For years, political analysts have had their eyes on a handful of counties in Colorado — Jefferson, Arapahoe, Adams and Larimer — as bellwethers, the ones that predict whether Colorado might go blue or red.
Much of the swingy nature of these key counties has come from ticket-splitting by voters who have cast ballots for Democratic candidates for governor since 2006 but have elected Republicans into down-ballot statewide offices and at the county and legislative levels.
That changed last Tuesday.
This year’s midterm election shows these counties have collectively become more deeply blue, leaving Republicans to try and figure out whether they are seeing a lasting shift, the result of demography — more younger voters, more new voters who aren’t members of political parties getting involved and staying involved — and, if so, whether any true swing counties remain.
Democratic Gov.-elect Jared Polis, who spent at least $23 million of his own money in his race and targeted the state’s marijuana voters, beat his Republican rival Walker Stapleton on Nov. 6 by double-digit margins in the four key counties. He took Arapahoe by about 17 percentage points, Jefferson by about 13, Adams by about 13, and Larimer by about 13.
But unlike in years past, voters there chose Democrats from the top line down.
Democrats can thank the current occupant of the White House for the assist, analysts say, along with a record-breaking turnout of unaffiliated voters.
“Educated suburban women just sat up and said, ‘Hey, look, if you’re with Donald Trump we have no time for you; if you’re on the Trump team, then you’re disqualified for us’,” says Democratic political consultant Steve Welchert.
Jefferson County has long been considered one of the swingiest counties in the nation because of its large population and because it has about the same number of Democratic and Republican voters — and even more who remain unaffiliated with either party. In 2014, Republican Cory Gardner narrowly lost the county in his successful bid for U.S. Senate, and the county has elected Republicans to county-level offices in its west-of-Denver suburbs that include Golden, Lakewood, and parts of Arvada and Westminster mingled in with foothill mountain towns.
But JeffCo saw a rout by Democrats last week when five of the six contested county-level elections went to that party. The only Republican to survive was the sheriff who ran unopposed.
In recent memory, “we have never held as many countywide positions as we picked up in this election,” says Cheryl Cheney, chairwoman of the Jefferson County Democratic Party, attributing the sweep to a robust Democratic ground game mixed with activism from local left-leaning groups like Indivisible and a Latino initiative that worked hard to turn out votes. Unaffiliated voters also turned out in higher numbers than in previous midterm elections in the county, which Cheney says likely had to do with Democratic efforts to target them and a backlash to Republican President Donald Trump.
Still, despite, the blue wave there, Cheney still sees it as a swing county.
“I think one year’s results may not change over the long haul,” she says. “I think that now that we’ve gotten people elected we need to work hard with them to make sure that we’re governing in support of the county and the constituents and that when it comes time to re-elect people the votes are still there.”
In Arapahoe County, voters in the suburbs such as Aurora, Greenwood Village, Littleton and Glendale swept out Republicans at the local level, too, an unusual development that pushed out a well-respected sheriff in Dave Walcher and the GOP county clerk, Matt Crane. Arapahoe County voters also significantly helped elect Jason Crow to Congress, defeating Republican Mike Coffman who has long been an elusive target for Democrats, by six percentage points, or about 40,000 votes in the county.
“When I came here 30 years ago, it was a solid, solid red place,” says Welchert, the Democratic consultant. “It is now a solidly blue county.”
Mary Ellen Wolf, chairwoman of the Arapahoe County Democratic Party, says the county is getting younger and more diverse as voters are priced out of Denver and move into the area. “We have a large immigrant community,” she says. “We have a large African-American community, a large Hispanic community — those folks tend to side with us in elections.”
But because of a large military and ex-military community and conservative pockets in the southwestern part of the county and along the I-70 corridor, she still considers Arapahoe a swing county. “I don’t think we can take anybody’s vote for granted,” Wolf says. “As good as we feel about it we know that we simply can’t make any assumptions about where voters stand.”
Before Tuesday, Dick Wadhams, a longtime GOP svengali and former state Republican Party chair, says he believed Adams County – which includes Thornton, Commerce City and parts of Strasburg and Brighton – was beginning to shift slowly more Republican.
After Tuesday, he might have said Colorado as a whole has finally turned blue were it not that voters statewide — and in a majority of the four swing counties including Adams — voted down two tax-hiking measures to better fund education and transportation. (Larimer County voters supported the education measure but rejected the one for transportation.)
“I think voters knew exactly what they were doing in these races,” he says. “They wanted to beat the hell out of Donald Trump and they wanted to send Republicans a message — and they did. They don’t like Trump.”
In Adams, voters in a place Welchert describes as a “blue-collar-plaid-collar Democratic vote, which can move,” swept in Democrats up and down the ballot, electing them into all countywide offices. A Democratic defeat of the Republican sheriff there led the sheriff’s office’s spokesman to reportedly call the county’s voters “f—ing stupid” on Facebook and allege the Democrat only won because of an anti-Trump backlash and “because he has a d in front of his name.”
Anil Mathai, who runs the Republican Party in the growing county, isn’t willing to write off its swing status. In 2016, he says, Republicans there had about a 75 percent turnout rate, tying with the GOP stronghold of El Paso County, something Mathai saw as a reflection of an energized base in Adams. He says he tried to get Trump to campaign in the county but couldn’t make it happen. “We are getting more and more people in our base turning out — it’s just overall we’re still small” compared to Jefferson and Arapahoe, he says.
Colorado’s Larimer County – which includes Fort Collins, Loveland, Estes Park and parts of Windsor – went for Polis and the four Democrats running for attorney general, secretary of state, treasurer and at-large University of Colorado regent. Voters still elected Republicans to some county offices. The GOP county clerk won a contested race, as did the treasurer in the northern Colorado county. But the Democrats flipped a county commissioner seat and the Democrat for county assessor also won.
Since 2006, the growing county, which has more registered Republicans than Democrats — and more registered unaffiliated voters than either party — has gone for Democrats in the governor’s race while electing down-ballot Republicans. In 2014, while Gardner lost Adams, Arapahoe, and Jefferson counties, he won Larimer while the county voted to re-elect Gov. John Hickenlooper in the governor’s race, similar to statewide results. The county also went for U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet in 2016, who won statewide that year.
“Maybe it’s more like an indicator county,” says James Thompson, chairman of the Larimer County Democratic Party. “The way that Larimer County goes tends to be the way that the statewide races go. Whether that’s coincidence or not I guess is the question.”
Thompson sees Tuesday’s election results in Larimer as a reaction to the 2016 presidential election. At the county level, the Democrats fielded more candidates than in years past, like for assessor, county clerk and treasurer. “The first time I think we’ve had a Democratic assessor in Larimer County in decades,” Thompson says.
Many eyes this election were on a county not in the suburban ring around Denver.
“I think Pueblo is a swing county now,” says Curtis Hubbard, a partner in the OnSight Public Affairs consulting firm who has run statewide Democratic campaigns.
That’s because the county south of Colorado Springs, which long went for Democrats at the top of the ticket, voted narrowly for Donald Trump in the 2016 election— the first time voters there chose a Republican president since Richard Nixon in 1972. The president’s populist message resonated in the longtime steel town as it did in Rust Belt areas like Pennsylvania and Ohio, and he earned crossover Democratic votes. Trump campaigned in Pueblo as did Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election. Still, in that same election, Pueblo’s voters chose to re-elect incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet over his Republican challenger Darryl Glenn.
On Tuesday, though, voters in Pueblo County picked Polis over Stapleton by about 5 percentage points or about 3,500 votes — a much larger margin than the one by which Trump won there two years ago.
Polis launched his campaign last October at a Pueblo cafe that uses solar power to roast its coffee, and said during a speech to voters there, “We lost some votes to Trump here from good Democrats.” Stapleton campaigned at the State Fair in Pueblo, and Colorado State University-Pueblo also hosted an early debate between Polis and Stapleton. The Pueblo Chieftain newspaper endorsed Stapleton because its editorial board felt he wasn’t promising unattainable goals and would be fiscally responsible.
Ryan Winger, who does data analysis for the Republican polling and consulting firm Magellan Strategies, cautions not to view Pueblo, a place with plenty of union members and a high Latino population, as one to try and gauge how the state might vote as a whole because of its small population.
That said, Democrats can no longer take Pueblo for granted, Hubbard says. “They have to understand that it is critical to their electoral success and that they can’t just check a box and think Pueblo Democrats are going to carry that county for them.”
Just this week, Democratic leaders in the legislature selected Pueblo state Sen. Leroy Garcia as the president of the Senate, which Democrats now control. The move will be helpful for Democrats to remember that they’re not just an urban party, Hubbard says.
One county that did swing from red to blue at the top of the ticket this year is Garfield, which has gone from red in 2002, to blue in 2006 and 2010, back to red in 2014, and is now blue again.
Polis flipped the West Slope county that stretches from Eagle to the Utah border and includes Glenwood Springs, Rifle, and Carbondale, narrowly winning by about 300 votes, or a little more than 1 percentage point. Voters in that county, however, narrowly pulled for incumbent Republican Congressman Scott Tipton. All three county commissioners are still Republicans after the latest election, though the one contested election was closer than some observers expected. The Democratic county clerk there was re-elected.
“I can absolutely 100 percent tell you that healthcare here is a huge issue,” says Tracy Gurley-Tomashosky, the director of United Way of Battlement to the Bells. “That we live in one of the top most expensive counties in the country to buy health insurance is not lost on anyone here.”
Polis, she noted, made making healthcare less expensive a tenet of his campaign. “Everyone’s just ready for something new,” she says. “And we’re really ready to stop working two-three jobs just to pay for healthcare.”
Andy Quiat, a local attorney and the first vice chair of the Garfield County Democratic Party, says the county has been very red for quite some time. “We feel like we made a lot of progress on the ground locally,” he says. “But we certainly don’t take it for granted and we don’t think the job is done. We think we have laid a good foundation and a good groundwork for 2020.” He added the county has a large Latino population and he believes Latinos are getting more involved in electoral politics there. “It’s happening slowly,” he added, “but it is happening.”
One aspect of this midterm election political analysts noted repeatedly in Colorado was the increase in turnout among unaffiliated voters in Colorado, which was seen in the crucial swing counties that helped Democrats. This year was the first that the state’s unaffiliated voters could participate in the party primaries, and all 1.2 million active unaffiliated voters were mailed ballots for that election in June. Out of the 270,000 of them who chose to pick a party primary and vote, 63 percent of them went Democrat, according to data from the Secretary of State.
Bottom line from Tuesday’s results in Colorado’s key counties: In the next two years, the new voters “aren’t going anywhere,” says Magellan’s Winger. “They’re still going to vote in 2020. And so Republicans really have just kind of an uphill battle.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story wrongly referred to CSU-Pueblo as the University of Colorado-Pueblo.