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Don't be fooled—Colorado is still purple. Photo by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash

Colorado Is Still a (Very) Purple State—At Least for Now

On Tuesday, voters elected Democratic candidates across the board, while striking down progressive ballot initiatives. What does this tell us about Colorado's current state of purple politics?

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“There’s no doubt it was a very huge blue wave,” says Dick Wadhams, former Colorado GOP Chair and current Republican campaign strategist. “I mean, Democrats ran the table in the statewide offices, they won the legislature, they defeated Mike Coffman—it doesn’t get any better than that for Democrats. But,” Wadhams adds, “I think it’s very significant those big-ticket tax increases that were on the ballot failed.”

That’s because, as Wadhams and other experts say, those failures are an indicator of the Centennial State’s enduring purple nature. Tuesday’s sweeping wins for Democrats notwithstanding (not to mention Colorado electing Democratic presidents for the past three consecutive elections), Wadhams believes statewide wins in 2020 and 2022 are not out of reach for strong Republican candidates. Read on to understand why.

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Polis and the Initiatives Indicator

“The purple side of Colorado shows up on ballot issues,” says Colorado College politics professor Tom Cronin, co-author of Colorado Politics and Policy: Governing a Purple State. Take those failed tax increases: Colorado voters were asked Tuesday to raise sales, income, and corporate taxes to fix our deteriorating roads and fund education, respectively. Voters defeated those measures handily. Yet, about 52 percent of Colorado voters supported Jared Polis for governor, the progressive, self-funded Democratic congressman from Boulder who ran on bold (and likely costly) proposals for major improvements to the state’s transportation infrastructure and education. In fact, voters chose Polis over Republican Walker Stapleton, the current state treasurer and a fiscal conservative.

It’s impossible to miss the irony in Coloradans voting down the kind of tax increases that are necessary to realize Polis’ progressive policies. So, what happens now? “Frankly, [Polis] never answered the media’s fundamental question: How are you going to pay for [education and transportation improvements]? He just shrugged that off and essentially got away with it, to be honest,” Wadhams says. “What’s he going to do now? Is he going to go to the ballot in 2019 and try to get tax increases passed? I hope so.”

If this year’s failed initiatives are any indication, seeking funding through a statewide ballot will prove tricky for Polis and Democrats.

The TABOR Treatment

Colorado is among the least tax-burdened states in the union, and voters consistently prove their intent to keep it that way.

In 1992, Coloradans approved the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR), a state constitutional amendment that limits how quickly the state’s tax revenue can grow (so booming economy ≠ swelling tax revenue), and requires any tax increases be approved by voters. With scant exception, Colorado voters have decided time and again not to approve new or higher taxes.

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John Straayer, a retired Colorado State University politics professor of more than 50 years and co-author of State of Change: Colorado Politics in the Twenty-First Century, thinks there are a few actors to blame—or thank, depending how you look at it—for maintaining and enhancing the anti-tax aspect of Colorado’s political landscape.

“We’ve got in this state—and have had for a long time and it keeps seeming to get more robust—an anti-tax, anti-government industry,” Straayer says. “I call it an industry; you’ve got the [Libertarian-leaning think tank] Independence Institute with [Jon] Caldera. Of course, you have [anti-tax nonprofit] Compass Colorado. You’ve got [another anti-tax political nonprofit] Americans for Prosperity. The rhetorical advantage is always on their side.”

What Straayer means is that it’s easier and takes less time to tell voters, ‘Don’t give your money to the bureaucrats in Denver’ or ‘Don’t trust the politicians with your money,’ but explaining (and understanding), say, the case for the complex structure of just-failed Amendment 73, or the squeezing effect of TABOR on Colorado’s budget, takes substantially more time and energy. The latter asks more of the voters they hope to win over—it doesn’t quite fit on a bumper sticker.

The Unaffiliated Question

Colorado has among the highest percentage of unaffiliated voters in the country, and they showed up for the midterms. According to numbers released from the Secretary of State’s Office on Wednesday, independents returned more ballots than both Democrats and Republicans. Conventional wisdom says that to win Colorado, you have to win this mysterious voting bloc, which recently has trended more blue than red. But it’s hard to say why or if the blue hue will stick. Generally speaking, we don’t have a great understanding of who Colorado’s unaffiliated voters are.

“‘Unaffiliated’ is an umbrella under which you have all kinds of people,” Cronin says. “It’s hard to generalize about who they are.”

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A Low (and Slow) Tide

Until about the last 10 years, Straayer says, Colorado Republicans have held onto a solid advantage in down-ballot state races and in the state legislature.

“For more than 40 years, with only eight years exception with Bill Owens [1999–2007], we’ve had Democratic governors,” Straayer says. “But most of that time we’ve had Republicans in the down-ballot races [like secretary of state and state treasurer], and often holding either one or both houses of legislature.”

That changed Tuesday night, with Democrats sweeping up every statewide office, and flipping the Senate. “I think that [Tuesday’s results] were just one more increment in the trend that has been underway now for at least a couple decades, and that’s a slow but sure move away from Republican dominance. I wouldn’t call it Democratic dominance yet, but it’s moving in the Democrats’ direction bit by bit. One election cycle after another.”

While Straayer sees a slow and steady move from red to blue via who holds public office, that’s less evident in Coloradans’ party affiliations.

“If Colorado was a decidedly blue state, our [voter] registration rates would have changed,” Cronin says. “Over the past 30 years, I’ve been tracking them pretty consistently since 1990, and I think you’ll find within the margin of statistical error, there’s been no change. It’s been one third, one third, one third, for more than 30 years. There has not been a surge of people of who say, ‘I’m a Democrat, I’m gonna register Democrat.’ That differentiates us from states that are really blue.”

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There has recently been a small increase in registered Democrats and unaffiliated voters, who were able to vote in the 2018 primary for the first time, thanks to passage of Proposition 108 in 2016. But then again, there’s also been President Donald Trump.

“Not every election is going to be a Trump election. Not every election is going to be a Kavanaugh election. Not every election is going to be in the context of the #MeToo movement,” Straayer says. “So, we program all those factors in and then try to come to some conclusion about the direction of the state. For me, all the suggestions are be a little bit cautious and hedge your [prediction] comments.”

Republicans have a hard road ahead of them, there’s no doubt about that. But unlike in reliably blue states like California, New York, or Massachusetts, they still have a road.

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