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Jared Polis and Dianne Primavera celebrate at the Colorado Democrats election night party on Tuesday, November 6 in Denver. Photo by Lisa Wirthman

A Blue Wave Crashes Into Colorado in the 2018 Midterms

Colorado Democrats had a lot to celebrate on Tuesday night, as the party swept every statewide race, picked up a congressional seat, and flipped the state Senate. But the shift wouldn't have been possible without a swell of support from young, independent, and female voters.

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It appears Jared Polis’ campaign of inclusiveness and progressive ideas resonated with Centennial State voters. On Tuesday night, the Democrat won his race to become Colorado’s next governor by a wide margin.

As the first strains of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin” warbled through a packed ballroom at the Westin Denver Downtown on Tuesday night, the crowd erupted in thunderous cheers. Moments later, Polis took the stage with newly elected Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera, holding hands raised in victory. Family members lined up behind them, including Polis’ partner of 16 years, Marlon Reis, and his children, Caspian (7) and Cora (4). “As your governor, I pledge to serve all Coloradans, no matter your party—no matter where you live, no matter your race, or no matter your gender, we are all in this together,” Polis said.

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He offered kind words for nominee Walker Stapleton, thanking him for eight years of service as state treasurer and “for giving his precious time to add to the discussion and dialogue about ideas to make our state even better.”

Polis also gave hints on how he will start to implement a bold progressive agenda, saying he already spoke with State Republican Rep. Jim Wilson of Salida to discuss the first stages of creating bipartisan support for free, full-day kindergarten. “We want to make sure every child—regardless of the zip code they grow up in—has a great education beginning with full-day kindergarten,” he said.

Polis was just the first of many victory speeches made on the stage on Tuesday night. In addition to sweeping every statewide race—from governor to attorney general and secretary of state—Democrats also picked up a seat in the highly contested 6th congressional district, which has been held by Republicans since its creation in 1983, flipped the state Senate, and expanded their majority in the state House. But the so-called “blue wave” wouldn’t have been possible without a swell of young, independent, and female voters, all of whom helped carry the Democrats to victory.

Updated numbers released on November 7 showed that unaffiliated voters, who now make up 38 percent of all registered voters in Colorado, returned more ballots than either Democrats or Republicans—a historical first for the Centennial State (the numbers, of course, are not finalized quite yet). Younger voters ages 18 to 34 also had a large voice in the 2018 election, accounting for about a fifth of the vote, according to data from polling firm Magellan Strategies.

Just as notable is who did not show up in high numbers: Republicans. Conservative-leaning voters historically have the strongest turnout in Colorado’s midterm elections, according to David Flaherty, CEO of Magellan Strategies. “The collapse of the historical Republican advantage is a big part of this story,” Flaherty said. “The surge in unaffiliated voter registration at the expense of Republican voter registration that has been going on for the last six years has been somewhat predicting this point.”

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Across the state, Democrats ran grassroots campaigns that focused on issues like healthcare and education over personalities, rejecting dark money and divisiveness from Washington, and championing diversity and inclusiveness. Democrats also harnessed the power of some 4,000 statewide volunteers who began signing up last year and fielded candidates in every seat across 64 counties, said Morgan Carroll, chairwoman of the Colorado Democratic Party.

“People care about the issues even more than they care about their candidates or their party,” said Carroll in an interview with 5280 on Tuesday night. “The divisiveness has been so poisonous that people are looking for leaders that are willing to be inclusive and actually focus on making life better for people.”

This inclusivity enabled the party to make history in 2018, including electing Polis as the first gay governor in both Colorado and the nation; Joe Neguse as the state’s first black congressperson; and Jena Griswold as the first Democratic woman as secretary of state.

“In Colorado, we proved that no barrier should stand in the way of pursuing our dreams. We proved that we are an inclusive state that values every contribution regardless of someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity,” Polis said on Tuesday night, crediting the work of LGBTQ pioneers who fought for civil rights and equality. Polis turned to thank and hug his partner, Reis, calling him “The first First Man in the history of Colorado.”

While the Centennial State has never had a female governor, we do have one of the nation’s highest percentages of women in the state legislature. That claim was bolstered on Tuesday night, driven in part by Democratic women, who made up the largest voting group in this year’s election. In the General Assembly, the House will have a female majority, while key races won by women also helped flip the Senate to Democratic control.

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It’s Democratic women who will drive the state’s priorities in the upcoming legislative session. State Rep. Faith Winter, who secured a seat in the Senate’s District 24, told 5280 that paid family leave will be a top issue for her, along with affordable housing and climate change. “Taking back the Senate means hard-working families actually have folks sitting down there who are trying to give them a fair shot to get ahead,” she said.

Democrats will have plenty of work ahead of them to accomplish their progressive campaign goals in a state’s still considered purple. But Polis, who is a tech-industry entrepreneur who campaigned as a political disruptor and problem solver, embraces the opportunity. “In Colorado, we dream, we dare, and we do,” he told the crowd on Tuesday. “Whether it’s embracing good ideas or hiking our amazing mountains, we don’t back down when something is challenging. We see problems as opportunities for our state of Colorado.”

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