Here’s our definitive recap of the wild wooly year in Colorado politics that was 2019.
1. Cory Gardner’s fate all but sealed
Since Democrats won full control of the Colorado legislature in 2004 and the governor’s office by a landslide in 2006, our state has been on a steady trajectory from a peak of Republican control in the late 1990s to something much closer to a blue state today. In that time there have only been very few exceptions to the general rule of growing Democratic dominance. One of them was GOP Rep. Mike Coffman, who held onto his suburban Aurora seat in Congress well past the point when redistricting and the demographic shifts overtaking the urbanizing Front Range should have relieved him of it. In 2018, the era of “ticket splitting” in CD-6 came to an end, and a district which had reliably elected Democrats to other offices since 2011 reverted to form.
The other political anomaly in need of rectification in Colorado is Sen. Cory Gardner.
Cory Gardner won his seat in 2014 by less than 2% against an incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Udall who appeared invincible at the beginning of that year. Gardner’s late entry into the 2014 U.S. Senate race displaced a pack of minor Republican candidates, any of whom Udall would have defeated handily. In order for Gardner to win over a majority in a statewide marquee race, it was necessary for Gardner to wholesale reinvent his previously staunch social conservative record as a state legislation and member of Congress. Gardner shamelessly backpedaled his longstanding support for the “Personhood” abortion ban measures rejected by Colorado voters in repeated statewide elections in addition to softening his previous hard edge on a whole range of issues from renewable energy to health care.
Through a combination of bulletproof adherence to script and intense pressure on the local media to characterize the attacks on Gardner over social wedge issues as overblown, Gardner’s campaign managed to turn his negatives with the broader electorate in Colorado into…if not positives, than at least neutralized in terms of an issue on which voters would base their decision. The Denver Post’s editorial board pompously condemned Udall’s “tedious refrain” against Gardner on abortion, and in words that live in infamy today declared that “Gardner’s election would pose no threat to abortion rights.”
Today, the arrogant assurances of the state’s pundit class that Gardner would not threaten the values of a majority of Coloradans, on abortion or any other issue, have been proven not just false–but the product of a dangerous complacency among Democratic and left-leaning independent voters, and plutocratic manipulation of the dominant narrative by those who stood to benefit most from Gardner’s election. Gardner’s role as a member of the Republican Senate majority who treacherously denied President Barack Obama his rightful U.S. Supreme Court pick, then helped shift the Court rightward for the next generation while helping President Trump fill the judiciary with right-wing ideologues, has brought the nation to the brink of overturning the landmark Roe v. Wade decision guaranteeing abortion rights.
But of all of Gardner’s sins against the majority of voters in Colorado, the worst has been something that no one could have predicted in 2014: the rise of Donald Trump, and Gardner’s unshakeable support for Trump since his unlikely victory. Cory Gardner called in October of 2016 for Trump to withdraw from the presidential race, saying “I cannot and will not support someone who brags about degrading and assaulting women.” But after Trump won the election, Gardner switched gears into one of Trump’s strongest supporters–among the first Republican Senators to endorse Trump’s re-election, and a headliner of national Trump fundraising retreats in New York City.
Gardner has never once explained his change of heart toward Trump, and how he can now wholeheartedly support a man who he acknowledges bragged about committing sexual assault. Gardner’s painful media ambushes after refusing to answer questions about impeachment earned a “like” from Trump on Twitter, but were disastrous for Gardner’s credibility with everyone else watching.
There is a substantial school of thought among the Colorado political watercooler class that believes Gardner has no choice but to stick with Trump to the bitter end. The state as a whole may be hostile to Trump and taking that hostility out at the polls, but without the Republican base which still overwhelmingly supports Trump Gardner has no path to a majority coalition. But if the trend established in the last two general elections in Colorado of rejecting Trump and his party at the polls holds course, the Trump/Gardner ticket is no less doomed.
And that is why, looking ahead to an historically unpredictable election, one thing we feel some confidence predicting today is that Cory Gardner will not be re-elected.
2. 2019: The year recalls went out of style
Before the 2018 elections, the last time Democrats in Colorado enjoyed an unobstructed majority in the General Assembly was 2013 and 2014.
As you may recall, something bad happened to Democrats in 2013.
After winning full control of the legislature, the Democratic majority under then-Gov. John Hickenlooper acted in response to the mass shooting at an Aurora movie theater the summer before, as well as a school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut in December of that year which had reignited debate over gun control laws. In response to the passage of laws tightening background checks on gun sales and imposing a limit on gun magazine capacity, Republicans and the gun lobby responded furiously with the initiation of two successful recalls against Democratic Senators in September of 2013 and the later resignation of a third. In the 2014 elections Democrats (temporarily) lost the seat that had been held by Sen. Evie Hudak, losing their one-seat majority leading to four years of paralysis in a split legislature.
In 2019, Republicans were determined to repeat history. In addition to the passage of the state’s “red flag” law to get guns out of the hands of dangerous people, Republicans hyped every kind of legislation passed by the new majority from sex ed to oil and gas regulations as harbingers of imminent LGBT communist tree-hugging apocalypse. From paid media campaigns warning that Democrats were about to “shut down oil and gas” to much nastier whisper campaigns grotesquely attacking the morality and sexuality of elected officials, at the end of the legislative session in May it seemed certain that another season of low-information but very much threatening backlash was about to ensue.
And then…it didn’t. The first recall attempt against now ex-Rep. Rochelle Galindo ended when Galindo resigned over unrelated legal problems–but in the process revealed some singularly ugly figures involved, like Fred Phelps wannabe Rev. Steven Grant of Greeley, and began to give more polite Republicans pause. Then it was revealed that a key organizer of the “Official” Recall Governor Polis campaign believes Israel was behind the 9/11 attacks. Then the vice chair of the Colorado Republican Party launched a recall attempt against freshman Rep. Tom Sullivan, whose son was murdered in the 2013 Aurora theater shooting.
We’re not completely sure when the top brass of the Colorado Republican Party made the decision to bail out of the recall campaigns. It was after Rep. Ken Buck promised at his election as state party chairman to make Democrats learn “how to spell R-E-C-A-L-L” with Sen. Cory Gardner and other Republican brass cheering him on. It may have been when petition workers against Tom Sullivan started reporting the voters they were contacting wanted no part in recalling him. Or it could have been the nasty infighting between the rival committees seeking a recall of Gov. Polis, both of whom later revealed themselves to be so manifestly incompetent as to inspire a (very) small degree of pity.
In the end, every single recall attempt initiated by Republicans following the 2019 legislative session ended in demoralizing failure. On the other hand, Democrats had a chance to exercise their own field networks ahead of the 2020 elections, and chalked up a huge base-rallying win when all of the GOP’s contrived outrage in retaliation against the clear Democratic mandate of 2018 collapsed in a heap before the summer was even over. Today, the once-feared threat of recalls against lawmakers daring to honor the wishes of the voters who elected them…has lost its sting.
3. Impeachment: the rise of Rep. Joe Neguse
Freshman Rep. Joe Neguse of CD-2 was one of the most exciting in a wave of wins for Colorado Democrats in the 2018 elections. The son of Eritrean immigrants, Neguse proved himself as a capable political organizer as the co-founder of New Era Colorado, dedicated to mobilizing and turnout out young voters. Later as a CU Regent and candidate for Secretary of State in 2014, Neguse establishment himself as a rising star–and Jared Polis’ run for governor in 2018 gave Neguse his shot at making history.
In only one year on the job, Colorado’s first member of Congress of African descent has become a shining freshman star in the Democratic House majority. As a member of the House Judiciary Committee, Neguse has been Colorado’s point man in oversight of President Donald Trump, including the Mueller report aftermath and the subsequent impeachment proceedings over the alleged extortion of Ukraine. Neguse’s clear and convincing arguments making the case against Trump stood in stark contrast to his Republican committee counterpart Rep. Ken Buck’s evasions and bad faith in unquestioning defense of Trump. In terms of Neguse’s relations with other lawmakers and constituents, his easygoing charm sets him apart.
In every way, Joe Neguse is the future of leadership in a demographically evolving Colorado–and Ken Buck represents the past.
4. GOP Chairman Rep. Ken Buck: a profile in impotence
Although he represents a safe GOP district unlikely to punish even the gravest misdeeds, Rep. Ken Buck had what may have been the most damaging year of any Colorado Republican. That Buck has not already faced accountability for a year chock full of horrendous lapses in judgment, chaos in the Colorado Republican Party he was elected to lead, and making himself an unintended poster child for Republican incompetence in defending President Donald Trump from the allegations that resulted in Trump’s impeachment, is an indicator that more time in the proverbial wilderness awaits the Colorado GOP before they have any hope of turning around fifteen years of electoral defeats.
When Ken Buck was elected to simultaneously serve as chairman of the Colorado Republican Party in addition to his duties as a member of Congress, Buck promised to teach Democrats “how to spell R-E-C-A-L-L.” Not long after that speech, Buck’s vice-chair of the Colorado GOP Kristi Burton Brown personally initiated the recall campaign against freshman state Rep. Tom Sullivan of Centennial. The recall campaign against Rep. Sullivan, a much-beloved longtime activist whose son was murdered in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting, spectacularly backfired (see above) and in its failure set the stage for the collapse of the entire “summer of recalls” Republicans began the year believing was their 2020 comeback strategy.
In Washington, Rep. Buck fared little better, becoming a nationally-infamous object lesson in GOP bungling of their defense of President Donald Trump. During hearings over the Mueller report into Russian interference in the 2016 elections, Buck led Robert Mueller straight to the suggestion that Trump could face charges after leaving office. During the impeachment hearings over Trump’s alleged extortion of Ukraine for help against Joe Biden, Buck helped expose the bad faith of House Republicans by complained about “closed” hearings he could have attended but didn’t bother to.
Over and over in 2019, Ken Buck managed to undermine his own team–even as he gets promoted to ever more responsibility. By the time it’s over Buck could be the perfect Colorado example of “failing upward.”
5. Big Year One For Gov. Jared Polis
If there’s one thing that those who know Gov. Jared Polis know well, it’s that Polis marches to the beat of his own proverbial drum. Polis is a progressive Democrat whose general ideology and agenda is a good fit with the state’s combination Democratic and left-leaning unaffiliated majority coalition. With that said, Polis retains an unconventional streak that has allowed him to make inroads with conservatives on certain limited points of agreement. As one of the state’s wealthiest entrepreneurs before (and since) getting into politics, appealing to fears of “socialist revolution” don’t work against Polis.
Through executive action and backing Democrats’ ambitious agenda this year, Gov. Polis has defined himself as capable executive with a publicly endearing quirky personality. It’s a sweet spot in Colorado politics that Polis’ predecessor Gov. John Hickenlooper enjoyed throughout his two terms as governor. After a year of weathering every imaginable kind of smear and on the back side of an historic failure of a recall campaign, Polis’ favorability remains +15%.
Although there have been moments when Polis has made Democrats a little uncomfortable since taking office, such as treating anti-vaxxers with deference the public doesn’t consider them entitled to and more recently celebrating the income tax cut triggered by the failure of Proposition CC, on the whole Polis has proven himself to be a good-faith partner with the Democratic majority in the legislature–and the results of the 2019 session speak for themselves. Clearly communicating and managing expectations between the floors of the state capitol is crucial to making the most of the 120 days the majority gets each year to get things done. One year in, the majority and the governor have held together very well.
6. Hey Google, read this bill at length
After the landslide victory for Colorado Democrats in the 2018 general election, the 2019 session of the Colorado General Assembly kicked off with Democrats holding their largest legislative majority in decades. In the House, a Democratic near-supermajority gave the party a padded majority on legislative committees. In the Senate the margin of Democratic control was much smaller, but in Democratic hands for the first time in four years. A considerable backlog of pent-up legislation moved through the Colorado legislature in 2019 as a result.
With no majority in either chamber to thwart Democratic policy goals, Republicans in both the House and the Senate willfully invoked every available delaying mechanism to slow down the passage of legislation. In the Senate, the GOP minority forced the reading out loud of a 2,000 page technical cleanup bill to slow business to a crawl. Democrats cleverly responded by setting up multiple personal computers to simultaneously read portions of the legislation at artificially high speeds, that is until an intervening judge ruled that anti-obstructive tactic to be a little too clever.
In the end, much of the new Democratic majority’s first-term agenda was accomplished in 2019, with more set to be completed next year–whether or not the GOP minority chooses to engage in similar obstruction tactics. The GOP minority’s obstruction campaign was supposed to have presaged a summer of conservative retaliation via recalls (see above)–and the lack of follow-through on bellicose Republican threats at last session’s end leaves Democrats in 2020 with little to fear.
7. Nazis in Colorado, yes really
Comparing your political opponents to the actual historical National Socialist German Workers’ Party, commonly known as “the Nazis,” has been the nuclear option in American political debates pretty much since Adolf Hitler rose to power in 1933. There was a fairly regrettable period in U.S. history in the mid to late 1930s where isolationist sentiment led to an unsavory degree of friendliness with Hitler and the Nazis (here’s looking at you, Charles Lindbergh), but today the Nazis are universally regarded by the American public as the worst thing that has ever happened in modern world history. Americans aren’t generally very keen on communists, either, which history also bears out as correct–but Nazis embody a unique combination of genocidal evil and dystopian conformity that is, at least we’d like to think, fundamentally inimical to the American way of life.
But as we learned more than we wanted in 2019, there are straight-up Nazis all over the place in Colorado. In March, the nascent “Official” Recall Governor Jared Polis organization had to purge itself of one of its original organizers, after her social media history blaming Israel for the 9/11 terrorist attacks and denouncing the “Jew World Order” made her continuing lead role in recalling Colorado’s happens-to-be-Jewish governor problematic. 9NEWS’ Jeremy Jojola discovered one of the leaders of the Atomwaffen Division, a violent neo-Nazi terrorist group, living in subsidized housing in Denver. Meanwhile in Pueblo, some pasty little white supremacist jerkoff was arrested while plotting to blow up a local synagogue–the latest in a spike in hate crimes documented in Colorado in recent years.
Then earlier this month, the Colorado Springs Anti Fascists, who despite their own avowed leftist racialism have established a reliable track record of exposing area white supremacists, discovered an offshore social profile allegedly maintained by a producer at local hard-right talk radio station 710 KNUS revealing a positively twisted idolization of Hitler, hatred for Jews, claiming that America fought on the wrong side of World War II–so over the top in its devotion to real life neo-Nazism that it was initially hard to accept as nonfiction. But after both 9NEWS and Westword identified clear cases where the real-life Kirk Widlund and the Nazi Kirk Widlund the Russian social media site VK were discussing contemporaneous events at the same time, it became clear that the worst was true despite Widlund’s denials.
The moral of the story? Nazis actually do exist, right now, on the ground in Colorado–and they’ve come dangerously close to being “mainstreamed.” At the radio station 710 KNUS in particular, where Republican elected officials like Cory Gardner and Ken Buck routinely appear for softball interviews, there seems to be a climate that allowed a closet Nazi to thrive–further evidenced by members of the fascist Proud Boys group who have appeared on the drive-time Steffan Tubbs Show for which Widlund was the producer.
This realization is, and should be, a rude shock. But when it comes to Nazis, everybody needs to be shocked out of their complacency.
8. Senate Bill 181: The oilpocalypse that wasn’t
Gov. Jared Polis took office in 2019 with a mandate from his voters to reform arguably the most vexing conflict regarding land use in Colorado–oil and gas drilling increasingly in conflict with rapidly expanding urban residential communities across the state. For most of the state’s existence, the laws governing access to subsurface mineral rights in Colorado by design were meant to “foster” growth of the drilling industry first and protect public health second.
Senate Bill 19-181 changed the mission of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) to prioritize public health and safety. The GOP minority in the legislature and the industry flatly claimed this legislation would “destroy the oil and gas industry,” then were sheepishly forced to admit to their investors that wasn’t the case at all. The profitability of oil and gas drilling in Colorado is dictated by global market forces–during the runup of oil prices in the mid-2010s, drilling expanded rapidly. Today, lower global oil prices cut into the profitability of local production. All SB-181 did was make sure that in good times or bad, public safety is a top priority for Colorado’s oil and gas regulators over “fostering” industry growth.
In the end, it’s the free market bringing about the migration to renewable energy sources that poses the greatest long-term threat to the oil and gas industry. As surely as horses and buggies were superseded by automobiles, this reality is driving the politics of energy in Colorado. There’s no question who will win in the long run, and the 2018 election in Colorado tells us that clean energy has already won.
9. Steve Reams and “red flag,” a story set to end badly
In 2019, Colorado joined with a growing number of states passing laws that create a legal process to temporarily remove firearms from the possession of people in a mental health crisis who are determined to be a significant threat to themselves or the public “Red flag” laws enjoy overwhelming support in every public poll, including 80%+ support in Colorado–on par with the overwhelming public support for universal gun sale background checks that have been the law in Colorado since 2013.
The political response to the passage of this law in Colorado has differed from 2013, mostly because the gun lobby proved unable to muster the critical mass of outrage they achieved in the 2013 recalls (see above). Instead, several elected county sheriffs have announced their intention to refuse to enforce ERPOs issued by a judge. This dubious political grandstand by elected sheriffs in the thrall of the fringe Rocky Mountain Gun Owners (RMGO) is expected to quickly become a major point of controversy once an ERPO to protect a suicidal person–or members of the public–is refused with resulting loss of life.
When this happens, and it will happen, it will be a tragedy first and a political disaster for the law’s opponents second. Heaven help Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams, the public face of opposition to this law–or whoever the first sheriff is that lets someone whose life could have been saved die.
10. “We’re building a wall in Colorado”
In less than three years in office, President Donald Trump has managed to make a joke of himself with every conceivable audience at home and abroad. Not everyone seems to get the joke, but if there’s anything Donald Trump has proven in his time in office it’s that about 30-35% of the country will never get the joke. Much like the Sarah Palin diehards who rushed to edit Wikipedia rather than admit she made a mistake, Trump supporters don’t want to get it, because then it’s harder to support their Dear Leader with a straight face.
So when President Trump proudly told an energy industry audience in Pittsburgh in October that “we’re building a wall on the border of New Mexico and we’re building a wall in Colorado, we’re building a beautiful wall, a big one that really works that you can’t get over,” then refused to acknowledge the ridiculous U.S. Geography 101 error he obviously had made, most of Colorado laughed–while roughly 30-35% of the state either kicked dirt and mumbled cuss words, or found a way to give Trump the benefit of the doubt yet again.
In a state already hostile to Trump and the Republican brand, this gaffe elicited another round of public scorn they did not need.