On Election Day, Colorado was one of the few blue spots on the electoral map after Donald Trump routed Hillary Clinton in a historic upset. Here in the traditional bellwether, Clinton held a 2.11 percent lead, giving her the state’s nine electoral votes.
But here’s the kicker: Libertarian Gary Johnson brought in 4.9 percent of the vote, with 117,827 voters casting ballots for him in Colorado, according to unofficial returns. In 2012, when Barack Obama faced Mitt Romney, Johnson only pulled in a little more than 1.25 percent.
So to recap: Clinton won by 2 percent in Colorado, and Johnson took in 5.
“Gary Johnson did much better here than I would have expected,” said Colorado Republican Party Chairman Steve House on Tuesday. Asked if he thought the Libertarian pulled more votes away from Republicans than Democrats, he said, “Oh, certainly he did.”
The question of whether Trump might have taken the state if Johnson’s name had not been on the ballot is a legitimate one given how poorly other Democrats performed in down-ballot Colorado races. While they took gains in the Colorado House where they hold a majority, they weren’t able to flip the one seat they needed to take control of the Senate. In the state’s closely watched U.S. Senate race, incumbent Michael Bennet won by only 3 percentage points against Republican Darryl Glenn, who hardly mounted a robust campaign.
Elsewhere, in the suburbs of Denver, Republican Mike Coffman beat Democrat Morgan Carroll, his toughest opponent yet, by nearly 9 percent in a district that favors Democrats. Incumbent Republican Congressman Scott Tipton thumped a well-funded Gail Schwartz by 14 points on the Western Slope. And the Republican candidate for the University of Colorado regent at-large seat, a race that typically tracks with the presidential numbers, beat her Democratic rival by 5 percent— 3 percentage points more than Clinton beat Trump.
Enter Libertarian Johnson, the former Republican governor of New Mexico whose son lives in Denver. He did not spend much time campaigning here, in his neighboring state of Colorado, where the Libertarian Party was formed in 1971. In August, one national poll had him clocking in at 16 percent here.
The freewheeling candidate who wore jeans on the stump and openly talked about his recent-past marijuana use held a large Colorado rally in early October in Parker. Attendees there said they were drawn to him because of the lackluster options for the two major parties.
In Colorado, Libertarians have been accused of handing close races to Democrats in the past. When Democratic state Sen. John Morse won re-election in 2010 by 340 votes, Republicans blamed a Libertarian who snagged 1,300 votes for being a spoiler.
Two years later it happened again when a different Democratic senator, Edie Hudak, won by 584 votes and a Libertarian in the race pulled in a little more than 5,000.
On Election Night, the Trump campaign in Colorado threw Johnson under the bus.
“You look at the El Paso County numbers alone, he took five percent of that vote,” said Patrick Davis, Trump’s state director and a senior advisor to the national campaign. “It isn’t normal. And Evan McMullin even took 1 percent of the vote, so that’s six percent that probably could have gone to Trump in El Paso County alone.”
This year Colorado’s Libertarian Party saw its membership crack more than 1 percent of registered voters statewide. The party currently has about 43,000 registered members, according to the Secretary of State’s office.
Lynn Bartels, the spokeswoman for the Secretary of State and a former longtime state political reporter, said the Libertarian’s role in the presidential election here came up in conversations she had with two high-ranking Democrats on Wednesday.
“I have had Democrats tell me that they believe the only thing that saved Hillary was Gary Johnson,” she said.
On Wednesday outside the Colorado Springs City Hall, students of the nearby Colorado College were demonstrating in protest of Trump’s win.
Watching on was Josh Cerda who works for T-Mobile and runs a Marxist reading circle in town. He said he voted for a third-party candidate for president and U.S. Senate, but he chose nominees for the Green Party, not the Libertarians.
Even while participating in a protest rally against Trump, Cerda said he had no concerns about casting a ballot for someone other than Clinton, even it meant a greater likelihood of a Trump candidacy. He would have done the same if he lived in any swing state.
“It’s not a question for me if my vote will contribute for somebody else being elected,” he said.
Lily Tang Williams, the Libertarian running in this year’s U.S. Senate race, says people have already started blaming her for Glenn’s loss to Bennet by 3.06 percent. Williams got 3.37 percent of the vote with 80,041 voters casting ballots for her in the race.
“I tell them, ‘Hey, run better candidates,’” she said on Wednesday. “This is a competition.”
Photo by Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons on Flickr.