DENVER — Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton carried Colorado, a state seen as a must-win for the Democrats as Donald Trump broke through the Midwest, winning Ohio, Wisconsin, and Iowa. As of 9:30 p.m., Clinton had lost states her campaign counted upon, including North Carolina and Florida.
“People in this state believe in family values and character,” said Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper in a hotel ballroom shortly after the results came in. “But it will be a long night.”
A few miles away, at the GOP watch party in downtown Denver, Republican Party Chairman Steve House said he thought Libertarian Gary Johnson might have eaten into Trump’s support in a state where more than 1.3 million voters are unaffiliated.
Trump did worse than expected in El Paso County, one of the most heavily Republican areas in the nation where Johnson pulled in strong numbers.
“I think we as a campaign had trouble knitting the Republicans together after the convention,” said Trump’s Colorado state director Patrick Davis who was also a senior advisor to the national campaign. “I don’t think we ever really came back together in Colorado.”
The presidential race in Colorado had been leaning Clinton’s way for months until FBI Director James Comey brought her email scandal back to life 11 days before the election. Polls tightened around the country and in Colorado, where the Clinton campaign put the candidate back on TV after pulling her ads from the state in July.
Throughout the summer, Colorado’s Clinton operation made aggressive plays on college campuses, ensuring thousands of young registered voters were “active,” and registering those who were not signed up to vote.
Colorado is a state with a large Latino population, a voting bloc that heavily favored Clinton. Trump motivated Latinos to get out and vote, said the state’s House majority leader Crisanta Duran.
“I’m very glad to see them take advantage of their power and deliver Colorado for Hillary Clinton,” she said on election night at the Democratic victory party in downtown Denver.
According to a nationwide poll of Latinos on the eve of the election, Colorado Latinos said they supported Clinton over Trump by a 67-to-31 percent margin. The Latino Decisions poll of active Latino voters who said they already had voted or were certain to vote, found that 55 percent of those surveyed in Colorado said the Republican Party “has now become so anti-immigrant, and anti-Latino that it would be hard for me to consider supporting them.”
“Latinos don’t vote for a party. They vote on the issues and they vote on the candidates,” said Westminster City Councilwoman Maria de Cambra. “What we saw this year from Trump and the Republican Party was that everything was an attack. Their campaign was based on divide and conquer, and when you mess with one member of our community, you mess with all of us. His attack on the Mexican community was an attack on all of our communities. I think that’s a part of it. Clinton also has better, more inclusive policies on the issues that matter — economic plan, education, healthcare.”
On election night, Tom Lucero, Trump’s Latino outreach director for Colorado, said it was too early to say how trump did with Latino’s compared to Mitt Romney in 2012, but said plenty of them in Colorado said they supported Trump during the campaign.
“They came up to us quietly,” he said.
Clinton also carried Nevada, another state with a sizable Latino population.
This year was the first time voters in Colorado could cast their ballots for president entirely by mail, essentially turning Election Day into Election Month. Ballots went out as early as Oct. 17.
The new system, brought in with a package of liberal election laws passed in 2013 by Democrats who controlled the legislature, changed the way this year’s presidential campaigns operated in Colorado. Campaign workers not only knew who was registered, but once ballots went out they knew who voted and who hadn’t.
For months, Democrats in Colorado swarmed the electorate, and their efforts paid off, breaking registration records and hitting historical milestones in a matter of months.
In July, Democrats overtook Republicans in total registered voters, but Republicans still had more “active” voters, which meant about 14,000 more members of the GOP would receive ballots on the mail. By September, Democrats hacked their deficit down to about 3,000, eventually surpassing active Republican voters by about 10,000 with both parties cracking the million-voter mark for the first time ever.
The Democrats’ lead did not last.
On the Monday before Election Day, Republicans surged ahead by 7,000. They more than doubled that lead by Tuesday afternoon.
Trump’s Colorado campaign chairman Robert Blaha attributed the comeback to a cascade of events: Wikileaks pushing controversies around the Clinton Foundation back in the newstream, the FBI’s Comey reigniting the email scandal, and registered Republicans who don’t usually turn out to vote doing so because of the Trump factor.
Democrats, however, were not fazed in the final days of the campaign.
“Republicans led early voting every single day in ’12 and ’14,” said Andrew Zucker, a Colorado Democratic strategist. Those early ballot numbers, he said, were already a “win” for Democrats.
On the ground, the Democrats ground game was impressive.
They set up more than 60 offices statewide including three in the state’s most conservative county, El Paso, where the GOP only had one. (Statewide, the Republican Party had staffed about a dozen offices.)
The Democratic Party animated an army of first-time volunteers.
One of them was Monica Ibancie-Ruiz, an account executive, who spent her spare time walking her northeast Denver neighborhood on behalf of Democratic candidates during the campaign.
“I was happy to volunteer for once in my life, and get involved,” she told The Colorado Independent.
While Clinton closed on Election Day, she did not carry Colorado during the state’s caucuses in March.
On that evening, Bernie Sanders crushed her by 19 points, fueled by a record number of Democrats who flooded caucus locations throughout the state. Hundreds were turned away at some precincts.
But Colorado’s Democratic establishment— from the state’s entire Democratic congressional delegation to U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and Gov. John Hickenlooper— were always behind Clinton who ended up snagging 36 delegates from Colorado to Sanders’ 41. Every superdelegate supported her.
The Clinton-Sanders divide at times caused friction within the party. At July’s Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia some Colorado Sanders delegates revolted with a walkout. Other Colorado Berners said they switched their party affiliation to the Green Party when Sanders betrayed them by endorsing Clinton.
But in the end, plenty of those who caucused for Sanders came home to Clinton.
On the last Saturday before Election Day in conservative El Paso County, a Sanders delegate named Electra Johnson who was running an aggressive, well-funded campaign for a seat on the county’s governing commission, urged her supporters to vote for Clinton during a packed rally at Colorado College keynoted by Sanders himself who said the same.
In the final weeks of the campaign, Clinton had rallied a large crowd in Pueblo where voters there said they liked her because she was good for labor unions and would better for the American economy.
But even still, an assault of negative attacks on her character throughout the race colored her reputation among those who were firmly behind her.
They were people like Bob Hasselbrink, a heavy equipment mechanic from rural southern Colorado, who explained to a man next to him at a Clinton rally in Pueblo that he didn’t think Americans were faced with the best choices during this presidential election season. Personally, he said, he didn’t believe Clinton had done anything too terrible, but “You give ammunition to the Donald Trump types and the Breitbart types and all them, and they’re going to twist it into something terrible.”
As for Trump, his campaign never fully caught on in a state that sent all its delegates to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
Colorado Republicans had cancelled their own presidential straw poll this year because they wanted their delegates to remain free agents at the national convention. When the state’s delegates went to Cruz, Trump, in typical fashion, accused Colorado Republicans of running a rigged process.
House said even got death threats in the aftermath. He said after Trump won the nomination in Cleveland at July’s Republican National Convention the two had buried the hatchet.
Though the New York real estate mogul made a hard play for Colorado, campaigning within its borders more than half a dozen times and dispatching his running mate Mike Pence and other surrogates weekly, Trump was not a good fit for the state’s electorate— one that includes more than 1.3 million unaffiliated voters and makes up the state’s largest voting bloc.
For months, in interviews throughout the campaign, Republican voters said Trump was not their first, second, or often third choice in the GOP primary. But the hardcore among them came around, some grudgingly, others not.
One thing Trump did manage to do, said Robert Blaha, a Colorado Springs businessman and former U.S. Senate candidate who chairs Trump’s statewide effort, is bring new Republicans into the fold in Colorado.
“He pricked that nerve in America that said ‘I want something different,’” Blaha said.
In July, when righties from around the state and country assembled in Denver for the annual the Western Conservative Summit, plenty of Republicans there wondered aloud if Trump was a true conservative.
“Does he fit the mold of the typical conservative that I think of? Not entirely,” one conference goer, Torrey Price mused at the time. “Does he have some overlap? … yes. But he certainly has enough that’s not part of that that causes some faction of the conservative community to be uneasy.”
Others in Colorado, though, like Hannah Jones who was working behind the counter of a liquor store in the small town of Divide on the Monday before Election Day, believed Trump was the most conservative Republican nominee the party ever had.
‘He’s different,” she said of Trump. “He’s just real.”
Trump did carry the state’s most Republican counties. One of them was Douglas, south of Denver and anchored by the bedroom communities of Parker and Castle Rock.
On Election Day in a suburban Castle Rock subdivision, Joe Snoy was standing in his yard overlooking a fairway and pointing out where golf balls have bounced off his siding or broke a window— 12 windows in the past 20 years.
A retired engineer with a thin grey beard who spent two decades in the Air Force and used to run his neighborhood HOA, Snoy had voted for Trump. He has followed Clinton’s career for the past 25 years is concerned about immigration and doesn’t like nation building.
He and a friend spent the past few weeks driving around searching for yard signs and never found one for Clinton, he said. But hey, it’s a conservative county with fewer voters than Denver just up the highway.
Hours before the polls closed, Snoy said he would accept the results whatever happened.
“You have to,” he said. “What choice is there?”
Photo credit: Allen Tian, The Colorado Independent