The momentum behind Colorado’s blue wave: Democratic women and independent voters

About last night...

A Jason Crow supporter raises a sign in celebration at Crow's election night party Nov. 8 at the Denver Tech Center DoubleTree hotel. (Photo by Forest Wilson)

The Big Takeaway from last night’s election is clear: The election of Jared Polis to the governorship, Jason Crow to Congress, Democrats to all three other constitutional offices — in addition to flipping the state Senate and holding the House — has turned Colorado bluer than it’s been since 1936.

But there are also other remarkable storylines that emerged from this watershed midterm election as well as some questions that it raised.

Democratic women generated Colorado’s blue wave

The force was strong among female voters last night, and it was considerably stronger among women who are registered Democrats.

According to the latest ballot return numbers, 1,296,893 women voted versus 1,190,623 men, meaning women outvoted men by more than 100,000 ballots.

Of those 1,296,893 female voters, 486,750 of them were Democrats. Registered male Democrats sent in 325,104 ballots, so that means 161,646 more Democratic women took part in the entire election than men.

To put a finer point on it: Democratic women made up the largest population of voters in Colorado.

That’s a statewide data point, but it also filtered down into the most important counties, especially where races are won and lost by ballots filled out on the kitchen tables of households in Centennial State suburbia.

In Jefferson County, with 59,789 votes, Democratic women outvoted the second-most-potent voting bloc, unaffiliated men, by nearly 3,000 votes. In Arapahoe County, 58,884 Democratic women blew away the second-largest voting bloc there, unaffiliated men, by 12,000 votes. Adams County female Democratic voters beat unaffiliated men by about 6,000, while in battleground Larimer County, Democratic women beat unaffiliated men by about 2,000.

In Denver County, 79,070 Democratic women steamrolled Democratic men by more than 20,000 votes.

Republican women in conservative El Paso County, however, were outvoted by their male GOP counterparts by about 300.

Meanwhile, unaffiliated voters came out in higher numbers than members of both parties

Zhenghua Yang, a 28-year-old video game developer in Boulder who was born in China, has been an unaffiliated voter in Colorado since he became a U.S. citizen in 2013.

Yang was one of some 852,443 unaffiliated voters in Colorado, helping to push their numbers higher than those belonging to the Democratic and Republican parties. As of the afternoon of Nov. 7, the secretary of state reported 822,419 Democrats had voted versus 804,991 Republicans. In other words, unaffiliated voters outperformed party members by raw numbers to the tune of about 30,000 and 50,000 votes. (Unaffiliated voters, however, still had a lower turnout rate than both parties. 

For Yang, being unaffiliated is “not something that I really consider myself being proud of”— it’s just that he never really identified with a party.

“To me, it seems like people should vote for the policies and the people they believe in rather than what kind of label or what kind of color they put on themselves,” he said.

Unlike the major parties in Colorado, there is no designated spokesperson or champion for the interests of the state’s 1.2 million unaffiliated voters. Given their rise in voting power, might one try and emerge somehow?

“I think that there are groups that will certainly try to do that,” said Curtis Hubbard, a political consultant who has studied the state’s unaffiliated voters. ”The reality, though, is that unaffiliated voters tend to vote the same way in election after election. It’s not that they are a great middle swing vote.”

This election season, however, did see a movement by a national group called Unite Colorado that spent big bucks trying to elect unaffiliated candidates to the legislature. All five of them were unsuccessful. Despite that, Nick Troiano, who runs the group, says the number of votes for unaffiliated candidates this year was higher than what he’s seen in the past seven election cycles combined.

“So I think there’s strong progress and momentum towards the effort to provide voters an alternative to both parties,” he said.

If there is anyone close to being someone who champions unaffiliated voters here, it’s Kent Thiry, the wealthy CEO of the Denver-based kidney dialysis company DaVita who bankrolled a 2016 ballot measure to allow unaffiliated voters to participate in party primaries and two measures that passed last night to give unaffiliated voters more power in the process of drawing political lines.

“I think the rise of the independent voter is going to be a great boon, a great gift for Colorado’s governance,” Thiry said in an interview Wednesday. “And by that, I do not mean hurting the parties. I think it actually could save the parties because it would allow them to actually compromise and govern on a number of things without worrying that they’re committing political suicide because of what will happen to them in the next primary.”

Asked if he had any more ideas to get unaffiliated voters more involved in Colorado politics, Thiry said he’s planning a listening tour over the next few months in Colorado to see what else he might be able to do to help “advance proportional representation and coherent governance.” He said he might have a more specific answer after that.

Because of the new law opening up the primaries, some might even wonder:

The two biggest reasons are that party members can participate in party caucuses, while unaffiliated voters can’t, and they can become a delegate to each party’s state assembly and vote on candidates for governor and lower offices.

Still, Republican Party spokesman Daniel Cole said it’s hard to make a strong pitch to try and persuade an independent voter who might lean his party’s way to actually sign up. It’s more important to just try to win their vote. “So I think that has changed our strategy somewhat,” he said. “It’s no longer worthwhile to spend time winning their affiliation. Instead, we focus on the bottom line, the vote tally.”

For Democrats, party spokesman Eric Walker said people become members of political parties who agree with the values and the policies of a party. “I think a lot of Democratic voters are proud to be Democrats and proud of what their party has stood for and has been fighting for generations,” he said.

Unaffiliated Yang, who said he voted for Democrats and Republicans on his ballot this year, said he doubts a political party could do anything to get him to register because he doubts he’d ever agree with everything a particular party stands for. “I’m going to be asking for too much,” he said. “Why not just look at the things independently without having to identify as one?”

This year, with unaffiliated voters allowed to choose a party primary ballot, data showed out of the 270,000 who did, 63 percent of them chose a Democratic one.

Clearly, they voted more for Democrats in this general election.

Young people also showed up

The younger generation came out and voted in this election like never before in recent Colorado midterms.

“It really blew us away,” said Lizzy Stephan, director of New Era Colorado, a group that seeks to mobilize young people to participate in the political process. Voters between 18 and 24 voted at a rate of about 45 percent, she said. In 2014, she added, those voters had a 34 percent voter turnout, and in 2010 it was even lower at 24 percent.*

Stephan attributes the rise in young voters here to Colorado’s all-mail election system and easy registration process, along with New Era’s year-round engagement with young voters.

“New Era is one of the largest organizations of our kind in the country, so we think it’s no coincidence that we’re a state with one of the highest young voter turnout rates that there is,” she said.

What on Earth is the Colorado Republican Party going to do now?

On the morning after the biggest disaster for Republicans in Colorado in as long as most who have been alive can remember, the state GOP spokesman Cole while said it was too early to assess the damage, they would certainly be taking stock.

“I know what we won’t do, what we can’t do. We’re not going to slink into a corner. We’re not going roll over,” he said. “The next cycle has already begun and we’re going to think about what we need to do to win it and then execute.”

After President Barack Obama won in 2012, the national Republican Party underwent a serious reckoning that culminated in a document called the Growth and Opportunity Project that became known as the Republican National Committee’s autopsy report. The report documented the party’s vulnerabilities in frank terms, and recommended, for instance, that it ditch its antagonism toward immigrants.

Obviously, Republicans did not heed that advice and it did not hurt them in winning the White House on the wings of Donald Trump.

Here in Colorado, though, conservative political consultant Kelly Maher says she’s not sure the party needs to undergo the same kind of systematic probe following last night’s wipeout.

“I think that the Republican Party in Colorado needs to message in a way that is unique to Colorado,” she said. “Just assuming that we can take everything that works nationally and try to make it work in Colorado is not necessarily the case.”

For Maher, last night’s election results are an opportunity to lay bare what the GOP needs to do to make sure future Election Days are not the new normal. “We have not done a good job of selling our ideas,” she said. “Particularly to unaffiliated voters.” 

Today’s data clearly back that up.


*CORRECTION: A previous version of this story used the phrase vote share instead of turnout in one instance and contained a reference to chromosomes that has been deleted. 


  1. Whomever is paying Kelly Maher’s fees is wasting money.

    Changing the sales tactics isn’t going to make those Ford Pinto Policies any prettier. It’s not a “messaging” problem that the Republicans have. It’s a Product problem…because clearly no one’s buying it.

  2. The Republicans have no plan to fix the problems Coloradans face. That or they know their plans are very unpopular. They stick to talking points, vague statements of my plan is better than theirs, and empty rhetoric. Democrats spell it out. Some of it may be hard to pull off, but they spell it out. The days of we will give you better Education but we are not going to tell you how are over in Colorado. Unfortunately for Republicans they don’t believe Government is responsible for those things so they don’t want to find solutions. They will never have answers or solutions just rhetoric. They are dinosaurs.

  3. I haven’t checked the math personally, but assuming the Magellan Strategies November 8 spreadsheet is calculating percentages correctly, all of the male/female splits in the total and for Democrats, Republicans and Unaffiliated (which for them, includes all 3rd parties, too) are within 1% of the 2014 election. Numbers are bigger, but proportions are very similar.

    Biggest shift that I see on the report is a 4% rise in share by the youngest voters and a 2% decline in both the 45-54 and 55-64 aged voters. There was a similar skew in voter frequency, with the 0/4 and 1/4 groups going up, and the 3/4 and 4/4 groups going down.

  4. John, I haven’t had any time to crunch the numbers, but my cursory glance leads me to believe that the big hole in the polling appears to be the electorate that apparently is composed of the quiet Republicans who showed up to vote in the South…particularly Florida and Georgia.

    That underrepresented group of conservatives…to the tune of several points in certain spots…didn’t bubble up beforehand in the polling. I’ll be curious to see who it was that was missed.

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