In the wake of the 2018 midterms, Colorado Republicans met to discuss the results. Failed gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton called for greater unity. Mike Coffman, who lost his House seat, blamed his loss on Trump. The outgoing state AG said he was leaving behind a great office. Full of excuses and short on strategy, one fact remains: Every Republican lost a statewide race. As soon as the new legislature was installed in 2019 along with Democrat governor Jared Polis in the lead, they passed a red flag law in the area of gun control, joined the electoral college compact pledging Colorado’s votes to the winner of the national popular vote, and took aim at the energy industry in the state.
The state had been drifting from purple to blue status over the past decade. An influx of transplants has made the electorate younger, more diverse, and more educated. In the two most important counties, politically-speaking, Jefferson and Arapahoe, there is an ongoing battle for control that may dictate the future of the GOP. Republican turnout in all elections is usually higher than that of Democrats. In Colorado, although a younger electorate leans toward the liberal side, in reality they favor neither party and remain unaffiliated. Unfortunately, the GOP’s realization that Republicans have higher turnout rates led them to somewhat disregard the unaffiliated voters over the past decade and it has cost them.
The proof is in the numbers from the 2018 midterm elections. For the first time ever, unaffiliated voters (879,496) beat out Republicans and Democrats. In fact, Republican turnout was the lowest among the three groups. Of course, that could change in 2020 with two factors in mind: the presidential election and a ballot issue (more on that in a second).
According to some pundits, the unaffiliated voters turned out en masse to take out their dislike of Trump by rejecting Republicans down the ballot. However, in many state districts where Trump lost in 2016, Republicans managed to hold their seats by wide margins. Some have pointed to sophisticated Democrat strategies like ballot harvesting led by groups like MoveOn.org and Planned Parenthood which target independent voters.
So what is a Republican to do if they hope to win statewide elections in Colorado? Leaving aside Trump, the strategy for Cory Gardner, who is running for reelection to the Senate, may prove instructive, and runs through five counties. The strategy and message is:
- Denver county- hell will freeze over before any Republican takes the most populous and liberal county. Message: Everyone likes money, even liberals, and touting the tax cuts could make inroads with voters.
- Jefferson and Arapahoe counties- These are the suburbs of Denver that have been drifting Left. Taking about 50% of the votes would be awesome. Message: Tout the $300 million in federal funds for transportation projects here Gardner helped secure.
- Pueblo county- Gardner did not win Pueblo county in 2014, but Trump did. This county identifies with the blue collar ethos and the oil and gas industry. Message: Both Trump and Gardner advocate for this sector.
- Weld county- GOP domination in Weld county is a must. Message: The trade deal with Japan opened up the beef market in that country. As a result, Weld county sold $1.1 billion worth of cattle and calves making it the second most prolific county in this area in the country.
In short, the message is economics, the economy and above all else, the economy!
The GOP has identified 175,000 voters who showed up to vote in 2016 but who sat out the 2018 midterms. As the figures from the midterms indicate, most of these voters were Republican. By re-energizing these voters with Trump at the top of the ticket, emphasizing an economic message, and matching Democrat GOTV efforts, there actually is a viable pathway to victory. Perhaps this is why the Trump campaign already has about a dozen campaign staffers on the ground with more to come in 2020.
And Gardner does not necessarily have to run away from Trump. In the Senate, he has a 90% agreement rate in votes with the Trump preference or position. Although he occasionally criticizes Trump’s rhetoric, he has positioned himself through what amounts to pork barrel legislation that brings money to Colorado. Further, he can use the far Left shift of the Democrats as a stick in getting votes. That is where the ballot question- known as Initiative CC- enters the scene. Some pundits have characterized it as a blunder by the Democrats and a Leftist overreach by Polis and company.
During the most recent legislative sessions, the Democrats attempted to weaken the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR). That 1992 mandate requires taxpayer approval for new taxes and limits the amount of revenue Colorado can collect. If they collect anything above the ceiling, the excess is returned to the taxpayers in the form of a refund. Democrats decided to put Proposition CC on the ballot to permanently end the refunds so that they can fund their pet projects, particularly those aimed at education. According to one poll, about 54% of voters intend to vote “yes” on the initiative. That can be overcome.
Since it was announced it would be on the ballot, conservative groups immediately began a campaign to kill the initiative. One group has spent over $400,000 on advertising. Killing Proposition CC by the GOP and conservatives will not necessarily translate into electoral success, but it will increase GOP turnout and refocus the state party on the very issues that brought them success in the 1990s in Colorado- low taxes and smaller government.
Thus far, the Colorado GOP appears ready for a fight on the presidential and senatorial fronts. For example, the state GOP has never dispatched a field director to any county as early as 18 months before an election, but they did so in 2019 when Alex Inscoe was sent to Jefferson county. Dedicated to an intensive digital campaign aimed at younger voters, it is meant to strengthen the GOP brand as one of lower taxes, less government, and telling voters that the Republican Party was the one that ended slavery. It also includes a lot of door-to-door canvassing to get the message out. It also likely includes avoidance of social issues like abortion and gun control. The days of the GOP political machine dictating the message, Kristi Burton Brown- vice chair of the state GOP- said, are over.