4 takeaways from preliminary election results in Colorado

    Democrats win big statewide as voters approve a diverse array of ballot measures

    Election worker Davis Grilley operates the Agilis ballot sorting system at the Arapahoe County Elections Facility in Littleton, on Nov. 3, 2020. (Carl Payne for Colorado Newsline)

    It could be days before a winner is determined in a handful of races, and weeks before vote counts are formally certified by state officials, but many of the headline results in Colorado’s 2020 election are clear — beginning with record-shattering turnout that saw voters cast more than 3.1 million ballots.

    With more than 2.9 million of those votes counted so far, the Associated Press and other news agencies have projected winners in dozens of key races. As of 1 p.m. Wednesday, only a few contests — including the 8th Senate District, the district attorney’s race in the 18th Judicial District and the fate of wolf-reintroduction measure Proposition 114 — remained too close to call.

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    Colorado Democrats had plenty to celebrate on Tuesday night as they delivered the state’s nine electoral votes to former Vice President Joe Biden, flipped a U.S. Senate seat blue with the election of former Gov. John Hickenlooper, and held on to their “decisive majority” in the state legislature.

    Here are four initial takeaways as elections officials across the state work to finalize the results:

    Colorado’s deep blue hue

    Neither President Trump nor Biden spent a single dollar on TV advertising in Colorado in 2020. Opinion polls never showed a close race, and Biden’s average polling advantage of 13 percentage points, as calculated by FiveThirtyEight, appears to have been almost exactly on the mark.

    Biden’s 56% majority is the largest share of the vote that a presidential candidate has won in Colorado in 36 years. His 14-point victory expands on Gov. Jared Polis’ 10-point margin two years ago, and Hillary Clinton’s five-point win in 2016, continuing the state’s decades-long trend towards a more Democratic-leaning electorate.

    Biden’s 56% majority is the largest share of the vote that a presidential candidate has won in Colorado in 36 years. Click To Tweet

    Elsewhere on the ballot, voters dealt a 10-point defeat to incumbent Gardner after just one term, leaving University of Colorado Regent At-Large Heidi Ganahl as the only remaining Republican to hold statewide office. Democrats also flipped the CU Board of Regents with a victory in the 6th District, maintained their 41-24 advantage in the Colorado House of Representatives and added at least one seat to their state Senate majority.

    Between 1940 and 2008, Colorado backed a Democrat in only two out of 17 presidential elections; it’s now done so four times in a row. Preliminary totals show Biden’s vote share in Colorado outpacing his performances in Virginia and New Mexico, roughly on par with deep-blue Illinois and not all that far from the margin in New York. Few things are permanent in politics, but for now, by any objective measure, Colorado can’t be considered anything other than a safe Democratic state.

    Democrats increasingly dominant in the suburbs

    Once again, some of Democrats’ best electoral performances in 2020 came in the fast-growing suburbs of Denver, where relatively affluent, predominantly white voters have backed the party by big margins in the last three election cycles.

    In south metro Denver, Democrats flipped two Republican-held state legislative seats, in the 27th Senate District and the 38th House District, with both Democratic candidates winning 56% of the vote. Several previously competitive seats in Jefferson and Arapahoe counties ended in landslides for Democrats, as the party continues to strengthen its grip on areas once considered safe Republican territory.

    Election workers process ballots at the Arapahoe County Elections Facility in Littleton, on Nov. 3, 2020. (Carl Payne for Colorado Newsline)

    That trend held up and down the ballot, with Biden’s dominant statewide performance driven largely by a Democratic surge in the populous Front Range suburbs where turnout reached record levels. As of noon Wednesday, Biden had exceeded Clinton’s 2016 vote total by nearly 300,000 votes, about 211,000 of which came from Jefferson, Arapahoe, Adams, Douglas, Larimer and El Paso counties.

    “The map has completely changed,” said House Speaker KC Becker, a Democrat from Boulder, during a virtual election-night watch party.

    Two paths forward for Republicans

    As Colorado Republicans suffered another round of decisive defeats at the statewide level, two GOP candidates in key down-ballot races offered sharply diverging visions for the party as it seeks a path back to relevance.

    In Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, which encompasses Pueblo and the Western Slope, right-wing activist Lauren Boebert won election to the U.S. House of Representatives, defeating former state lawmaker Diane Mitsch Bush 51% to 46%, according to unofficial results.

    Lauren Boebert, then-Republican candidate for Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, speaks to supporters and the press during a MAGA meet up with the Trump Victory Team at the Old Mesa County Courthouse in Grand Junction, Oct. 8, 2020. (Barton Glasser for Colorado Newsline)

    Boebert, who rose to prominence in conservative circles for her gun-rights activism and who has flirted with the QAnon conspiracy theory, won a surprise victory over five-term incumbent Rep. Scott Tipton in the June primary, raising Democratic hopes for a competitive race. But while Mitsch Bush gained ground in Pueblo and Grand Junction, securing Democrats’ highest vote total in the district since at least 2008, Boebert also added to Tipton’s 2016 total, picking up thousands of votes in deep-red rural counties like Delta and Montrose.

    Meanwhile, in Adams County, Republican state Sen. Kevin Priola is hanging on to a narrow lead in his bid for reelection in the 25th Senate District. As of Wednesday, with more than 67,000 ballots counted, Priola leads Democrat Paula Dickerson by just over 1,000 votes.

    In the increasingly blue suburbs of Denver, Priola appears to have survived largely thanks to his bipartisan record at the statehouse, where he’s backed Democratic proposals on clean energy, fiscal reform, death penalty repeal and more. In contrast to Boebert’s fiery rhetoric and turn-out-the-base strategy, Priola’s moderate views may have won over just enough voters in a district where Biden defeated Trump by double digits.

    Voters tighten the state’s fiscal knot

    When it comes to taxation and social services, Coloradans appear to want to have their cake and eat it, too.

    Voters gave liberal advocates of fiscal reform a big win by repealing the Gallagher Amendment, a 1982 constitutional measure that kept property taxes artificially low — and at the same time they approved a state income tax cut that will force $170 million in budget cuts next year. They said “yes” to the creation of a universal paid-leave program, paid for by a new 0.9% payroll fee — and at the same time approved a “vote on fees” measure backed by conservative groups that erects a big new hurdle for fee-funded programs in the future.

    Phil Hester, right, and Bobbie Long wait in their camp chairs to vote at the Mesa County Central Services building in Grand Junction, on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. Wait times were 20-30 minutes. (Barton Glasser for Colorado Newsline)

    The mixed bag of results could create headaches for state budget writers, especially amid an unprecedented cloud of fiscal uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic, a teetering economy and the hazy prospects for additional federal relief legislation.

    At least one prominent Coloradan, however, didn’t see any cause for concern in the seemingly conflicted ballot-measure results. In a statement, Polis — who submitted his initial 2021-22 budget request to the legislature earlier this week — had high praise for Colorado voters who turned out in record numbers and approved as many as 10 statewide measures.

    “It’s important to highlight that in this historic election, Colorado solidified itself as one of the best places in the country to live, work and play, or to start and run a business,” Polis said. “We voted in support of our firefighters, small businesses, and local communities. Voters provided tax relief for every Coloradan and paved the way for broader fiscal and tax reform. I look forward to working with the state legislature and local officials to build ourselves back even stronger than where we were before the pandemic.”