Colorado Democrats could lose control of the Capitol. Here’s how.
When you’re running for office, Republican state Sen. Dennis Hisey said, “you gotta say you’re gonna win” — whether or not you believe that to be true.
“Two years ago I was at some fundraisers and our folks would get up and say, ‘We’re gonna win!’, and everybody paying attention knew we weren’t going to win a thing two years ago,” said Hisey, of El Paso County.
“There’s a completely different feel this year. It’s really licking your lips, saying we can do this, we will do this, there’s a plan to do this.”
Out of power at a level not seen in Colorado since before World War II, Republicans like Hisey have good reason to feel this way: the unpopularity of first-term Democratic President Joe Biden, combined with increased competitiveness resulting from last year’s redistricting process, presents a clear path for the GOP to claw back some power in state politics.
Conventional wisdom suggests Republican statehouse chances — already strong — actually improved in Colorado after the June primary, when a slate of election-denying, far-right GOP candidates lost in top-of-the-ticket Colorado races. Democrats had prepared for months to spend the general election campaign tying state House and Senate candidates to since-defeated politicians like Ron Hanks, who rallied at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and lost in the U.S. Senate primary, and Tina Peters, the indicted Mesa County clerk who lost in the primary for secretary of state.
Republicans are highly unlikely to defeat Democratic Gov. Jared Polis in November. As a general rule, Coloradans don’t elect Republicans as governor, and Polis has other advantages: the incumbency, massive personal wealth that ensures he won’t be outspent and favorable polling numbers.
Republicans are also unlikely to win back control of the state House of Representatives, where Democrats now have a dominant 41-24 advantage in seats. But Republicans need only flip three seats in the state Senate to ensure a split legislature for the next two years, and that achievement alone would dramatically alter state politics.
A split legislature would, among other things, all but kill or at least severely hamper most or all Democratic bills concerning topics such as abortion, guns, tenant rights, voting rights and climate action.
Said Republican state Sen. Rob Woodward of Loveland, “I’m envisioning that next spring we won’t see simply the Democratic agenda pushed through year after year.”
There are 35 seats in the state Senate, which Democrats now control 20-15, and which Republicans haven’t held since 2018. Twenty-eight Senate districts hold little mystery; between the seats that aren’t up for election this year and those that don’t figure to be competitive, Democrats open with a presumed 15-13 advantage. Data from the state’s Independent Redistricting Commissions, which last year redrew Colorado’s statehouse and Congressional maps based on updated Census data, shows the road back to a measure of power for the GOP runs through seven key Senate districts.
The commission calculated competitiveness based off election results in each district in eight different statewide contests since 2016. This means the numbers they’ve come up with to indicate whether a district leans left or right are imperfect, as they reflect strong years for Colorado Democrats that coincided with Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy and his one term in office. The numbers don’t include data from 2014, which was a good year for Colorado Republicans, nor do they account for the widespread expectation of a red wave this November that — theoretically, anyway — should boost a generic GOP candidate by a few points, or more.
These are the key Senate races:
- Senate District 3 (Pueblo): This district was held for years by Democrat Leroy Garcia, the former Senate president who resigned this year to take a job in the Biden Administration. A vacancy committee appointed Democrat Nick Hinrichsen to the seat, and he’ll now face Republican Stephen Varela. Data show a roughly 5-point Democratic edge on average over the eight elections the redistricting commission took into account, but Democrats expect a difficult fight this year, and many insiders even favor Varela here.
- Senate District 8 (northwest Colorado): This district comprises a giant swath of northwest Colorado, from Gilpin and Clear Creek counties to the east, out and up to the Utah and Wyoming borders. Democratic state Rep. Dylan Roberts is seeking a promotion to the state Senate, and he’ll face Matt Solomon to get there. Commission data shows a 6.6-point advantage for Democrats in this district, but, like SD3, SD8 is hotly contested and by no means a safe seat for Democrats.
- Senate District 11 (Colorado Springs): Commission data favors Democrats by 2.4 points, which means many insiders regard it as close to a toss-up in a year that should generally be good for Republicans. Hisey faces Tony Exum, a Democratic state representative who, like Roberts, seeks a move to the upper chamber.
- Senate District 15 (Larimer and Boulder counties): It might sound crazy that a huge, western portion of Boulder County — a place synonymous with liberalism — could be represented by a Republican, but that’s a totally plausible outcome. This reconfigured district is, on paper, the most competitive in the Senate. In the eight previous elections the commission considered, there was zero partisan advantage on average. But, as with other districts, few are deluding themselves into thinking this one is a perfect toss-up. Republican state Sen. Rob Woodward of Loveland is vying for re-election, up against Democratic challenger Janice Marchman, also of Loveland. Woodward has raised a huge amount of money compared to Marchman and virtually every other statehouse candidate.
- Senate District 20 (Jefferson County): Here, another Democratic state representative, Lisa Cutter, seeks a Senate seat. She’ll face Republican Tim Walsh in a district that the commission shows leaning Democratic by about 7 points since 2016. Jefferson County is formerly a Republican stronghold but, as elsewhere in the Denver metro, has shifted blue in recent years. In the U.S. Senate race of 2020, this district favored Democrat John Hickenlooper over Republican Cory Gardner by 11 points. A red wave, however, could make Cutter sweat, if not outright lose.
- Senate District 24 (Adams County): If this district is really in play come Election Day in November, that will likely mean it’s a very bad night for statehouse Democrats in Colorado. Commission data shows a roughly 9-point Democratic advantage since 2016, and an even greater margin since 2018. Kyle Mullica is yet another Democratic state representative trying for the Senate, and he faces Republican challenger Courtney Potter.
- Senate District 27 (Arapahoe County): The final Democratic state representative running for the Senate is Tom Sullivan, and he opens with about a 5-point advantage in this district. But five isn’t nearly big enough a number to make Democrats feel comfortable here, given the poor midterm outlook for their party. Sullivan faces Republican Tom Kim.
Though so many of these critical districts have tended to favor Democrats in recent years, Mullica said he’s planning for a fight to keep control of the Senate.
“We have a (expletive)-ton of work to do. if we don’t put in the work, we don’t stand a chance,” he said.
It speaks to the extent to which politicos are tossing out commission data on competitiveness that Marchman, the Democrat facing Woodward in a district that’s been exactly even on average since 2016, called her race “a shot and a prayer.” She later added that she didn’t mean to sound defeatist, and that she does like her chances, but that “these huge forces are at play.”
She said, “I am certainly holding on to hope that if we can get in front of voters, we can push aside all that outside noise and get people excited.”
The Colorado House is a different story. Democrats aren’t panicking, but there’s little chance they’ll expand their majority this year, and they’ll be fortunate to maintain the 17-seat edge they have now. They have enough of a cushion that they could endure a slew of losses this year and still hold the chamber.
Forty-nine of the 65 state House seats have gone for one party or the other by at least 8.2 points on average since 2016, according to commission data. Among those seats, Democrats hold a 28-21 advantage. That leaves 16 seats that could be competitive this fall, and 13 of them are presently held by Democrats. Thus, they’ll be playing a lot of defense in November.
But Republicans don’t have to flip the House to change power dynamics at the Capitol. Even if they merely narrow the partisan split, Democrats pushing progressive legislation will have to work much harder to count their votes and pass their bills out of the chamber. A tighter House combined with a Republican Senate would give centrist Democrats and the GOP even greater leverage to defeat more progressive legislation — which already struggles regularly to win the signature of Polis, a Democratic governor whose views tilt conservative in many spots.
Said Mullica, a current member of that chamber, “There are headwinds against us. We know that. We’re keenly aware of the polling with our president. What we’re going to focus on is controlling what we can control.
He continued, “So, we’re not naive to what the political landscape looks like and the work we have to do, but I can honestly say I’m treating my race the same way (as past races). If you’re not genuine and being who you truly are, voters will see right through that.”