Election 2020: Colorado Republicans need state Senate, Democrats targeting swing districts

After Democrats’ sweep of most state offices two years ago, Colorado Republicans’ best hope for political relevance is to retake control of the state Senate this fall, or at least to keep Democrats’ lead there narrow enough to block their most progressive efforts.

Democrats, though, are outspending Republicans in an effort to flip several more seats.

Democrats lead by a comfortable 17 votes in the state House but only three in the Senate. That has made it difficult for them to pass measures that some Democratic moderates haven’t supported, including an eviction moratorium and a paid family and medical leave program — the latter of which has instead been put in front of voters.

Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg of Boulder wants to build a cushion both to pass progressive legislation and because, based on historical trends, 2022 could be a more difficult year for Democrats.

“Part of this charge is to run up the scoreboard so we can keep the majority for the long run,” he said.

Republicans, meanwhile, are eyeing Senate seats that they hope could return control of the chamber to a party that has largely been pushed out of power at the state level.

Democrats do have Senate seats in swing districts that could be vulnerable, in particular District 26, the seat held by Jeff Bridges of Greenwood Village, and District 19, the seat held by Rachel Zenzinger of Arvada. But because internal polling showed that the candidates resonated well within their districts, Fenberg said, Democrats are also focused on flipping seats.

Fenberg sees at least “three solid pickup opportunities” — District 8 in the upper western slope, District 25 in eastern Adams County and District 27 in Centennial.

He described some of the areas Democrats are targeting, in particular District 27, as well-educated suburban districts, which traditionally have been more Republican-leaning. But the national trend shows suburban voters shifting to Democrats, Fenberg noted.

Despite Colorado’s blue lean, Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert of Parker hopes voters in swing districts will take a different approach.

“Voters in the key swing districts have consistently told us that they do not want one-party control of state government,” Holbert said in a written statement. “Our appeal to those voters is to simply vote for what they want: balance. Nothing too far left or right and requiring both sides to work together.”

Republicans are defending Senate District 25, held by Kevin Priola of Henderson since 2017, as evidenced by the amount of money being spent in the race. A Democrat held the seat before Priola, and Democrat Paula Dickerson is challenging him this year.

“The seat was heavily targeted four years ago, in 2016, and we managed to win then, and we’re confident that we’ll be able to win again in 2020,” said GOP strategist Ryan Lynch, who is working with Priola’s reelection campaign.

Although national politics have seeped into Colorado’s local races, affecting turnout and how some vote on down-ballot races, Lynch sees it as less of a factor in Senate District 25, where an incumbent senator is running on his record.

Democrats are leading the way in spending, according to secretary of state filings, which doesn’t come as a surprise to Lynch.

“There’s just no real hope for Republicans to take the majority, and so you’re seeing fewer dollars being poured in certainly from our side,” he said, adding, “it’s definitely a factor in the race, but it’s nothing that hard work and voter contact can’t overcome.”

Republican groups are for the most part trying to maintain their “status quo” in the Senate, as Lynch puts it, because there aren’t a lot of opportunities to pick up seats. Keeping existing GOP-held seats will be important as the state heads into redistricting after the election.

Case in point: Republicans have focused efforts on Senate District 8 to protect incumbent Republican Bob Rankin of Carbondale. More than 40% of the district’s voters are unaffiliated, but the then-Republican incumbent — Randy Baumgardner — won the seat by about 10 points in 2016.

Rankin was appointed in 2019 after Baumgardner resigned. Democrat Karl Hanlon is challenging Rankin this year.

“If 2018 is really reflective of where the district has gone, then I think it has become a truly swing district,” Hanlon said. “We’re right on the edge.”

In 2018, Jared Polis defeated his Republican opponent for governor in the district.

Hanlon doesn’t believe a blue or red wave is as impactful to rural voters who are looking instead for representatives who will make sure their issues are addressed at the Capitol. Instead, he said, “it plays into how motivated voters are and what our turnout’s going to look like.”

Senate District 27 in Arapahoe County is another race that has garnered significant attention, negative campaigning and complaints, as well as outside spending. The seat is open, as Republican Jack Tate of Centennial decided not to seek another term. Republican Suzanne Staiert, a former deputy secretary of state, faces Democrat Chris Kolker in the race.

Staiert believes the money Democrats have spent on negative ads will actually work against them in the election, saying most voters she has spoken to are “disgusted by it.”

Kolker, however, thinks it’s indicative of something else.

“I think the money is more of a reflection of the outrage people are seeing nationally,” he said.

Although Staiert said her campaign strategy hasn’t changed, Senate Republicans’ funding strategies did. When they saw the flood of money fighting her, she said, they redirected their money instead toward races like those of Priola and Rankin.

But she hasn’t written off the race. While national politics always plays some role in local races, she said, that’s why she’s spending time knocking on doors. Kolker’s campaign is doing similar work on the ground.

“I think most unaffiliated voters are going to look individually at the candidates, and that’s where races are going to be won,” Staiert said.

While the most contested races are in the Senate, Republicans are also trying to avoid losing any more ground in the House and even flip some seats back held by Democrats, such as Brianna Titone’s seat in District 27 in Arvada and Bri Buentello’s seat in District 47 in Otero, Fremont and Pueblo counties.

The House Majority Fund also identified Republican seats Democrats were targeting including House District 22, held by Colin Larson of Littleton; District 38, held by Richard Champion of Columbine Valley; and District 43, held by Kevin Van Winkle of Highlands Ranch. They’re also defending seats they won in 2018 such as that of Lisa Cutter in District 25 and Tom Sullivan in District 37.

Larson said Democrats are trying to “ride the national currents or statewide currents” with their strategy for races.

“They’re trying to nationalize the election because obviously with the Supreme Court (vacancy), these things are at the forefront of people’s minds,” he said.

Joe Neville of Values First Colorado, the House Republicans’ super PAC, and brother of House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, said it’s hard to predict what will happen because it’s a “tough year for Republicans,” but the group is focused on protecting its caucus and trying to flip at least a couple of seats.

“Those are seats Republicans have held in the past that we believe that we can swing back, but in a year like this, it’s anyone’s guess,” he said.

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