The balance of power in the Colorado state legislature is up for grabs, and the gloves are off

Colorado State Capitol. (Photo by John Herrick)

The Colorado Senate GOP tweeted a photo on Wednesday that shows Senator Beth Martinez Humenik wearing boxing gloves and blasting the Democrats’ preliminary transportation spending plan as the “Roadkill Bill.”

The tweet raised eyebrows  — not just because Martinez Humenik was shooting political spitballs on an issue about which she has so far this session shown little engagement — but because of who it names as one of the chief road killers: Rep. Faith Winter, the Democrat who is seeking to unseat Martinez Humenik in the Nov. 6 election.

“She’s my opponent,” Winter said from her seat as chair of the House Transportation Committee on Wednesday night. “You draw contradictions where you draw contradictions.”

The “roadkill” flap is just one indication that, with less than a week left in the legislative session, some lawmakers are starting to turn their attention to the November election.

What happens to Martinez Humenik’s seat could tip the balance of power in the legislature. Democrats hold a seven-seat majority in Colorado’s House, but all eyes are on the Senate where Republicans wield control by just one seat. In November, nearly half the Senate – 17 seats – will be up for reelection, giving Democrats plenty of pickup opportunities, especially in districts where unaffiliated voters dominate the rolls.

The political winds seem to favor Democrats. The blue wave that earned their party surprise victories in special elections across the country in 2017 is expected to crash over Colorado this year, much like the red wave during the 2010 midterms. Data from the secretary of state’s office shows that of the approximate 34,000 unaffiliated voters who have requested ballots in Colorado’s first-ever open primary elections, 55 percent so far have chosen to participate in the Democratic primary and 38 percent picked ballots for the Republican primary.

“In this cycle, without question, the unaffiliated voters are leaning toward Democrats,” said David Flaherty, a Republican pollster who runs Magellan Strategies, a campaign consulting firm in Louisville.

The fields for some of the most closely-watched Senate races won’t be determined until after the June 26th primary. But three of the hottest races have no primary challengers and the campaign to win the general is on. Here’s our look at each.

Senate District 24: Martinez Humenik vs. Winter

In November, Republican Sen. Beth Martinez Humenik and Democratic Rep. Faith Winter stood together on the west steps of the state Capitol, both rallying in support of the #MeToo movement. In the months since, the issue of sexual harassment has defined not only the 2018 legislative session, but also the race between the Republican Senate incumbent and her Democratic challenger from the House.

Leaders in the Democrat-led House addressed the issue head on by confronting and ultimately ousting Steve Lebsock, a member of their own party who changed his affiliation to Republican because of what he saw as their betrayal.

In the Senate, a far different story has played out about lawmakers’ sexual misconduct. Three senators have been accused of butt grabbing, flirting and making sexually charged comments, but have faced no consequences, though Senate President Kevin Grantham recently stripped one of those lawmakers, Sen. Randy Baumgardner, of his committee positions.   

Despite her #MeToo activism nearly four months earlier, Martinez Humenik stood beside Grantham in his stance that sexual misconduct claims at the Capitol should be investigated by the district attorney, not lawmakers. As she packed up campaign pamphlets at a town hall in Westminster in late March, a constituent asked why she was backing male leadership on an issue on which months earlier she seemed in solidarity with women. “I had to support what the president decided to do,” she said. 

Martinez Humenik joined Republicans in blocking Baumgardner’s expulsion for allegedly slapping a former female aide on the butt multiple times during the 2016 session, and has said that the accused need to be given due process.

“In the United States, we have the Bill of Rights. Things have to go through the proper process. And I believe that we are having to wait and see if the entire process has been done,” she said in an interview prior to the vote.

Despite that stance within the Capitol, Martinez Humenik, along with Winter, supported a bill addressing sexual misconduct in higher education that set a relatively low burden of proof to determine if an allegation is credible. She bucked members of her party in opposing efforts to set a higher burden of proof when the bill was up for a vote in committee.

Winter, for her part, is remaining quiet about Republicans’ handling of the controversial and highly emotional issue. She’s also not commenting on Martinez Humenik’s complaint against Democratic Sen. Daniel Kagan, D-Cherry Hills Village, for using an unmarked women’s bathroom near the Senate floor. Winter’s Democratic colleagues have derided Martinez Humenik’s complaint as a politically motivated lie fabricated by Republicans to distract from their inaction on their members’ sexual misconduct.

But Winter has been critical of lawmakers who question the credibility of women who file complaints. As Winter sees it, this casting of doubt around the victim’s story creates a “chilling effect” for aides, interns and lobbyists who may want to file a sexual harassment complaint, but don’t trust that it will be taken seriously.

“When we want women to feel safe in this building. Part of that is feeling comfortable coming forward and coming forward in a way that your credibility is not going to be put at risk or in question,” she said.

The legislature plans this summer to consider revisions to the statehouse harassment policy, which an independent review found doesn’t do enough to hold lawmakers accountable. Who serves on the committee is expected to be determined in June by leadership of both parties.  

How both candidates’ records on sexual misconduct affect their state Senate race remains to be seen, but the race is expected to be close. In a district where Democratic voters outnumber Republicans 32 to 27 percent, Martinez Humenik broke at least 20 years of Democratic control of the Senate seat in 2014 when she won by a 1.8 percent margin. Unaffiliated voters make up a majority in the district, at 39 percent, and likely will determine the outcome of November’s election.

Senate District 5: Donovan vs. Lund

Olen Lund, a former Delta County commissioner and conservative Republican, sailed through his party’s state assembly last month, aiming to unseat incumbent Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Democrat from Vail.

When hats that read “Proud Republican” and “Trump 2020” were passed around the room at the Hyatt Denver Tech Center to collect votes from delegates, Lund — who jumped into the race a week prior to the assembly — snagged 77 percent percent of the vote, securing his party’s nomination in the race for Senate District 5. His GOP challenger, Alexander Beinstein, a 29-year-old Democrat-turned-Republican from Aspen who did not vote for Trump in 2016, came up short.

At least on paper, it seems the alfalfa grower from Paonia should have a shot at unseating Donovan in a district where Republicans outnumber Democrats by about 1,400 voters and Donovan won office by a narrow 2.3 percent in 2014. But Democrats have maintained a hold on the Senate seat since 2006, and don’t foresee losing it in a year marked by disenchantment with the Grand Old Party in the Trump era.

When speaking to delegates at the state assembly, Lund avoided specific policy stances – especially national ones – and talked mostly about bringing Western Slope values to the state Capitol in Denver.  

“I will fight to protect rural Colorado,” he told a conference room packed with state delegates in mid-April.

Across the Western Slope, snowpack levels are below average this year and much of the state is either abnormally dry or in drought, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center. Water, and how to preserve it, is a key issue for residents in Senate District 5, which vaguely resembles the shape of Texas, stretching from the mountains in Eagle to the sagebrush plains in Delta.  

Lund speaks often about water’s importance for kayaking, skiing and irrigating crops — calling it the “lifeblood” of Colorado. But does not speak to any specific water conservation programs or other water policy stances that he supports. When it comes to trading water rights between farmers and local governments, Lund says he has no position on the issue. He does, however, say he supports building more reservoirs as a way to ensure future water supplies in the state. He has also backed changes to an irrigation dam on the Gunnison River to allow recreators and fish to pass through. 

Donovan, the Democratic incumbent says water storage alone won’t solve Colorado’s water challenges.

“You can save extra water,” she said. “But I don’t hear people in Colorado saying we have a lot of extra water” to save.

Donovan has sponsored bills that allow recycled or treated “graywater” to be used for crops and flushing toilets — policies she says help ensure that the Front Range uses less water diverted from her district’s side of the Continental Divide. She has also backed measures that allow farmers to temporarily give water rights to municipal water agencies without permanently losing them.  

Candidates are bound to speak about energy development on the campaign trail in this district. The North Fork Valley, which stretches west from the mountainous Gunnison National Forest near Paonia, was once a coal mining powerhouse. But in the last five years, three coal mines have largely shut down, elbowed out by natural gas. And in the Piceance Basin, which stretches from northwest Colorado down to Montrose, the Colorado Energy Office is helping facilitate natural gas drilling.

Donovan has backed legislation for grants to rural coal towns to help workers transition back into the workforce. She says she also has no problem with how the Colorado Energy Office operates. It supports fossil fuel extraction, but she said it also promotes the construction of solar farms and energy efficiency projects.

Lund says he supports all forms of energy production, including solar, wind, coal, natural gas and oil. He has publicly raised concerns about how landmark renewable energy standards may jack up electricity prices.

When it comes to the issue of using public lands for oil and gas drilling, Donovan opposes transferring federal land to the states for oil and gas development. Her position is largely symbolic, given that state lawmakers have no formal say in whether the federal government will sell land to the state. But Donovan signed onto a letter opposing a plan by the Trump administration to lease land for drilling near the Great Sand Dunes National Park on the eastern side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, saying that it would affect the experience of recreators.

Lund’s position is that moves to open up federal land for drilling should be considered on a case-by-case basis.

“I would need to know the particulars of what they were doing,” he said.

Senate District 16: Neville vs. Story

Sen. Tim Neville, a Republican from Littleton, knows a thing or two about gun violence. His son, House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, was a sophomore at Columbine High School during the 1999 massacre there. The senior Neville, like his son, believes more guns, not fewer, will keep kids safe. And, like his son, he has supported allowing concealed-carry permit holders to bring guns inside K-12 schools.

This is just one of many guns laws Tim Neville has sought to loosen. He voted to repeal a 2013 ban on high capacity magazines. He also backed a bill to allow concealed-carry without a permit. Hindering a law-abiding citizen’s right to keep and bear arms, he says, isn’t a deterrent to criminal behavior.

“If it actually was, Chicago and Washington, DC would be two of the safest cities in the country,” Neville said.

Neville won his seat in 2014 by a relatively thin 2.7 percent margin. The Senate district stretches from the Kenosha Mountains in the south to the Indian Peaks in the north, passing through west Denver suburbs along the way. Republicans outnumber Democrats by a mere 441 registered voters in a district with more than 100,000 voters. Unaffiliated voters account for about 39 percent of the electorate. 

Neville faces a challenge from Tammy Story, who comes from a military family and has spent the last 20 years volunteering as an advocate for public schools. She has the opposite view of Neville on many issues, including guns.

Noting that she supports the protection of individual rights in the Second Amendment as well as  “common sense” gun safety measures and she says she wants to keep guns out of the hands of people who are a danger to themselves and others.  

“We need to ensure our students feel safe at school,” she said.  

Story is open to the proposed “red flag” law – also known as extreme risk protective orders or gun violence prevention orders – which House lawmakers introduced with bipartisan sponsorship this week. It passed the House Friday with almost no Republican support, and will run into a buzzsaw in the Senate. Story wants to preserve the gun laws that passed in 2013 — chief among which is the magazine limit that Neville has sought to repeal.

She supports protecting open space, and boosting funding for roads, bike lanes and public transit. She’s also an adamant opponent of school vouchers, and is making funding public schools priority for her campaign, though she did not elaborate on this plan when asked.

“Public education is really the foundation of society. Our children deserve schools that are adequately funded,” Story said.

Neville has taken a hard line on many conservative issues, including anti-abortion measures and allowances for parents opting their children out of vaccinations, as well as on immigration. Regardless of what direction this year’s political winds are blowing or of the narrow margin in his district, he says he’s not planning to change his stripes anytime soon.

“I don’t usually move to the center or to the left or the right,” Neville said. “I think I’ve been pretty consistent.”