Five down-ballot races to watch on election night in Colorado

Democrats look to expand legislative majorities, push into traditional GOP territory

Megan Boyd returns a ballot at a drop box outside the Denver Botanic Gardens on Nov. 1, 2020. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)

With just hours remaining for Colorado voters to return their ballots in the 2020 election, there’s little suspense about who will prevail in the two biggest statewide races.

Another round of polls released early this week showed that Democratic former Vice President Joe Biden continues to be the overwhelming favorite to capture Colorado’s nine electoral votes on Tuesday, with former Gov. John Hickenlooper also enjoying a big polling lead over incumbent GOP Sen. Cory Gardner in a crucial U.S. Senate race. That’s roughly what observers have long predicted in increasingly blue Colorado, and Republican hopes of pulling off a shocking upset have grown even dimmer as Democrats and unaffiliated voters have racked up a sizable advantage in early ballot returns.

But away from the top of the ticket, there’s still plenty of intrigue heading into Election Night in Colorado — and not only in the 3rd Congressional District, where the contest between right-wing activist Lauren Boebert and former state lawmaker Diane Mitsch Bush has become a battleground in Democrats’ efforts to expand their House majority. At the state and local level, too, the outcomes of several key races could carry significant policy implications and offer clues about Colorado’s political future.

Here are five down-ballot races to keep an eye on as results begin to roll in on Tuesday night:

25th Senate District

Republican state Sen. Kevin Priola, from Colorado’s 25th District.

After flipping the Colorado Senate in 2018, Democrats are intent on growing their majority this year, and one of their top targets is incumbent GOP Sen. Kevin Priola, whom voters in Adams County’s 25th Senate District narrowly elected over a Democratic incumbent in 2016.

Priola, who had previously served four terms as a state representative, has earned a reputation for bipartisanship at the state Capitol, backing Democratic proposals on clean energy, fiscal reforms, death-penalty abolition and more. But his district represents a prime pickup opportunity for Democrats, whose path to near-total control of state government has run straight through suburban districts like the 25th. Adams County teacher Paula Dickerson is Democrats’ choice to unseat Priola.

The SD 25 race has become the most expensive legislative campaign of the 2020 cycle, with both sides spending over $1 million to contest the seat. Priola’s hopes for reelection hinge on how much split-ticket support he can earn from Democratic voters in a district that backed Hillary Clinton by a big margin in 2016.

8th Senate District

Another test for Democrats hoping to consolidate power at the Capitol comes in the 8th Senate District on the Western Slope, where liberal groups have spent heavily against incumbent Republican Sen. Bob Rankin, who was appointed in 2019 by a GOP vacancy committee to a seat that the party won by a 51% to 44% margin four years ago.

Rankin’s challenger is water attorney and rancher Karl Hanlon, who has benefited from more than $700,000 in outside expenditures from deep-pocketed Democratic super PACs, while Republican-aligned groups have spent nearly as much defending Rankin, a former state representative and a member of the legislature’s powerful Joint Budget Committee.

If Democrats were to defeat Priola and Rankin, and pick up a third GOP-held seat in the 27th Senate District, they would take a 22-13 majority in the upper chamber — a dramatic turnaround from just a few years ago, when Republicans’ one-seat majority formed a crucial bulwark against Democrats’ agenda. A Democratic victory in SD 8, which includes ski communities like Breckenridge and Steamboat Springs along with more conservative Western Slope towns like Craig and Rifle, would show that the party is gaining ground even outside of its new strongholds in suburban Denver.

47th House District

Bri Buentello
Democratic state Rep. Bri Buentello represents Colorado House District 47. She is running for reelection in 2020. (Courtesy of Bri Buentello campaign)

Democrats are virtually guaranteed to maintain control of the Colorado House of Representatives, where they hold a commanding 41-24 majority. But whether their advantage expands or shrinks will come down to a few key races, none of which is likely to be closer than Pueblo’s 47th House District, where incumbent Democrat Bri Buentello won by a mere 321 votes in 2018.

With well-funded GOP challenger Stephanie Luck hoping to retake the seat, the contest has become the most expensive House race of the 2020 cycle, and Democratic and bipartisan groups have spent more than $340,000 to support Buentello, who has assembled one of the Democratic caucus’ most conservative voting records during her term in office.

HD 47 includes parts of Pueblo, Fremont and Otero counties, and voters in the district backed Donald Trump over Clinton by 16 percentage points in the 2016 presidential race, driven by a surge of GOP support as Pueblo flipped from blue to red. Gov. Jared Polis also lost the district two years ago, though he narrowed the margin considerably amid a nationwide Democratic wave. Whether or not Buentello can hold on to her seat could depend on whether Pueblo’s 2020 electorate more closely resembles that of 2016 or 2018.

District Attorney, 18th Judicial District

Four years ago, Republican District Attorney George Brauchler ran for reelection unopposed in Colorado’s 18th Judicial District, home to more than a million people in Arapahoe, Douglas, Lincoln and Elbert counties. This time around, Brauchler is term-limited, and Democrats have made the DA’s race a top target amid renewed national interest in criminal-justice reform and antiracist activism.

Democratic nominee Amy Padden, a longtime prosecutor and former assistant U.S. attorney under the Obama administration, has emphasized a slew of reform proposals aimed at addressing systemic inequality in the 18th district, the largest and most racially diverse of the state’s 22 judicial districts. Her Republican opponent, John Kellner, is a Marine Corps veteran and Brauchler’s chief deputy, and has campaigned on a promise to prioritize tackling “rising violent crime.”

Registered Republicans still outnumber Democrats in the 18th Judicial District, but not by nearly as much as they used to — and unaffiliated voters are the largest group of all, having nearly doubled their numbers since 2012, when Brauchler was elected with a 52% majority. In addition to shaping the future of law enforcement for more than 1 in 6 Coloradans, the race could indicate whether or not the relatively affluent, white suburban voters who have driven the state’s recent blue wave are still receptive to the GOP’s law-and-order message.

Voter Guide

Douglas County Commissioner District 3

How far into Republican territory can Democrats’ surging support among suburban voters take them? The answer could determine the outcome of two county commissioner races in deep-red Douglas County, home to Lone Tree, Castle Rock and other communities on the far southern edge of the Denver metro area.

Despite recent Democratic wins in nearby Arapahoe and Jefferson counties, the party faces a steep uphill climb in Douglas, where Republicans still hold nearly a 2-to-1 voter registration advantage. Incumbent GOP Commissioner Lora Thomas won her District 3 seat with more than 66% of the vote in 2016, but faces a challenge from Highlands Ranch entrepreneur and activist Darien Wilson, who has slammed Thomas’ handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

In what is on pace to be a record-setting year for voter participation, Douglas County has seen better early turnout numbers than nearly any other county in the state, with nearly 75% of active voters having returned their ballot as of Sunday, Nov. 1. It would take a “blue wave” of historic proportions to overcome Republicans’ longstanding advantages in this conservative stronghold, but if the District 3 commissioner race is even close, it could spell trouble for Colorado Republicans up and down the ballot and all over the state.