Colorado politics could be shaken to its core this November

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Colorado politics could be shaken to its core this November

Colorado’s political landscape is about to undergo another seismic shift.
A surge in new social movements, evolving voter attitudes, rising new leaders and changing demographics, taken together, are creating significant fault lines. Like the earth’s surface, the political plates are about to slip and create a new configuration. The tension has been building for several years, but is now accelerated following the election of President Donald Trump in 2016.
Colorado has had ruptures of similar proportion over the last five decades. The anti-Olympic movement of 1972 and Dick Lamm’s environmentalism, which captured the Democratic Party, changed the history of Colorado in the mid-1970s. The passage of the TABOR Amendment in 1992, accompanied by a swell of local Reagan Republicans, made Colorado a conservative redoubt through the 1990s and into the early 2000s.
And now, after more than a decade of rapid growth, a rise of unaffiliated voters and a shift to more liberal politics, it appears another inflection point is approaching, and Colorado voters are poised to decide a new direction for the state.
It is easy to observe the shift in the state’s politics since early in this century when George W. Bush won Colorado in two presidential elections (2000, 2004) and Bill Owens gained his 2002 gubernatorial reelection with 65 percent of the vote.
That year was the apex of Republican dominance. At that time, Colorado had two Republican U.S. senators and both state houses, and five out of seven of the state’s congressional seats were in GOP control. Contrast that with this year: Democrats have erased a 160,000-plus deficit in voter registration since 2000 and are now ahead. They had 119,000 more voters turn out in the June primary than the Republicans and have won the last three presidential races in Colorado. The party’s nominee for governor, Jared Polis, is currently favored after an eight-year term by another Democrat, John Hickenlooper. And, of course, Democrats may benefit from a “blue” wave of support this November due to the traditional midterm election referendum on a new president — this time one whose favorability is underwater.
The party that dominates the state this November is likely to shift its politics dramatically. The major issues Colorado voters face in November’s election are starkly differentiated between the two parties and their candidates for governor. Energy, water and education policies have produced different analyses of the problems and contrasting solutions. Energy is framed around 100 percent renewables and the impact on ratepayers. Water centers on the debate over new storage projects or not, and education weighs the need for adding new programs and revenue — or not.
Health care policy, due to its impact on the state finances, may be the most transformative issue the state faces. It is currently rated the top issue among voters nationally and in Colorado. The state is among the most active in the country on the health care issue. When Obamacare was passed in 2010, Gov. Hickenlooper jumped on the program, setting up a newly authorized health care exchange and expanding Medicaid. In 2016 a single-payer system was even put before voters, but was strongly rejected.
In the governor’s race, health care is a significant focus with Democrat Jared Polis endorsing a version of a single-payer system and Republican Walker Stapleton against it. But the Republican battle cry to repeal Obamacare, which was so politically successful in the 2010 and 2014 elections and so pervasive in the 2017 congressional deliberations, is now a liability in competitive races.
The public fondness for Obamacare grew even while it was embattled among politicians, and Republicans, in the wake of steps they and the Trump administration have taken, are scrambling to deal with questions on pre-existing conditions, access to coverage and rising insurance rates. But Democrats’ idea of a single-payer system has failed to find needed support due to several criticisms including its cost, meaning that after the 2018 election, significant changes in health care policies are likely to fall to the state, making whoever is the next governor even more pivotal. Health care is increasingly seen as a basic right and it won’t go away as a political challenge, whoever is elected.
National political trends also reverberate through Colorado. In the last 40 years, Colorado politics were highly affected by Watergate (1974) and Obamacare (2010). Will the turmoil in Washington, along with the political shifts in play, finally impact Colorado’s most resilient and most vulnerable Republican, Congressman Mike Coffman, who has won in spite of President Obama and Hillary Clinton carrying his district?
Although the Colorado electorate will also face choices that could significantly change the partisan makeup of the state Senate and constitutional statewide offices (attorney general, treasurer and secretary of state), it may be ballot issues that could most alter the state’s trajectory.
What is effectively a ban on oil and gas fracking is on the ballot after almost making it on the 2014 ballot. Although it is gathering little establishment support, it could affect the general election as millions of dollars of oil and gas money may be spent to oppose the initiative, and the Democratic Party is split on the issue.
Billions in new taxes are proposed for the K-12 public school system. A massive school tax increase was rejected in the 2013 election, but supporters of the initiative are hoping the new proposal, aimed at upper income Coloradans, has a friendlier electorate in 2018.
Finally on the November ballot is another billion-dollar contest over how to fund transportation with either increased sales tax dollars or a diversion of existing state tax revenue (revenue that has been used for other programs), which could impact future state budgets as profoundly as the TABOR Amendment.
It is possible that Colorado voters will stay with their historically conservative position on new state taxes and fracking, yet will put a very liberal team in charge of state government.
Either way, the odds are that forces which have been building for a decade in Colorado are likely to be let loose, producing another shift and a newly configured landscape of state politics and policies for the next decade.
Floyd Ciruli is a pollster, political analyst and director of the Crossley Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Denver.
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