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What We’re Watching in the Colorado Midterms

There’s a lot at stake in the 2018 midterms, which is already the most expensive election in Colorado history. Here are eight key storylines we’ll be watching.

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It’s been a contentious and expensive election season—more than $60 million has been dropped to fund candidates and ballot measures—but now the countdown is on. Here are some of the big stories we’ll be keeping our eyes on. Check back on Wednesday for more results and analysis on the 2018 midterms. And don’t forget to vote! 

(Check out 5280′s comprehensive guide to the 2018 election)

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Who will be Colorado’s next governor?

Two polls released late last week showed that Democrat Jared Polis was still leading Republican Walker Stapleton—by 5 percent and 8 percent, respectively—with less than a week to go in the race. Polis is also holding onto double-digits leads among key demographic groups, including women, unaffiliated voters, and young voters. This may sound like good news for the Democratic nominee, but after 2016, we can’t help but be skeptical of predictive polling. In fact, the latest releases show that the race is tightening. Last week’s poll findings from Magellan Strategies, a Republican-leaning polling company, was within the margin of error.  

All that to say: It ain’t over yet.

Will Mike Coffman be unseated?

Rep. Mike Coffman is facing his strongest challenger yet—wait, have you heard that before? (We’ve said it before.) Ever since Colorado’s 6th Congressional District was redrawn after the 2010 Census, drastically shifting the area’s demographics, Coffman’s seat has been perpetually “up for grabs.” Yet, the Republican representative and military veteran has managed to hold onto his seat for 10 years. That’s no small feat, especially considering that the district voted for President Barack Obama in 2012 and Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Will this year prove different? If you believe the polls (and as we already mentioned, we’re skeptical), then Coffman might really be in trouble. His opponent, Democrat Jason Crow, is also a military veteran, and is campaigning for change in the Trump era in a district that has never gone blue. The National Republican Congressional Committee pulled its financial support from Coffman in mid-October. More than $23 million has already been spent, making it the state’s most expensive congressional contest.

The importance of this race goes beyond Colorado. If the 6th is flipped, it could mean the difference between the Republicans holding control of the House or losing it to the Democrats. Plus, it could signal a shift in the district’s voting bloc that could have repercussions for years or even decades. No matter what, this is a race you should watch.

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Will voter-turnout top previous midterms?

Did you know that Colorado has one of the highest voter turnout rates in the U.S.? According to Colorado Public Radio—if you haven’t caught their new political podcast, Purplish, check it out!—70 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot in 2016. While turnout is often lower during the midterms, Colorado was still one of the top three states for voter participation in 2014, according to the Center for American Progress. Our high voting rates are likely due to our voting laws, which are some of the most progressive (and inclusive) in the country.

It’s still too soon to determine if voter turnout will be up in 2018 from previous midterm cycles. So far, according to data from the Secretary of State’s office released on Monday morning, more than 47 percent of total ballots have been submitted (54.7 percent of eligible voters returned ballots in 2014). Democrats and Republicans are neck-and-neck with their returns (34.3 and 34 percent, respectively), while unaffiliated voters make up 30.4 percent of the returned ballots thus far. 

And how will unaffiliated voters shift the results?

Independent voters are the dark horse in this election. Here in Colorado, more than one-third of eligible voters are unaffiliated with a major political party. While these voters were once relegated to only casting a ballot in general elections, the 2016 passage of Proposition 108 means more than 290,000 independents voted in a primary for the first time in 2018.

How will this voting bloc affect the outcome of Tuesday’s election? If the early returns are any indication, independents are making their presence known. According to the Colorado Sun, unaffiliated voters have outpaced their returns from the previous midterm—by more than 107,000 ballots. By comparison, Democrats have also returned more ballots than at this point in the 2014 midterms, while Republicans are lagging. What remains to be seen is whether the increase in ballot returns for unaffiliated voters reflects an increase in voters registered as independents, or whether unaffiliated voters are returning their ballots at a higher rate.

Will the Colorado Senate flip?

With Democrats on track to hold the Colorado House of Representatives, all eyes are turned to the state Senate, where Dems only need to flip one seat to regain control. It all comes down to five races—Districts 5, 22, and 20 are currently held by Democrats, while 16 and 24 are held by Republicans. Interestingly enough, the Democratic nominees for each of these races are all women—Sen. Kerry Donovan (5), Rep. Brittany Pettersen (22), Rep. Jessie Danielson (20), Tammy Story (16), and Rep. Faith Winter (24).

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And of course, if Jared Polis is elected governor, the Democrats will control the coveted trifecta of state government for the first time since 2014. This would be a big deal. According to reporting by the Denver Post, Senate President Kevin Grantham (R-Cañon City) said he has kept a list of 33 bills that were passed by the Democratic-controlled House and struck down by the Republican-controlled Senate since 2016, including those that have to do with paid parental and sick leave, oil and gas setbacks, affordable housing, and the red-flag bill, among many others.

The money alone shows you how much is at stake—according to the Colorado Sun, spending on Colorado Senate races this year is five times higher than 2016.

How will the oil and gas industry fare?

Some of the most contentious initiatives on the ballot are tied up in the oil and gas industry. Proposition 112 would ban oil and gas developments within 2,500 feet of structures intended for human occupancy, and Amendment 74 would require state and local governments to compensate private property owners if their laws or regulations reduced the “fair market value” of the owners’ property. Spending from the oil and gas industry to oppose 112 and support 74 have topped at least $38.2 million, according to the Durango Herald. Still, a poll released on October 22 by the University of Colorado’s American Politics Research Lab found that 52 percent of voters supported 112 and 63 percent supported 74 (but you know how we feel about polls).    

Supporters of 112 point to a local 2012 study that found that oil and gas developments “may contribute to acute and chronic health problems for those living near natural gas drilling sites.” There are also concerns about how excessive drilling would affect climate change and the state’s outdoor recreation industry. But it’s complicated. The oil and gas industry contributes $31 billion to Colorado’s economy and accounts for more than 232,000 jobs, which mean there’s a whole lot at stake on this issue. Gov. John Hickenlooper even announced last week that he would consider calling a special legislative session if 112 passes, in order to “minimize the unintended collateral damage,” signalling that this battle won’t end after the polls are closed.

Will Colorado (and local counties) fund education initiatives?

Amendment 73 would write a progressive tax into the state constitution in order to fund P-12 education—in other words, this initiative is a big deal. Specifically, 73 would rely on a complicated mix of tax increases, including raising income taxes for those earning more than $150,000 per year, increasing the corporate tax income rate, decreasing residential property tax assessment rate, and decreasing the assessment rate for most nonresidential properties.

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Depending on the county you live in, you’re also likely to see local ballot measures to increase funding for education. In Jefferson County, ballot questions 5A and 5B ask residents to agree to increases in property taxes to support higher salaries for teachers and school staff, and improve conditions of school properties. The county’s previous education initiative failed in 2016. A similar education measure is on the ballot in Douglas County (also under 5A and 5B). The county hasn’t passed a school bond measure since 2006, according to Denver7, and this measure would raise $300 million to fix crumbling school infrastructure.

What happens if both transportation initiatives pass?

This has been on our minds since we saw the final ballot initiatives. Amy Ford, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Transportation, told 9News that if both Propositions 109 and 110 pass, that’s a good problem to have. “The project list that comes off of (Proposition) 109, parts of it absolutely will flow right into the projects that were also in (Proposition) 110. They overlap a significant amount,” Ford told 9News. “The projects that people see on both of those lists, a lot of it, if not all of it, would get built.”

However, Carla Perez, policy director for Let’s Go Colorado, the group supporting Proposition 110, had a different perspective, and told 9News that a court might have to iron out the details between the two proposals.

In any case, as Jon Caldara—the author behind 109—says: “I’m more concerned with what could happen if neither passes.”

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