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Colorado’s Gubernatorial Race 2018: Lay of the Land

Your guide to Colorado’s constantly shifting political topography.

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Registered, Active Voters by County

Sources: Voter registration numbers from the Colorado Secretary of State, as of February 1; population numbers from the Colorado State Demography Office, as of July 2016 (the most recent data available)

Jefferson: If you live here, you should know what the next few months are going to look like: The candidates and their surrogates are coming to your county in the hopes of winning a share of the state’s largest pool of unaffiliated active voters.

Broomfield: Although small in size, Broomfield experienced the biggest population growth in the state from 2010 to 2016—and 40 percent of its registered, active voters are unaffiliated.

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Pueblo: Pueblo’s voting history in presidential elections perplexes political strategists: The county voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, but Donald Trump earned a narrow victory in 2016. Currently, 42 percent of registered, active voters—the largest group—are Democrats.

Washington: Highest percentage of active voters registered as Republicans.

Denver: Lowest percentage of active voters registered as Republicans.

Costilla: Highest percentage of active voters registered as Democrats.

Rio Blanco: Lowest percentage of active voters registered as Democrats.

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San Juan: Highest percentage of active voters registered as unaffiliated.

Conejos: Lowest percentage of active voters registered as unaffiliated.

Mineral: A higher percentage of residents are registered, active voters here than anywhere in the state.

On the Rise

We analyzed more than 50 years of election results to see what it takes to win. Experts predict the victor will receive more than 1.1 million votes in November.

Source: Colorado Secretary of State

Color Wheel

The governor’s office has been mostly blue for nearly 50 years. Will it finally turn red in November? —Eric Sondermann

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During my decades of campaign management and consulting, now well in the past, I saw Colorado swing from a reliably red hue to, of late, what I regard as periwinkle blue. Although Republicans still regularly ran the state Legislature, and Republican presidential candidates could predictably bank Colorado’s electoral votes—that is, until recently—the governor’s office has been almost the exclusive province of Democrats for close to half a century.

The streak dates back to the watershed, post-Watergate election of 1974, when Dick Lamm, fresh off the campaign he led to say “no thanks” to hosting the Winter Olympics, won by ousting John David Vanderhoof, a Republican incumbent. Lamm served for 12 years and would be followed by Democrats Roy Romer (12 years), Bill Ritter (four years), and John Hickenlooper (closing out eight years). This blue string was interrupted only by Republican Bill Owens, who was elected in 1998 and served eight years.

Democratic dominance in the governor’s office is the result of an array of factors. During the past five decades, Democrats regularly have put forth the more compelling candidate and mostly avoided messy, contested primaries. Meanwhile, Republican nomination contests have often resembled spirited games of bumper cars. The mix of egos, ambitions, and warring factions of conservatism served more than once as a lead weight on the ability of the GOP nominee to appeal to the more centrist-minded, suburban independents who continue to determine elections in Colorado.

With this year’s race, we have free-for-all battles on both sides of the aisle. November remains plenty of news cycles in the future, but in a periwinkle blue state in what could be a navy blue year across the country, the Democratic winning streak for governor has every chance of being extended. So long as Democrats, in their anti-Trump rage, don’t decide to emulate the past mistakes of Republicans in their own nomination contests.

Quotes on What It Will Take to Win

“It’s important that we have a candidate that appeals to at least 50 percent—plus one.”

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—Jeff Hays, current Colorado Republican Party chair

“We need to go to every single county; I don’t care if you meet with [only] 12 people. In the end, because the race is so inundated, people vote for someone they have a personal connection with.”

—Pat Waak, former Colorado Democratic Party chair

“We’ve had Republicans who’ve failed in their campaigns for governor because they ran on the very narrow ideological campaigns that appeal to the hardcore conservatives in the primary, but that make them absolutely unelectable in the general election.”

—Dick Wadhams, former Colorado Republican Party chair

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“You need every vote you can get. You’ve got to put your attention on the Front Range, but I think it is suicide to simply ignore the Eastern Plains and the Western Slope.”

—John Straayer, professor of political science, CSU

The (New) Playbook

A look at the shifting rules of running for governor in Colorado. Eric Sondermann

Old Way: “Moderate” was a compliment and a sought-after descriptor for an aspiring politician in Colorado.

New Way: In our climate of intense political tribalism, the activism and passion in both parties is found closer to the ideological edges. Nominees may still tack toward the center come November. But mobilizing the base is imperative.

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Old Way: Precinct caucuses took place in your neighbor’s living room; state assemblies mattered in crowning some candidates and weeding out others; and ballots were cast by showing up at your nearby school or fire station.

New Way: Colorado’s caucus process grows ever more archaic and unpredictable. Some reporter is guaranteed to make reference to “the coveted top line” on the primary ballot, which candidates earn by winning out at state assemblies. But candidates and smart campaign managers increasingly recognize this as “old-think” (and not even particularly applicable in the first place) and are petitioning onto the primary ballot to avoid the risk exposure and brain damage caused by caucusing.

Old Way: Pueblo was a big deal for Democrats. Much of the Western Slope and Eastern Plains provided Republicans with their leg up.

New Way: Candidates will still trek to all corners of the state for the requisite photo ops. But when votes are tallied, these smaller enclaves, unfortunately, matter less and less. Show me who wins in Jefferson and Arapahoe counties, and I’ll show you Colorado’s next governor.

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