Tim Neville is about as red as they come in Colorado. The Republican senator from Littleton has pushed to loosen gun laws, limit abortions and offer private school vouchers during his four years in the state Senate.
But the red wave he rode to the upper chamber in 2014 has receded, and today in Senate District 16, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 32 percent to 27 percent, with 40 percent unaffiliated.
Those numbers don’t seem to faze Neville. “If you’re asking if I’ll change my principles,” he told The Colorado Independent in a recent interview, “my answer is no.”
In what’s expected to be a blue wave year in which voters repudiate President Trump’s policies, Neville is facing a challenge from a Democratic opponent who in many ways embodies discontent with Trump’s brand of conservatism: Tammy Story, a 59-year-old mother of two from Conifer with deep ties to the education community.
SD 16 lies on the western fringes of the suburban Front Range where new subdivisions fade into the foothills. Flipping this district is part of Democrats’ strategy to regain control of the state Senate, where Republicans have a one-seat majority. Outside groups have already poured over $1 million into the contest.
Despite the barrage of ads, residents in the money-soaked district know less about the candidate policies than they do the stakes. On a recent afternoon at Miner’s Saloon in downtown Golden, customer Anna McDonald said she simply wants to see Democrats win the Senate.
“I’m going to vote for Tammy, solely on the fact that she’s a woman Democrat,” said McDonald, 31. “We’re gonna flip it in Colorado.”
Tammy Story has spent the last 20 years volunteering in Jefferson County public schools. The soft-spoken candidate was involved in ousting a Jeffco school board member who championed charter schools and performance-based teacher pay. She has won financial support from the well-organized teachers’ unions and endorsements from many Democratic heavyweights, including former President Barack Obama.
On a chilly October afternoon, Story knocked on doors in Golden, carrying a stack of campaign leaflets and a paper-copy list of registered voters. One man opened his door and said he was angry with both Trump and Neville, something Story said she hears frequently on the trail.
“They are frustrated because the things that they support are not where his values lie,” she said of Neville. “He’s very extreme.”
On her website, she lists her top issue as public education, which she wants to “fully fund.” But she declined to answer questions about her position on public schools and did not respond to a request for an interview.
Tom Hoffman, who spoke to a reporter as he walked along Washington Avenue in Golden, said he’s met Story and was encouraged to learn she opposes arming teachers with guns, a policy Neville has championed in the wake of school shootings. Hoffman identified himself as a Vietnam veteran.
“As a guy that use to carry a gun,” Hoffman said, “I think that is the job of law enforcement, not teachers.”
Moms Demand Action, a gun control group that is gaining political might in Colorado, has called voters on behalf of Story. The group supports “red flag” legislation, which would allow law enforcement to temporarily seize someone’s firearms if the person is considered a threat to himself or others. Story said she is open to such a law, one that is likely to come up next year in the legislature after a botched effort last session.
Story also supports preserving gun laws passed in 2013, including the magazine limit that Neville has sought to repeal.
For Neville, the issue of guns is personal: his son Patrick, now a state representative, was a sophomore at Columbine High School during the 1999 massacre. Another son, Joe, has been a lobbyist for Rocky Mountain Gun Owners.
Neville, 62, was first elected in 2014 after he bested the incumbent Democrat from Black Hawk, winning by 2.8 percentage points. But much has changed since then. Now, Democrats outnumber Republicans by 203 votes in his district. And in 2016, Hillary Clinton beat Trump by almost 10 points.
But Neville said he’s not one to move to the middle or the left. This is a man who parked a van outside the state Capitol and offered pregnancy counseling to promote a legislative package to limit abortions. He believes parents should be able to exempt their children from vaccinations and voted to give parents an income tax credit for enrolling their children in private schools. He teamed up with Tom Tancredo, who was a board member of VDARE, a white nationalist group that the Southern Poverty Law Center labels an anti-immigration hate group, to work on legislation that aimed to outlaw so-called sanctuary city policies.
Repeatedly, he has sought to loosen gun laws, including a measure to remove the permit requirement to carry a concealed firearm and another that would repeal criminal background check requirements to purchase a firearm. He said the proposed red flag law introduced this past session lacked due process. But his concerns go deeper than that.
“Let’s address the problem,” Neville said. “If the problem is people; it’s not a firearm per se.”
He points to a bipartisan law he sponsored offering transitional support to people released from a 72-hour emergency or involuntary hold for mental health issues. The $1.6-million program was signed into law this year. He also supported a bipartisan law that funneled millions of dollars to K-12 schools for security upgrades.
Neville is a strong believer in personal liberties, but he backs abortion laws that women say restrict their legal right to an abortion. One such bill Neville backed required that women get an ultrasound 24 hours before an abortion.
Neville sees no contradiction. For him, it’s about protecting those who are most vulnerable.
Said Neville: “I think that we can respect the dignity of life.”
This November, voters in suburban swing districts will play a key role in deciding whether Republicans maintain their majority in the state Senate.
“What’s at stake? Let me tell you … it’s a simple as this,” Neville told more than 500 party die-hards at a Jefferson County Republican assembly in March. “We have a state Senate that is controlled by one vote.”
Independent expenditure committees have spent nearly $2 million on this district, mostly in favor of Story, whose campaign is also out-raising Neville’s two-to-one. She’s raised $428,000, the most of any Democratic candidate for the Senate, compared to Neville’s $204,000.
Democratic Congressman Jared Polis is polling ahead of his Republican rival, State Treasurer Walker Stapleton, in a bid for governor, and the House is firmly under the control of Democrats. With control of the Senate up for grabs, voters could earn Democrats a trifecta after the midterms. Democrats have not controlled both the legislature and governor’s office since the GOP wave of 2014.
Neville said if the current balance of a divided legislature is lost, Colorado will start to look a lot more like California.
“Do you want to look like California?” he said. “Tax more, spend more, regulate more, and redistribute more.”
Neville has proven to be persistent. In 2011, he was appointed to a separate district, Senate District 22. He served in that seat for a year and then, in 2012, was drawn out of it following redistricting. At the time, he lived in what is now Senate District 16, which was not up for election until 2014. He won that year, and now has to defend it.
“My focus is working toward the last hour,” he said, “and making sure that we don’t take our eyes off of what’s important.”