Colorado’s top offices go blue

Midterm voters elected Jared Polis, the nation’s first openly gay governor.


This article was originally published by The Colorado Independent and is reproduced here with permission.

Newly elected Governor Jared Polis and his running mate, Dianne Primavera, ran a “bold progressive” campaign, promising free, high-quality universal all-day kindergarten, and preschool and to get Colorado on a 100 percent renewable electricity grid by 2040.
Rick T. Wilking/Getty Images

Stepping onto a stage to the soundtrack of Bob Dylan’s seminal 1960s protest song “The times they are a changin’,” Jared Polis claimed victory in the governor’s race, becoming the state’s first gay and first Jewish governor, pledging to represent all Coloradans regardless of race, gender, party or geography. 

“Tonight right here in Colorado we proved that no barrier should stand in the way of pursuing our dreams,” he said. “We proved that we’re an inclusive state that values every contribution regardless of someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity.”

In another first for Colorado, Joe Neguse became the first black Congressman to represent the state, winning the seat Polis is leaving. “We are all in this together,” Polis said, adding that he hoped to build on the progress, growth and problem-solving administration of outgoing Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper who stood behind him. Earlier today Polis said he spoke to a Republican lawmaker in Salida about working on the first stages of his plan for implementing free, full-day kindergarten in the state, a top campaign pledge.

Out in the crowd, Michaela Icenogle, a 33-year-old trans woman in Denver, called this year’s midterm elections the most important of her lifetime. It also marked the first time the unaffiliated voter ever got involved in political campaigning following the election of President Donald Trump.

“The forces of civilization versus the forces of tribalism and barbarism are brought in pretty sharp relief,” she said. “I’m a trans woman and the other side is pretty much trying to erase people like me.”

Icenogle was one of Colorado’s unaffiliated voters who helped propel Polis over his Republican rival. By 8 p.m on Election Night, 761,124 unaffiliated voters had cast a ballot— a stunning number that counted 10,000 more votes than registered Republicans.

On the stage in a hotel ballroom in downtown Denver, Polis introduced his partner, Marlon Reis, as the “first First Man” of Colorado. 

Christopher Nicholson of Denver, also in the crowd, said he could not fathom that a gay man could have been governor when he came out himself 15 years ago. “To be the state of saying that gay men are worthy of higher elected office for the first time tells every gay kid in the country they belong,” Nicholson said. 

Colorado voters have only elected one Republican to the governorship in the past four decades.

Throughout a generally mild governor’s race, the question was whether voters here might reverse course and choose State Treasurer Walker Stapleton over Polis, a congressman from Boulder, beating back a tide of state demographic shifts and voter trends in an election viewed largely as a referendum on a polarizing president who is underwater with voters in this state.

That clearly was not the case. 

For the first time in 30 years, registered active Democrats in 2016 overtook registered active Republicans in Colorado. Just last month, Democrats registered double the amount of new voters than their GOP counterparts. Early ballot return data at 2:30 p.m. on Election Day showed Democrats had turned in 10,000 more ballots than Republicans. 

Meanwhile, the state’s 1.2 million unaffiliated voters were turning out in larger numbers than ever before this midterm election cycle and data from the June primaries showed them leaning left.

But Polis, the wealthy tech entrepreneur from Boulder, is viewed by some in both parties as being something of a departure from the kind of Democratic nominee of years past. Outgoing Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, a former petroleum geologist, was for most of his time in office more of a pro-business technocrat and a friend to oil-and-gas interests. Govs. Dick Lamm and Bill Ritter weren’t wide-eyed liberals, either.

Under a Polis administration, a question will be from which ideological reservoir he channels his political capital to try and shape Colorado. In the Democratic primary, he ran as a “bold progressive,” though for years he has flashed a libertarian streak, championing blockchain technology and sitting with the House Liberty Caucus, for instance, or proposing to privatize the postal service. As a general election candidate, he styled himself a pragmatic moderate who would work with people of all political stripes. 

Along the campaign trail, he promised free, high-quality universal all-day kindergarten and preschool and to get Colorado on a 100 percent renewable electricity grid by 2040. He said he wanted to make this state ground zero for companies who offer ownership stakes in their business to employees. He wants a passenger train from Pueblo to Fort Collins.

Those are concrete pledges for which voters can hold him accountable over the next four to eight years. Harder to measure will be his success in transitioning the state to renewable energy, a plan with a timetable that extends far beyond his time in office.

How healthcare might look in Colorado under a Polis administration also remains a looming question. Throughout his campaign, he pitched everything from a multi-state compact single-payer solution to a statewide pricing zone for insurers to bundling Medicaid payments and importing drugs from Canada.

On education, Polis said his plans might take a ballot measure or he could find the money within the state budget. Would Coloradans see a push for higher taxes or a question on a future ballot to untangle the state’s so-called fiscal thicket of constitutional amendments like the interplay between the revenue-limiting Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights and the property-tax-limiting Gallagher amendment?

Tonight’s election results were not a stunner. Polis had been polling consistently above Stapleton in surveys throughout the general election in a race that harnessed national trends and issues but little national attention.

Donald Trump, the most controversial president in at least a generation, loomed large over the contest in a state that was both an early hotbed of the #NeverTrump movement and a flashpoint for #TheResistance.

Still, like the rest of the country, Colorado was deeply divided.

As reported, one mid-October poll by the respected right-leaning Colorado-based firm Magellan Strategies found “a partisan chasm on Trump in Colorado as profound as any statistically significant survey has reported since he was elected.” In response to the question, “Do you approve or disapprove of the job Donald Trump is doing as President?”, 96 percent of Colorado Republicans polled said they approved and only 2 percent of Democrats said the same.

Demographic shifts and voting behavior favored Democrats even before the 2016 election in which Hillary Clinton won Colorado by 5 percentage points. In June, when 270,000 unaffiliated voters participated in the party primaries for the first time, 63 percent of them chose a Democratic ballot, according to data from the secretary of state.

Democrats here had predicted a national blue wave would crash over the Rockies, sweeping party members into office up and down the ballot in a backlash to the Trump administration and a party that embraced him.

Republicans, who privately worried about the same, however, believed they might have an opening to best the Democratic nominee at the top of the ticket. They decided to use portions of Polis’s history and background to portray him as radical and anti-business — a departure from John Hickenlooper, the moderate technocrat who is term-limited and now contemplating a run for president. Stapleton spent much of the campaign casting Polis as too “radical” and “extreme” for Colorado. In the general election, Polis played it safe, looking more and more moderate in each new debate or interview. 

In a concession speech at a hotel in Lone Tree, Stapleton said he had endured a tough campaign, but “now is the time for all of us to come together as Coloradans.” He pledged he would keep fighting and serving the state “because we must have better roads and infrastructure, we must protect our energy industry and the jobs that it brings. We must have better schools and we must have better health care.”

Stapleton had been forced to run far to the right to win his four-way GOP primary by embracing Trump and the Trump-of-Colorado Tom Tancredo while railing against so-called sanctuary cities and saying people on the “government dole” should be randomly drug tested. But in the final days of the general election, he pressed his case as someone who has close relationships with the state’s top Democrats, including Hickenlooper, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and former State Sen. Mike Johnston, who came in third in the Democratic primary.

“I have all of their cellphone numbers readily available,” Stapleton said in a TV interview in the waning days of the race. In a nod to the middle, Stapleton had chosen Denver-area lawmaker Lang Sias, a lawyer, former Navy pilot and one-time Democrat who, like Stapleton, is from Connecticut.

Supporters celebrate at the Jared Polis midterm election night party in Denver, Colorado.
Evan Semón

Polis, for his part, focused his campaign messages on reducing healthcare costs and funding full-day kindergarten, though his specifics for both meandered throughout the campaign. On education, he said his plans might take a ballot measure or he could find the money within the state budget. He declined to take a position on the tax-hiking Amendment 73 ballot measure to pay for education, or on a tax hike to fund transportation. He said he wants to get Colorado on a 100 percent renewable energy grid by 2040, but wouldn’t require any mandates to get there. He chose former lawmaker Dianne Primavera, a breast cancer survivor with a legislative record of battling health insurers, as his running mate.

Since as far back as last December, voters on the campaign trail were asking Polis how he would pay for his big ideas, and Stapleton repeatedly insisted during the debates Polis give specific answers that he often dodged.

In the first wide-open Democratic primary in as long as some Coloradans can remember, Polis made it through the gauntlet of top contenders including Johnston, former State Treasurer Cary Kennedy and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne.

With two women in the primary, some Democrats believed this year, bolstered by the winds of the #MeToo movement, might be the one in which Colorado elected its first female governor. Some voters even said they were voting for a woman on the XY chromosome issue alone.

“With all due respect to our gender, it’s time we had some women leaders,” said a semi-retired human services consultant named Richard Babcock on the floor of a Democratic county assembly in April. “I think,” said Democratic Party delegate David Venable that same day, “testosterone is the most dangerous chemical.”

In the end, Polis, who big-footed Congressman Ed Perlmutter out of the race, bested Kennedy and Lynne, along with Johnston in the June primary, pouring more than $12 million of his own money into the effort and coming armed with a broad base of Democratic support from his congressional district and high name-identification among voters. His record as a wildly successful entrepreneur who created schools for homeless and immigrant youth and spoke out strongly about the effects of climate change, resonated with a party that had gone big for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 caucuses even though Polis been a superdelegate for Clinton.

On the Republican side, GOP voters who railed against government debt and spending during the administration of President Barack Obama brushed away those concerns in the era of Trump and were largely consumed by immigration.

Polling during the primary race found enforcing immigration laws was a top issue for 43 percent of Republican voters in Colorado, a stat backed up conversation after conversation in convention halls, rallies and meet-and-greets. Ending so-called sanctuary cities became an obligatory campaign plank for the large crop of gubernatorial hopefuls that at one time crested double digits and briefly included immigration hardliner Tancredo, who rounded out his third run for Colorado governor.

After the culling fields of the April state assembly, the GOP primary winnowed down to investment banker and Mitt Romney nephew Doug Robinson, businessman and former lawmaker Victor Mitchell, ex-Parker Mayor Greg Lopez and Stapleton. In June, Stapleton bested them all handily with the help of Tancredo at the state assembly, consolidating establishment support and those on the far right.

In the general election, Stapleton pitched himself as a budget hawk and a “numbers guy.” He didn’t come out with big policy proposals or a one-two-three kind of platform, instead casting himself as the alternative to a candidate he warned would raise taxes, bust budgets, and might sign bills that would hurt the oil-and-gas industry.

In one debate, Stapleton threw haymakers at Polis over a 1999 police report that alleged Polis pushed a former employee who was stealing documents from his office while she hit him with a bag. (Police determined Polis was the victim in the incident.) “He doesn’t view pushing a woman as doing anything wrong, and I do,” Stapleton said in the debate, as Polis said, “I think it’s completely inappropriate for you to politicize me being the victim of a crime.”

From the beginning, Stapleton ran on a full-throated defense of the oil-and-gas industry, saying he would protect it from Democrats like Polis. In one debate, he even called on the industry to pump his campaign with cash so he could better compete with his well-funded opponent. The industry, however, did not put its massive resources behind savaging Polis during the campaign, instead focusing its money and activism on defeating a ballot measure that would require drilling rigs be 2,500 feet from houses or vulnerable areas — a measure both Polis and Stapleton opposed.

The gubernatorial campaign in Colorado was one of breaking records.

Never had so much money been spent on a governor’s race in Colorado. Polis, one of the wealthiest members of Congress who made his millions starting and selling Internet companies since he was in college, spent more than $23 million of his own money since he launched his bid last October. Stapleton put about $1 million of his own money in the race, too, but outside spending on his behalf picked up much of the slack.

Meanwhile, both candidates broke from long-standing tradition by refusing to release their tax returns, each saying they would show voters their income only if the other did.

The final days of the campaign, the two candidates crisscrossed the state making their closing arguments.

In Pueblo, Stapleton ripped Polis as “a radical, extreme departure from Hickenlooper.” At a campaign stop in Greeley, he criticized Prop. 112, a ballot measure to limit fracking, and reminded gas-patch voters of Polis’s previous support for setbacks even though Polis also opposes Prop. 112. In Grand Junction, Stapleton’s message to voters was this: “My 10-year-old, he said, ‘Dad, tonight on Halloween, I’m going to get five pounds of candy’ … What I didn’t tell him was Dad was confiscating 4.9 pounds and redistributing it in true Jared Polis style.” That evening, the candidate settled in back at home and held a telephone town hall, taking questions from callers. In the final days on the campaign trail, Stapleton was holding out hope for “a silent majority of Coloradans who understand what’s at stake, from health care to energy to education in this election.” His running mate, Sias, told a Republican crowd in Colorado Springs on the eve of the election that Democrats he knew had been quietly telling him they were voting for Stapleton. “There are a lot of Democratic votes out there for Walker,” he told them. 

There was no silent majority of Stapleton voters. If there were “a lot” of Democrats who voted for him there were certainly not enough.

In the past few days, the Democratic ticket chartered a large blue bus across Colorado stopping to give brief stump speeches and urge those who hadn’t yet cast their ballots to do so and tell their friends.

“I think what we’ve all learned in the last few years is we cannot afford to sit on the sidelines,” Polis told a crowd of about 50 at the Relevant Word Christian Cultural Center in Colorado Springs on Friday. “And see our nation move backward rather than forward. Backward towards a more divisive past and backward towards a rhetoric and feelings that we thought and we hoped that we had left behind.”

Corey Hutchins is a journalist in Colorado, and Columbia Journalism Review’s Rocky Mountain contributor for the United States Project.

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