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Inside the Race to Control Colorado’s State Legislature

The most important battle in Colorado isn't who will get our votes for president, but which party will gain a majority in the State House and Senate. 

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Colorado is more than just a presidential battleground in 2016. The bigger (and arguably most important) race this Election Day is for the control of our state legislature.

Out of 86 state legislative chambers with elections this year, Ballotpedia named 20 as battleground chambers, where the power could potentially change hands between political parties. Colorado’s Senate and House are two of those 20 battlegrounds.

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Republicans won all 11 of the state chambers that flipped in 2014, including the Colorado Senate, and the GOP party currently controls more than two-thirds of the state legislative chambers across the country.

Here in the Centennial State, Republicans control the State Senate with a one-vote margin (18–17) and Democrats control the State House by three votes (34–31). With its razor-thin voting margin, the Daily Kos claimed in January that the Colorado Senate might just be the most competitive state legislative chamber in the nation. On both sides, the stakes are high.

State legislatures have been especially influential in recent years. While the U.S. Congress was perpetually deadlocked, many state legislatures successfully passed laws on issues ranging from gun control and abortion to minimum wage hikes, anti-LGBT discrimination, and voter ID laws.

If Democrats gain control of the Colorado Senate—and keep control of the House—they will have a state government trifecta (along with Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper), which could strongly influence local policy for at least the next two years. But there’s also a long-term prize at stake: The party that controls the state legislature in 2020 (our state senators have four-year terms, limited to two consecutive terms in office) will have an important leg-up in the 2021 redistricting battles.

Ballotpedia named six local legislative races to watch, based on early targeting by Republican and Democratic Party leaders. Other races have since become competitive, notably in Senate District 27 (Centennial and Foxfield), where Tom Sullivan (D), who lost his son in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting, mounted a stronger-than-expected challenge against incumbent Jack Tate (R). Pueblo’s House District 59 race, between incumbent J. Paul Brown (R) and Barbara McLachlan (D), has also emerged as one of the state’s most expensive contests.

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As we head into the final hours of the election, here are the local contests to keep an eye on:

Senate District 19

State Sen. Laura Woods (R) faces off against former state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger (D) in a critical Jefferson County rematch. Woods, one of Colorado’s most conservative legislators, wrested the seat from Zenzinger in 2014 by a one-point margin to help Republicans win the Senate. The battle is fierce in this swing county, which also backed Democrats for the U.S. Senate and Governor in 2014, and features some of the state’s ugliest campaign ads.

Senate District 25

Two former State Reps—Kevin Priola (R) and Jenise May (D)—are battling for this open seat in Adams County. Voters here elected term-limited State Sen. Mary Hodge (D) in 2014, but also backed GOP candidates for the U.S. Senate and Governor. Republicans hope to pick up this seat as a backup to keep their Senate majority if Sen. Woods is ousted in D-19, reports the Colorado Independent.

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Senate District 26

State Rep. Daniel Kagan (D) battles Nancy Doty (R) in this open seat that’s being vacated by Democrat Linda Newell. It’s one of the state’s most negative races: Republicans are attacking Kagan for supporting tax hikes and his initial support for a single-payer healthcare system. Democrats are attacking Doty’s record as an Arapahoe County Commissioner and for hedging her support for presidential nominee Donald Trump.

House District 3

This open race is one of the most competitive in the House, with both Democrat and the Republican leaders placing it on their lists of races to win. Jeff Bridges (D), son of millionaire donor Rutt Bridges, hopes to hold the seat for Democrats against Republican Katy Brown—a Cherry Hills Village City Council member who won a prized endorsement from the Colorado Education Association.

House District 30

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Incumbent Rep. JoAnn Windholz (R) is fighting for re-election against Dafna Michaelson Jenet (D) in this Adams County swing district. Republicans narrowly won the seat in 2014, when Windholz defeated former incumbent Jenise May (D) by 106 votes. Windholz has been an election target since she called Planned Parenthood the “real culprit” in a November 2015 shooting at a Colorado Springs clinic that killed three people and injured nine.

House District 31

Incumbent Rep. Joe Salazar (D) is battling for a third term against Jessica Sandgren (R) for this swing seat, where unaffiliated voters hold 38 percent of the vote. Salazar, a strong supporter of Bernie Sanders’ presidential run, narrowly won the seat in 2014 by a one-point margin after dealing a blowout in 2012. Sandgren is a teacher who is focused on accountability in education.

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