In Colorado’s Trump country, a Bernie revolutionary runs a real campaign

MANITOU SPRINGS — On Saturday, among a horde of ghouls and zombies on the main drag for this small mountain town’s annual coffin races, was another sort of fright, at least for local Republicans: The political campaign belonging to a Democrat running for county commissioner in the beating red heart of Donald Trump Country.

Electra Johnson, a local architect and urban designer, is running an aggressive, well-funded campaign against Trump supporter Stan VanderWerf, a retired Air Force officer and defense contractor who is also a newcomer to politics. The El Paso County Commission has not had a single Democrat on it since the 1970s.

“She’s definitely running a real campaign. We have been aware of that for some time,” says El Paso County Republican Party Chairman Jeff Hays.

For months, Johnson’s purple “Elect Electra” signs have been impossible to ignore in the leafy neighborhoods of Colorado Springs, in the store windows of downtown shops, on the city’s west side and elsewhere in the County Commission’s Third District, which encompasses Manitou Springs.

She will begin airing a TV ad today, Oct. 31, has been on the radio, and has dropped 65,000 slick mail pieces promoting her candidacy in the mailboxes of voters throughout the district. Johnson and an army of volunteers have been canvassing nonstop.

“I think she’s working it hard,” Hays says. “And we’re trying to work just as hard, if not harder, to make sure we hold onto that seat.”

A political newcomer who did not expect she would run for office, Johnson, 44, got into the race in the spring while caucusing for Bernie Sanders. Someone nominated her to run at the county assembly when she expressed concern about the qualifications of two other candidates, and she accepted. She swept the room, and has been impressing Democrats in and outside the county ever since.

“We’re all pushing for her, and she’s working her buns off,” says Dale Lyons, chairwoman of the Huerfano County Democratic Party more than an hour south. Lyons has known Johnson since the day she was born in Gardner, Colorado.

Johnson says she is running because she is fed up with the ugliness and vitriol in politics. She talks about how Republicans have controlled El Paso County at nearly every level of government for nearly half a century.

“We need a fresh voice in El Paso County,” she said as she campaigned over the weekend at the Manitou Springs coffin races.

El Paso County is one of the most heavily Republican counties in the country. Ringed by five military installations, home to a large number of retirees and dotted with a network of religious nonprofits, it is a conservative stronghold. Donald Trump and his running mate Mike Pence have rallied three separate crowds apiece in the county since July.

What’s more, Trump’s state director is also handling the campaign of Johnson’s Republican opponent.

VanderWerf, the Republican, moved to El Paso County from Georgia in 2011 because his wife grew up here. He is pushing for free markets, a streamlined county permitting process, and improving local infrastructure. He worries about a “big event” in El Paso County when it comes to terrorism. He wants a review of the county’s plans for such an event. He calls what Salt Lake City is doing with its housing-first approach to homelessness an “excellent example.” He wants to establish a school in the county where students can earn a brewmaster’s certificate. He says he designed budgets for the Air Force and ran large organizations in the for-profit and nonprofit sector. 

“I’ve got this kind of background that really fits well for a county commissioner,” he says. His campaign is running a TV commercial condemning Johnson for “refusing to oppose” the ColoradoCare universal healthcare ballot measure.

As for her own local policy proposals, Johnson says she worries what might happen to the local economy should the Department of Defense reduce its spending. She wants to ensure local forests and watersheds are in better shape. She says she’ll work to reduce the county’s teen suicide, child abuse and domestic violence rates. She wants more investment in growing and selling local food. She would like the city and county to follow the Republican mayor of Albuquerque’s program that puts local homeless to work beautifying the city. As an urban designer who specializes in sustainability and greenways, she wants a long-term comprehensive plan for the county’s growth that’s focused on the long-term health of local watersheds.

“We are growing and becoming a bedroom community to Denver,” she says. “Instead of controlling that growth, that growth is controlling us.”

As she has campaigned in the district, which has about 12,000 more registered Republican voters than Democrats and about 28,000 unaffiliated voters, she says she has heard a repeated claim.  

“People feel very shut out of the process right now and it doesn’t matter what party you’re in,” she says. “They are sick of politics as usual.”

Typically in this deep red county the real races for commissioner are waged in the Republican primaries, not a general election, says Wayne Artis, who lives in the district and chairs the history department at Pikes Peak Community College. It has been customary for whoever wins the GOP primary to coast on in.

That is evident in that VanderWerf spent about $40,000 to win his primary, according to campaign finance data. As of the last reporting period on Oct. 18, the Republican, who has put his own money into his campaign, had about $1,700 left. By contrast, Johnson, who has raised about $45,000, had about $13,000 to use for her campaign as of Oct. 18. Candidates for county commissioner in Colorado, however, are not subject to campaign contribution limits like those running for state and federal offices. So it is possible for someone to prop up either campaign with a large last-minute money bomb during the weeklong home stretch.

“It seems to be a more competitive race than anybody around here is used to,” Artis says about the Johnson-VanderWerf matchup. “[The Republicans] are not used to this. This is a big change for them.”

Johnson says she has worked 16-hour days on the campaign trail since March trying to talk to everyone regardless of party affiliation. She doesn’t think the Republicans in El Paso County were expecting such serious opposition.

“I want to make sure the Republicans are not uncontested,” she says. “I want to make them work for it.” She believes she is getting traction “because I genuinely want to make things better and change things, and I think that appeals to people.”

If Johnson wins on Nov. 8, it will be a sign of an impressive campaign, but it also will be a clear local impact of the “political revolution” Sanders, the Democratic Socialist from Vermont, promised throughout his unsuccessful campaign for president.

“If it wasn’t for Bernie I wouldn’t be running,” Johnson told The Colorado Independent. She says she is following Sanders’ lead by supporting Hillary Clinton— and because it is the rational thing to do.  

On paper, any Democrat would face an uphill battle in the area.

A recent poll of 600 likely voters in the county, conducted for the Colorado Springs’ Gazette, found Trump beating Clinton 50 percent to 32 percent in a head-to-head matchup.

But the 2016 campaign season has been a volatile one with Trump and Clinton leading the top of the ticket. Republicans have worried about the down-ballot effects of their controversial nominee.

“It’s a year that anything could happen,” says Mike Maday, a local Democrat and Johnson supporter who was a Sanders delegate at the Democratic National Convention and lives in the Third District. He says there has not been a very good campaign for that particular seat by a Democrat here in several years.

“The difference with her is that she’s put a ton of effort into it and pulled in a lot of support,” he says of Johnson.

Back in Manitou Springs, at the downtown coffin race, a woman dressed as a pirate approached Johnson, who was wearing an “Elect Electra” T-shirt and carrying a campaign sign, and said she was supporting her.

In an interview, the pirate did not want to give her name because of her job in Colorado Springs.  

“I’m a Libertarian, I am voting Libertarian across the board,” she said— except for Johnson for county commissioner. That’s because Johnson had reached out to her personally on her Facebook page.

“Even though I’m not necessarily a Democrat, [she] explained to me her positions in the upcoming elections, and I agree,” the pirate said. “And you know what, you can put this on your freakin’ website. How many Republicans reach out to me? Zero.”