seat.

Windholz earned national scorn last November for blaming Planned Parenthood for inciting the violent attack against its Colorado Springs clinic and has lost the confidence of some GOP brass.

Windholz didn’t speak about her anti-abortion views at Saturday’s assembly, choosing instead to focus on bills she’s carrying this year, such as one on veterans’ housing. In 2015, Windholz worked across the aisle with Democratic colleagues on several bills. Two of the four she sponsored were signed into law, including one on powdered alcohol.

She won’t have that kind of success in 2016. All five of the bills she’s sponsored have died in House committees.

Windholz is one of two Republicans in the county who won seats in 2014 previously held by Democrats, when she defeated the Democratic incumbent, then-Rep. Jenise May.

She will face Dafna Michaelson Jenet, co-owner of the Journey Institute, which works with schools, businesses and other organizations on community problem-solving. Jenet defeated fellow Dem John Myers for the party’s nomination at the Adams County Democratic Party assembly earlier this month. The district’s voter registration favors Democrats.

The other Republican to unseat a Democrat in 2014 was Beth Martinez Humenik, who took a seat previously held by term-limited Sen. Lois Tochtrip, a conservative Democrat. Martinez Humenik is not up for re-election this year.

Martinez Humenik is one of the Senate’s moderates. She has focused largely on health issues in her two years, including improvements to mental health care. Her ability to work across the aisle with Democrats has meant many of the bills she’s carried have made it into state law.

Adams County has not always been seen as the bellwether county that would decide the legislature’s fate. For months, political observers have argued Republican control of the Senate will likely come down to whether incumbent Jefferson County Republican Sen. Laura Woods of Arvada, a far right conservative in a swing district, can win again. But her conservative politics have often bucked the Republican establishment and she has earned a reputation as a freedom-caucus conservative progressives love to pummel and moderate Republicans cringe at.

With a win in Woods’ district uncertain, Republicans have looked to Adams County and Senate District 25, where a term-limited Brighton Democrat, Sen. Mary Hodge, is leaving a vacancy.

Priola is running against May, who was narrowly defeated by Windholz in a race Democrats predicted they would win.

Saturday’s county assembly also featured remarks from U.S. Reps. Ken Buck of Greeley and Mike Coffman of Aurora. Buck, who is running for his second term in Congress in Congressional District 4, faces a Democrat, Bob Seay of Lamar, and an unaffiliated contender, Grant Doherty of Lochbuie.

Buck led off his remarks with jabs at Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton, saying if she is elected, she’d be the first president to wear an ankle bracelet and would have to ask a parole officer for permission for foreign travel.

Coffman called for ending Obamacare, more attention to the problems of the Veterans’ Administration hospital in Aurora, and fighting terrorism. But he reserved his strongest criticism for his Democratic opponent, state Sen. Morgan Carroll of Aurora, whom he referred to as an ambulance-chasing lawyer who is interested only in big government, welfare and labor unions.

Coffman, running for his fifth term from the Sixth Congressional District, is in a tight battle with Carroll. But Coffman has faced tough opposition before. He narrowly beat Democrat Joe Miklosi in 2012 by just 2 percentage points.

And he also has a primary opponent, Kyle Bradell of Englewood, who appears to be running right of Coffman. In Bradell’s remarks to the Adams County assembly, he told the audience that the United States is “at war with Islam” and then called for the country to block Muslim immigration.

Coffman’s take on Islam has been more measured in the past, in part due to his military record, which he has said included spending time with American Muslim soldiers who served with distinction. 

More recently, Coffman gave a speech to an anti-Muslim organization identified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

About one-third of those vying for the U.S. Senate nod from the GOP also trekked up to the assembly. They included Charlie Ehler, Tom Janich, Darryl Glenn, Peg Littleton, Jerry Eller and the prohibitive county favorite, state Sen. Tim Neville of Littleton.

Neville won the county’s unofficial straw poll in the February caucus.

Updated to show that Dafna Michaelson Jenet was nominated by Adams County Dems to take on Windholz.