WALSENBURG, CO — On a recent Wednesday in the back of the Alpine Rose Cafe, an old-school diner with cracked green vinyl booths in this rural town in Spanish Peaks country, a mail-in ballot belonging to owner Phyllis Cordova sat unopened on a table surrounded by three men talking politics.
None of them had heard much about a local race for the state Senate in this district. But its voters could decide which party controls Colorado’s legislature next year. The race pits incumbent Republican rancher Larry Crowder of Alamosa against James Casias, the Democratic sheriff of Trinidad.
“Some of [the candidates] I hear about, but I haven’t heard about them,” Cordova said as the men nodded along.
And that’s kind of a shame.
The presidential race has engulfed much of the media coverage and discussion among voters, crowding out commentary about down-ballot candidates for Colorado’s state House and Senate. But what happens this year in Colorado’s legislative elections might have a greater impact on the life of an average Coloradan than who wins a U.S. Senate seat, or, arguably even the presidency.
In Colorado, Democrats control the state House by three seats and Republicans control the Senate by one. If Democrats hang on to the House and take that one Senate seat, the party captures the Capitol and the balance of power flips. That could impact everything from environmental and healthcare policies to the state budget.
“As they say, elections have consequences,” says Rob Witwer, a former Colorado GOP lawmaker who co-wrote an oft-cited book called The Blueprint about how Democrats gained control of the Colorado legislature in 2004 with the financial backing of four wealthy progressive activists.
“When you flip a chamber in the state legislature … and that results in full Democratic control or full Republican control of the legislature, then you’re in a position to enact a lot of policy,” Witwer says.
One of the races that could usher in that change is here in this sprawling southeastern district. It stretches more than 300 miles across 16 counties from Wolf Creek Pass to the Kansas border— an area that covers nearly one-fourth of the state of Colorado. The district is so large that the two candidates running for state Senate live three hours apart. The town of Walsenburg sits almost smack in the middle of their respective hometowns.
But in the Walsenburg diner, dressed in a faded Carhart T-shirt and sporting a gray mustache and glasses, retiree Warren Menges said he doesn’t see his life changing much whether Democrats control the statehouse or it remains divided between the two parties.
“I’m retired. I’m a Vietnam veteran so I have VA disability, so I have insurance, this that and the other,” he said. “I’m not really affected.”
Next to him, his bearded friend George Walker leaned back in his chair, similarly unconcerned about a potential change in political direction for the state.
“Not unless they want to take both of my guns away from me,” he said to chuckles all around.
That midday October exchange in the back of the Alpine Rose Cafe encompasses much more about what’s at stake in the year’s legislative races across Colorado than the two men might realize.
Indeed, health care and firearms are two major wedge issues almost certain to be resurrected in the coming session.
If Democrats take control, they likely will be able to pass a key budget strategy of Gov. John Hickenlooper and other Democrats to reclassify a nearly billion-dollar hospital program called the hospital provider fee to free up more money in the state budget for transportation and education. If the Democrats had enjoyed a majority in the Senate last session, they would have gotten it done. But the Republican-controlled Senate blocked that plan.
As for guns, if Republicans stay in power in the Senate they are likely to try again to repeal a package of gun safety laws that, among other things, imposed bullet limits on firearms. The laws were passed in 2013 when Democrats controlled the legislature, and the move is an often-used talking point in a firearms friendly state when talk of another Democratic takeover seems possible. Elect Democrats and they’ll go crazy on your guns.
That’s the view from the Front Range, but in rural Colorado, and particularly in this Senate district, that kind of simple partisan analysis doesn’t always apply.
Consider Crowder, a mustachioed, cigarette-smoking, straight-talking former telephone contractor and cattle farmer from the San Luis Valley. First elected to the state Senate in 2012, he was the only Republican in the Colorado General Assembly to vote in favor of expanding Medicaid under Obamacare the following year. And during the latest session, Crowder was, again, the only Republican in the GOP-controlled Senate to buck his party and publicly say he would vote in favor of re-classifying the hospital provider fee, taking on the Koch brothers in the process. Crowder drew criticism from the right as he vocally pushed for the plan in committee hearings, saying he cared more about the people of his district than he did about party politics. He worried hospitals serving his constituents could close.
Out on the campaign trail— as much as there is one across this vast landscape— Crowder doesn’t get into the larger picture with voters about what’s at stake at the Capitol in his race.
“You gotta realize when they talk about the balance of power, it’s more in the inner circle of Denver area,” he says. “We all expect in rural Colorado whoever is representing us will represent our values and our issues. So it doesn’t matter in large part … what you perceive as that balance of power.”
In Crowder’s district, which includes the San Luis Valley, the median household income can swing from $60,000 in Cokedale to $21,000 in Antonito. Districtwide, it’s about $38,000— about $15,000 less than Colorado as a whole. Hispanics represent a whopping 35.8 percent of the population — about 15 percent higher than in the state as a whole — in a place where healthcare, retail, education and agriculture make up the top industries.
Crowder focuses on what he’s been able to do in recent years for the district, such as helping revitalize rural downtowns, expanding a cemetery, helping establish a rural homeless program and keeping an Amtrak line running in the area. As a veteran, he says he cannot get past Benghazi, so he will probably vote for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump even though he believes Trump is “somewhat off the wall.”
Four years ago, when Barack Obama led the top of the ticket, Crowder was one of four Republicans running for the state Senate in Colorado and the only one of them who won.
“Will [Trump] affect this race? Of course it will,” he says. “How much I don’t know.”
Asked what he thinks the biggest contrasts are between him and his opponent Casias this year, he says, “To be honest with you, I cannot tell you.” He doesn’t know too much about Casias, he says.
Casias the sheriff is a trim, former coal miner, construction worker and cop with thinning gray hair, known by the nickname “Blue.” In 2013 he was one of only a handful of Democratic sheriffs to sign onto a lawsuit attacking the new gun-safety laws that were passed by Colorado Democrats. He said he did it to uphold the Second Amendment of the Constitution. If Republicans in the Senate were to try to repeal those gun laws, they could count on his vote if he were elected, he told The Colorado Independent.
“That law does not really take care of the killings that are going on,” says the Democrat. “I’m one that believes that guns aren’t the ones that kill people.”
The sheriff says his focus is on healthcare, education and jobs. He wants to expand broadband in rural areas, as well as wind and solar farms and the jobs that come with them. He says he’ll fight for the equal rights of women and for collective bargaining.
If Casias wins, “It’ll mean a lot for the Democratic Party,” he acknowledges. “However, though, parties don’t elect me, people elect me.”
He says there will always be issues Democrats and Republicans can agree on, and things they cannot.
“But if it’s something that’s going to benefit Senate District 35, which is southern Colorado and the San Luis Valley, those are the ones that put me in that office if I get elected,” he says. “I’m there for them, I’m not there for myself or anybody else.”
The state Democratic Party is helping Casias because they see it as one of the handful of important legislative races this year, he says, but the balance of power at the Capitol in Denver is not something on the minds of those he meets as he has campaigned.
“Hasn’t come up once,” he says.
All politics is local
The Crowder-Casias matchup in rural southeastern Colorado is just one race that could determine the partisan makeup of the General Assembly.
But there are about a half dozen other statewide elections that could be key to what the legislature looks like when lawmakers return to Denver in January.
As volatile and chaotic as this election cycle has been with Trump and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the top of the ticket and even as an appetite for third-party candidates rises, conventional wisdom holds while the House is within reach of Republicans, it likely will remain under Democratic control. A Trump tail wind is buffeting Republican campaigns up and down the ballot.
“The Senate is the one to watch,” says John Straayer, a political science professor at Colorado State University who focuses on legislative politics. “It seems to me that there are more at-risk seats on the Republican side than the Democratic side.”
This election season, millions have been pouring into a handful of targeted legislative races on both sides of the ideological divide, from liberal billionaires like George Soros and California environmentalist Tom Steyer to the oil and gas industry. Soros, who has personally donated to a handful of Colorado Democrats in battleground races, is also linked to nearly $200,000 in spending here through a group called Immigrant Voters Win. Steyer’s group, NextGen Climate Action Committee, has spent nearly $2 million here, much of it on research and polling.
As the parties wage war over the airwaves, in your mailboxes, and at your doorsteps, Democrats have a nearly 2-to-1 financial advantage over Republicans this season according to an analysis by Colorado Public Radio, “raising $12.1 million, to the Republican’s $5.3 million.” The Republican Party, CPR notes, gets most of its money from oil and gas companies.
There are other groups on the conservative side with names like Better Jobs Coalition, Prosperity Through Property Rights (backed by realtors), Colorado Free Enterprise Alliance (backed by contractors and builders), and others spending money in legislative races. And Boulder Weekly has published an investigation connecting dots the paper says shows a strategy among Republicans, the oil-and-gas industry, and even the University of Colorado Leeds School of Business, “for turning Colorado from blue to red” through a network of people and groups.
Meanwhile, for the first time careful political observers can recall in Colorado, anonymous fliers are attacking Democratic candidates for the legislature with no disclosure at all about who paid for them.
In other words, there is plenty of energy expended on either side hoping to have influence in how the Legislature looks, likely because of what they think they might get out of it. After the 2016 session, one emerging consensus was that lawmakers didn’t do much. A split House and Senate resulted in gridlock.
Take, for example, the one day last winter when a Democratic House committee passed an expensive education bill to fund full-day statewide kindergarten. An hour later, a Republican Senate committee killed a bill that would have asked voters to support the same thing.
If they win control, Democrats say they would like to see the legislature tackle issues such as climate change, criminal justice and education. Democratic lawmakers say they could pass a key budget plan blocked by Republicans in this last session.
“The issue is whether or not Colorado can continue to be on the leading edge of cutting carbon emissions, adding wind and solar energy and tackling climate change,” says Pete Maysmith, who runs the environmental group Conservation Colorado, which is spending in the six figures to help elect Democratic senators. It has spent more than a quarter of a million on the Woods-Zenzinger race alone. “That is in part— not exclusively— what’s at stake in the Nov. 8 election.”
Conservatives say they are worried a Democratic takeover could lead to a repeat of 2013 when lawmakers passed a liberal wish list of new laws that not only included the tougher gun laws, but more liberal voting rules, including all-mail ballots and Election-Day voter registration. Conservatives say they fear environmental regulations and an assault on the spirit of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, a 1992 constitutional amendment that limits government spending.
Democratic control of the statehouse will also amplify Hickenlooper’s power as governor. The split chamber has meant he didn’t have to sign many controversial bills. The bills that came across his desk only arrived there with bipartisan support. (Hickenlooper himself is wading into the fray, airing a TV commercial for four Democratic state Senate candidates.)
Jon Caldara, the president of the libertarian Independence Institute, worries Hickenlooper, whose term is up in January of 2019, will sign whatever progressive law finds its way under his pen.
“2013 showed just how weak the governor was in signing every piece of ridiculous legislation that came his way,” Caldara says, citing the magazine limits for firearms. “It would be different if we had a governor who would stand up to the crazies in his own party, but we don’t.”
So, what might happen if the Legislature flips?
Climate change moves to the forefront
Conventional wisdom has it that if the Democrats take control of the Senate, that body’s current minority leader, Lucia Guzman of Denver, would become the new president of the Senate. And if that happens, she would not only have the power to assign Senate committee chairs, but also could set up a new standing committee.
She told The Independent that she would create and appoint members to a new panel with one mission: to “move the state in the direction of supporting more renewable energy.”
Guzman says part of the committee’s work would be assessing how state government could help communities on the Western Slope where the coal industry is on the wane.
Colorado, she says, needs to move into a renewable energy economy.
”We want to have an opportunity through this committee to join with communities in the rural areas throughout Colorado where we might bring together environmental and conservation interests with business rejuvenation opportunities,” she says.
One potential partner in the effort, she says, likely would be Conservation Colorado.
Asked what his group hoped to achieve with a Democratic majority, the group’s leader Maysmith said an increase in rooftop, community, and utility-scale solar power, as well as more wind turbines and new jobs associated with such industries.
Colorado, he said, will look different if pro-environment lawmakers are running the state Senate, and that’s why his group is making it rain to see that happen.
This doesn’t surprise Simon Lomax, an energy policy analyst at the conservative Independence Institute. But it concerns him. Throughout this campaign season, Lomax has been tracking the “extraordinary” campaign finance spending (nearly $2 million) of environmental billionaire Tom Steyer of California in this year’s Colorado’s legislative elections, much of it on research and polling. In a series of blog posts for the website Complete Colorado Lomax has framed Steyer’s spending as a big-money campaign to help Democrats take over the state Senate.
“If you needed proof that Tom Steyer and the environmental left are making a big move in Colorado politics this year, this is your proof,” Lomax says of the prospect of a renewable energy committee in the Senate.
He says such a plan reminds of him of something called the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming launched by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California in 2007 after Democrats took control of Congress.
“This climate committee idea comes right out of Washington, D.C. and San Francisco before that,” Lomax says. “It shows once again that environmental politics are a huge factor in almost every race on the Colorado ballot this year. The danger signs have been there for many, many months.”
Of course those signs are not seen as dangerous to everyone.
Renewable energy and conservation is a good example of what’s at stake in the legislative elections now playing out statewide, says Jim Carpenter, who worked in the governor’s office for Roy Romer under a Republican-controlled legislature and then under Bill Ritter and a Democratically controlled statehouse.
Under Ritter, when Democrats held both chambers between 2007 and 2010, they were able to pass about 59 pieces of renewable energy legislation, Carpenter says. That legislation included increasing the state’s renewable portfolio standard, which requires state-regulated utilities to use a certain percentage of renewable energy, from 10 percent to 30 percent, and helping the wind, solar and geothermal industries to grow in Colorado. They also rewrote state rules for the oil and gas industry that expanded the size of an oil and gas conservation commission to include the head of the Department of Natural Resources and the head of the public health department and required more conservation voices be involved in making appointments to it. It was the first major reform in oil and gas regulations in Colorado in decades.
“That just would not have been done if we did not have a majority in both chambers,” Carpenter says now.
During those years, lawmakers also passed the Clean Air Clean Jobs Act, which began a process of retiring a handful of coal-fired power plants.
Says Carpenter: “If you control both chambers then you can start with a very different conversation than if the other party controls something.”
Transportation and education funding goes up in the short term
During the last legislative session, the biggest fight came over a plan by Hickenlooper and Democratic lawmakers to re-classify the hospital provider fee into a standalone enterprise exempt from limits on how much revenue the state can collect before triggering TABOR.
The hospital provider fee requires hospitals to pay the state based upon the number of overnight patient stays and outpatient services rendered. That money is then used, among other things, to care for Coloradans who can’t afford insurance plans, and to help the state pay for Medicaid, which is a government healthcare program for low-income Coloradans and their families.
Each hospital pays a different amount — some pay a lot, some pay nothing — and the fee hauled in nearly $700 million last year. This money is then matched almost dollar for dollar by the federal government to expand Medicaid, provide health coverage for Coloradans who are using emergency rooms for non-emergency treatment, and reimburse hospitals for care. The more money the fee brings in the more money the feds give Colorado to make sure people who can’t afford healthcare get it. Since 2009, the program has helped more than 300,000 people get insurance coverage.
That money is counted toward revenue limits the state can take in under TABOR. If the program is re-classified as a standalone enterprise and exempt from revenue limits, it would free up millions of dollars. Democrats say they would use the money for infrastructure spending, transportation spending, and to fund higher education in Colorado.
Since Republicans took control of the Senate in 2014, any attempt to work around TABOR constraints has been blocked.
During this last session, focus on the hospital provider fee sharpened with the realization that Colorado was poised to hit its caps under TABOR.
Reclassifying the fee has near monolithic support from the state’s business community because it would help fund transportation and education, and last session, the effort to do so likely had the votes to pass even the Senate — if a bill would have made it to the floor. But a term-limited Republican Senate Leader Bill Cadman of Colorado Springs vigorously opposed the change as a violation of the spirit of TABOR even though the state’s Republican attorney general opined that reclassifying the program was legal under TABOR. The free-market group Americans for Prosperity, backed by the billionaire Koch brothers, was loud in its opposition to the bill, as well.
Still, there were likely enough votes in the legislature to pass it, especially because of Republican Sen. Larry Crowder’s support. But Cadman sent the bill to a so-called kill committee, where a Republican-controlled panel snuffed it out, thwarting a floor vote.
If Democrats take control of the Senate they will have control over committee assignments. So, boom. Done.
“If we have the majority we will pass the hospital provider fee,” an emphatic Guzman said.
Oddly enough, the hospital provider fee debate has largely been absent in even some of the tightest legislative races that could determine control of the Senate, says Michael Fields, the state director of Americans for Prosperity.
His own group hasn’t made much hay of it, either, and, Fields says the AFP instead has focused resources on the high-profile congressional race between incumbent Republican Mike Coffman and Democratic Sen. Morgan Carroll.
“Regardless of who has control over the legislature, the hospital provider fix isn’t going to fix our long-term budget issues,” he says. “The people who are supporting this have promised [the money from it] to everyone out there … it will dry up soon.”
The death penalty could be repealed
Last year, death penalty abolitionists in Colorado hit the snooze button on trying to repeal capital punishment, largely because lawmakers in favor didn’t want a backlash during the campaigns in their upcoming elections in an unpredictable presidential election year.
That’s the same reason abolitionists did not run a ballot measure for repeal this year.
At the beginning of last session, Guzman said she would not be running a repeal bill, but she would work to fight for it over the next few years.
If Dems take control of the Capitol, repeal could pass, Guzman says.
“That’s a bill that we as Democrats have wanted to bring forward and get passed over the years,” she said.
While there are some Democrats who don’t support repealing capital punishment, Guzman says she’s confident she could reach across the aisle and work with some like-minded Republicans.
“I’m very excited, and have a lot of belief that we could pass the repeal of the death penalty if we change leadership,” she says.
Democrats could shape the state budget
The mother of all committees at the Colorado Capitol is the Joint Budget Committee. Six lawmakers (three from the House and three from the Senate) sit on the JBC. The committee’s makeup will change after this general election.
The JBC essentially writes the state budget. It is where all budget bills begin, and the panel deals with supplementing budgets (or not) when one agency or another comes looking for more money. In other words, the JBC sets priorities for how the state of Colorado spends its money.
Right now, the JBC is evenly split with three Democratic members and three Republican members. If Democrats take control of the Senate, Democrats could take control of the JBC, as well.
Partisanship is a fact of life up on the JBC. It matters who sits on the committee and in a time of increased political polarization, it matters which party they represent.
Consider: Before the GOP took control of the Senate, a state program was created in Colorado under which unauthorized immigrants could obtain driver licenses. After 2014, when Republicans took control of the Senate in those legislative elections, the JBC cut funds the program needed to operate, leading to months and even years of waiting for those licenses.
One area where influence on spending under Democratic control of the JBC might be most apparent is with education policy. Democrats would likely be more open to more funding.
According to the Colorado Fiscal Institute, a Denver-based economic think tank, Colorado ranks 48th in the nation for state funds per full-time student. Since 1992, teacher salaries adjusted for inflation decreased more than 20 percent in Colorado, according the Learning Policy Institute.
“Traditionally higher education has always been the first thing to get cut in a bad year,” says Pat Steadman, a Democratic senator from Denver and a member of the JBC who is leaving office this year. When higher education funding gets cut, he says, tuition goes up faster.
On the campaign front, the Colorado Education Association is helping candidates in tight legislative races this year, maxing out campaign contributions in some, and having their members canvass the districts.
“Most of our recommendation candidates are Democrats,” says CEA president Kerrie Dallman.
Still, she sees education as a nonpartisan issue.
“The legislature has changed control between parties over decades now and we’re still near the bottom of education funding in Colorado compared to nationally,” she says. “For us I don’t think it necessarily matters [which party] is in control over at the state legislature.”
Education advocates like Dallman say you can’t have a conversation about education funding in Colorado, though, without having a conversation about TABOR.
Democrats in control of the JBC won’t fix Colorado’s school funding problem, Dallman says, but a takeover might mean the legislature will re-classify the hospital provider fee to offer a short-term supply of funds.
Back in Walsenburg
On a sunny afternoon in October, Sharon Valdez is on her way to the local utility to pay some bills. Like plenty of Coloradans she’s been bombarded with ads and news about this election.
But, as far as the partisan makeup of the Legislature hanging in the balance goes, “I didn’t know that part,” the local retiree says on the sidewalk, pulling a squirming young boy by the arm. “I’ve been listening to Trump and Hillary and what’s going on there.”
Neither has she been following the race between Crowder and Casias.
Around the corner, the headquarters for the county Democratic and Republican parties sit not far from one another. Both have their doors open to the street. At around noon, only workers and volunteers are to be found inside.
Dale Lyons, chairwoman of the Huerfano County Democratic Party, says it’s hard to break through the noise of national politics to get voters interested in legislative elections. But the party, she says, has printed up a leaflet on the major differences between the two party platforms and why they feel Democrats would be better up and down the ballot.
About a block away, volunteer Sandy White, a retired water lawyer, sits alone, arms crossed, in the local Republican HQ. He says he often stresses to voters how local elections can matter more than the ones topping the ticket.
“It takes a long time for the federal government to reach into Huerfano County, with some exceptions,” he says. But still, he says the race between Crowder and Casias for Senate District 35 has not gotten much attention in the area.
White thinks most people likely assume Crowder will win because he’s so well known, so, “it’s just not high on everybody’s list of things to worry about.”
Around the corner, on Main Street, Marianne Smithey sits behind the counter of her antique shop unaware that control for the state Capitol is up for grabs this year.
“I don’t let politics consume my life,” she says. “If I did, I’d go crazy.”