Democrats take the Colorado Senate

Democrats swept a handful of state Senate races, tipping the balance of power under the Gold Dome in their favor

The five swing-district candidates – known as the "Fab Five" – who helped Democrats take control of Colorado's state Senate. From left, Rep. Jessie Danielson, Rep. Faith Winter, Sen. Kerry Donovan, Rep. Brittany Pettersen, and Tammy Story (photo by Evan Sémon).

The state Senate has flipped blue.

Five Democratic women who ran in key state Senate battlegrounds claimed a monumental victory Tuesday night, ousting two GOP incumbents and defending three other blue-leaning seats to secure one-party control under Colorado’s Gold Dome.

“Our new Democratic majority would not be possible without you,” Senate Minority Leader Leroy Garcia of Pueblo told a cheerful crowd of Democrats gathered for the election night party at the Westin Denver Downtown hotel. “We are going to build on the energy with a Democratic trifecta.” 

Democrats took a strong lead over their GOP rivals in these five competitive state Senate races. Going into the election, Republicans had a one-seat majority in the upper chamber.

It was a festive evening for the party as Democrats swept all state constitutional offices. The biggest result of the night was that Democratic Congressman Jared Polis beat Republican State Treasurer Walker Stapleton to become the nation’s first openly gay governor. Meanwhile, cheers erupted when CNN ran the headline on two large screens at the front of the ballroom showing Democrats just took the House in Washington, D.C.

Here in Colorado, Democrats picked up four seats in the state House, expanding their majority to an 11-seat advantage. That combined with the party’s new 19-16 majority in the Senate and control over the governor’s office has earned Democrats a coveted trifecta not seen since 2014.

Knowing the stakes are high, outside groups poured about $15 million into ads and messaging campaigns this year in an effort to influence the vote in just five swing state Senate districts. 

Meanwhile, the Democratic women in these races, dubbed the “Fab Five,” outraised their GOP rivals nearly three to one. The money was used to run their campaigns and promote their messages through TV and radio ads, yard signs, and doorknob leaflets, among other means like canvassing to get out the vote.

The two most expensive races were ones where Democrats unseated Republican incumbents in districts carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016. 

One of those races took place just north of Denver, where Democratic Rep. Faith Winter of Westminster unseated Republican State Sen. Beth Martinez Humenik of Thornton. 

“It’s my fifth race. And it’s the hardest one I’ve ever run,” Winter told The Colorado Independent as fellow Democrats passed by congratulating her on the victory.

Winter said she hopes to pass a paid family leave insurance program and policies aimed at curbing climate change, like reducing greenhouse gas pollution from tailpipes and power plants. 

Well before of Election Day, her bid for the Senate took on an outsized significance for the #Me Too movement. This past legislative session, Winter played a key role in ousting a then-Democratic lawmaker whom she and four other women said sexually harassed them.

In April, Martinez Humenik, who has worked with Winter on sexual harassment legislation, voted against ousting a fellow Republican senator, saying there was not enough evidence to support the harassment allegations against him. The two candidates spoke little about the subject on the campaign trail. But in what could be a nod to Martinez Humenik’s position on the issue, a recent ad placed by the Adams County Republican Party stated, “He said. She said. ENOUGH!”

Further west toward the foothills and into slightly redder turf, Tammy Story, an education reformer from Conifer, bested Republican incumbent Tim Neville, an outspoken conservative and gun rights advocate.

Another key battleground was for a seat being vacated by Cheri Jahn, a term-limited Wheat Ridge Democrat-turned-independent. House Speaker Pro Tem Jessie Danielson, a Democrat from Wheat Ridge, carried the seat over Republican Christine Jensen, a mortgage banker from Arvada. Independent voters make up the majority of voters here.

Democrats played defense, too. In the expansive Senate District Five on the Western Slope, Republican Olen Lund, an alfalfa farmer from Paonia, attempted to unseat Democratic Sen. Kerry Donovan, a rancher from Vail. Republicans barely outnumber Democrats there. Still, Donovan won by nearly 20 points. 

Term-limited Democratic incumbent Andy Kerr left his seat up for grabs in a competitive race between state Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Democrat from Lakewood, who beat Republican Tony Sanchez of Littleton. 

Pettersen, whose mother is recovering from an addiction to painkillers and heroin, has made it her priority to pass legislation that would help treat people with substance use disorders. Sanchez used this against her in an attack ad that showed a picture of Pettersen next to a dirty needle and spoon reading “Vote against Brittany Pettersen…or she will let addicts shoot up on your street.”

Treatment for substance use disorder likely will be one of Democrats’ policy priorities with control of both legislative chambers and the governor’s office. Other priorities include paid family leave, funding for full-day kindergarten, oil and gas public health and safety measures, boosting affordable housing assistance with tax credits, and a so-called “red flag law” to allow law enforcement to temporarily take a person’s firearms if he or she is considered a threat to themselves or others

Julie Gonzales at the Democrats’ Election Day party at the Westin on Nov. 6, 2018. (Photo by John Herrick)

Meanwhile, Latino candidates gained ground this year in a state where they are under-represented at the Statehouse.

Currently, there are only 12 Latinos in the 100-person General Assembly despite making up 21.1 percent of the state population. Among them are two term-limited Latina leaders, Democratic House Speaker Crisanta Duran of Denver and Democratic Senate Assistant Minority Leader Lucia Guzman of Denver. Five others are either term-limited, have resigned or lost re-election bids. 

Nine Latino candidates won their bids for the state legislature, bringing the total next session to at least 14.  

Related: A record number of Latinos to join the state legislature, but under-representation remains

Julie Gonzales, who worked as a policy director at the Denver-based immigration and criminal law firm Meyer Law Office, won her bid for Senate District 34, a seat vacated by former Senate Assistant Minority Leader Guzman.

Like other Democrats, Gonzales said the Democratic sweep was a victory for working families. She was also excited so many Latino lawmakers will arrive in Denver for the 2019 legislative session. With more representation, she said, “we will be able to craft fundamentally better policy.”

In what was the closest race for a seat in the House, Democrat Brianna Titone bested Republican Vicki Pyne for House District 27 to become the state’s first transgender candidate elected to state office. The seat was vacated Republican Rep. Lang Sias who was running as Stapleton’s running mate in the governor’s race.

Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks to reporters at the Westin Denver Downtown on Nov. 6, 2018. (Photo by John Herrick)

Midterms are generally considered a referendum on the president’s party, leading to much talk of the blue wave this year that ended up crashing hard over the Rockies, perhaps in part due to voter angst over the policies of President Donald Trump. 

Several Democratic voters have said one of their main motivations for voting this year is to flip the Senate blue. Others, including some Democrats and independents, say it’s important to maintain a partisan balance under the Gold Dome in Denver.

“It’s never fun losing races or being in the political minority,” Senate President Kevin Grantham, a term-limited Republican from Canon City, said in a statement Wednesday.

But, he added, “Colorado remains at heart a centrist state, where common sense economic and fiscal values still hold great sway.”

He said Republicans still have a critical role to play at the Capitol to ensure multiple views are heard and to be a check “on the excesses we might see if Democrats see their advantage as an opportunity to run wild.”

At the election night party on Tuesday, Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper spoke to reporters about the possibility that Democrats could “overreach” and push their policy priorities too fast with trifecta control.

“There is a temptation,” Hickenlooper said. He added, “You don’t ever what to get ahead of public sentiment or else it catches up to you.”

Update: This story was updated as the election results were finalized. And, on Nov. 9, the House and Senate elected their party leaders: 

House

Speaker of the House:  KC Becker, of Boulder

House Majority Leader: Alec Garnett, of Denver

Assistant Majority Leader: Chris Kennedy, of Lakewood

Caucus Chair: Edie Hooton, of Boulder

Whips: James Coleman, of Denver, and Jeff Bridges, of Greenwood Village

Minority Leader: Patrick Neville, of Castle Rock

Assistant Minority Leader: Kevin Van Winkle, of Highlands Ranch

Minority Whip: Perry Buck, of Windsor

Caucus Chair: Lori Saine, of Firestone

Senate:

Senate President: Leroy Garcia, of Pueblo

Minority Leader: Stephen Fenberg, of Boulder

President Pro-Tem: Lois Court, of Denver.

Whip: Kerry Donovan, of Vail

Caucus Chair: Faith Winter, of Westminster

Minority Leader: Chris Holbert, of Parker

Assistant Minority Leader: Sen. John Cooke, of Greeley

Minority Whip: Ray Scott, of Grand Junction

Caucus Chair: Vicki Marble, of Fort Collins

3 COMMENTS

  1. Hickenlooper said “You don’t ever what to get ahead of public sentiment or else it catches up to you.”

    Political leadership includes the possibility of explaining WHY a policy actually is a good idea or fits within the values of the public. I think Abraham Lincoln did pretty well in clarifying the importance of the Union, at a time when States were powerful. More recently, there are a number of politicians who “got ahead of public sentiment” on LGBTQ issues, on capital punishment, on marijuana legalization, on health insurance, on environmental protection, on energy production.

    I can’t think of a single Democratic candidate for President who didn’t have at least some areas where they were ahead of public sentiment.

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