A panel of policy and political experts unpacked the results of Colorado’s Nov. 6 midterm election at last week’s First Friday Breakfast hosted by the School of Public Affairs (SPA) at CU Denver.
Paul Teske, PhD, dean of SPA, welcomed a packed house and moderated a lively discussion to answer the questions: Who and what did we just vote for? And what does the midterm mean for Colorado and the United States?
- Joey Bunch, senior political correspondent and deputy managing editor, ColoradoPolitics.com
- Nic Garcia, political reporter, The Denver Post
- D – Dusti Gurule, executive director, Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights
- R – Krista Kafer, political analyst, columnist at The Denver Post, commentator on PBS program Colorado Inside/Out, commentator on KHOW radio
Paul Teske, PhD, dean, School of Public Affairs
A referendum on Trump? Yes, say panelists
National midterm elections historically serve as a referendum on the president, especially for a president’s first term, according to Teske. The panel agreed that it holds true for 2018, both nationally and locally.
“Trump wanted the election to be a referendum on Trump,” said Garcia.
“Antipathy for President Trump is particularly strong in this state, whether you are a Republican like myself or a Democrat,” said Kafer, who blames Trump for what she called a “Blue Tsunami” in Colorado’s midterm. She theorized that dislike of Trump influenced Colorado Republicans to sit out the midterm while energizing Colorado Democrats to hit the polls.
She characterized the national election as a “Blue Mist” that fell short of the anticipated “Blue Wave.” The party in the White House lost fewer Congressional seats in 2018 compared to past midterms held during presidential first terms.
Panelists agreed that the Democratic wave hurt moderate Republicans in Colorado, citing defeats for Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams, U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman and Colorado Attorney General candidate George Brauchler. Bunch said their defeat reflects polarization in the United States; moderate legislators are casualties of voting the party ticket instead of voting for individual candidates.
Beyond a referendum
While the Trump factor was strong, it wasn’t the only force behind Colorado’s Democratic sweep. Population growth, an increase in young, unaffiliated voters and major demographic shifts are shaping elections.
“Policies impact people,” said Gurule. She believes that Colorado voters were intentional in electing democrats in reaction to “horrible” Republican policies that disproportionately impact low-income communities, communities of color and everyday people.
Jared Polis elected Colorado’s next governor
“Jared Polis won, and he won easily,” said Teske. “He’s openly gay, Jewish, Boulder-liberal. He’s a very smart, interesting guy, yet he doesn’t have the charisma of someone like Beto O’Rourke. Polis wins by a wide margin, and in Colorado, that’s kind of unremarkable.”
While Polis made history as the first openly gay governor elected in the United States, that wasn’t an issue for Colorado voters.
“There’s not a gay way to govern. There’s not a straight way to govern,” said Kafer. “I’m glad that sexual identity was not a factor in the election. Ideas should be the factor – character and ideas. Not skin tone or gender or sexual identity.”
There’s been much debate about whether Colorado is Red, Blue, Purple or even Periwinkle. Colorado’s fiscally conservative voters rejected statewide tax increases, which means the state did not suddenly turn Blue.
The panel’s consensus: Colorado is a Swing State
“I don’t think that’s going to make it,” said Teske, on Periwinkle’s prospects.
Debate of ideas
Kafer’s opinion on Polis’s ideas: “He is too liberal for Colorado.”
“Colorado Republicans lost the idea debate,” said Garcia. “Walker Stapleton brought no ideas to the table. If you’re just ‘the party of No,’ that’s not gonna fly in Colorado. Voters want lawmakers to optimize our tax dollars.”
Polis filled the “idea vacuum.” Voters were able to latch on to his progressive platform. Yet the panelists postulated that many of Polis’s campaign promises face insurmountable funding hurdles, compounded by TABOR, and are likely to go unfulfilled.
“Polis bought a lot of ideas to the table like universal healthcare and preschool and full-day kindergarten. Too bad none of them are attainable,” said Bunch.
What’s next for Colorado GOP?
What is the Republican message to Colorado voters following the midterms?
“The Republicans need to message something – anything – to voters to give the party any viability in Colorado in the future,” said Garcia, especially unaffiliated voters ages 18-34 who set new voter turnout records. “That is something the Colorado GOP can’t ignore.”
“It’s important we focus on communication and communicate with grace. Republicans can get out the vote if they humanize their message,” said Kafer, who believes that Trump’s rhetoric is harming the party and turning off women voters, in particular.
Women, diversity and rhetoric
Panelists noted that the U.S. Congress gained women and gained in diversity.
“The Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings shined a light on need for both state and local checks and balances. This is a reason why more women are getting engaged and why we see more diversity among women running for office,” said Gurule.