In 2014, voters in Senate District 19 (Arvada/Westminster) elected Republican Laura Woods by a margin of fewer than 700 votes. Woods replaced Democrat Rachel Zenzinger, who had been appointed to the seat vacated by Sen. Evie Hudak in the wake of the 2013 Republican recall efforts. Woods instantly became one of the most hard-right members of the Republican caucus.
Some Republicans were correctly skeptical about Woods’ ability to hold on to her seat; two years later, Zenzinger unseated Woods in the rematch despite a barrage of negative (and demonstrably false) attacks from Republicans.
Zenzinger is running for re-election in 2020. The district’s electoral history would suggest that SD-19 will be among the top targeted races for Republicans hoping to claw back into a Senate majority, but voter registration and turnout numbers paint a bleaker picture. According to a new analysis of voter information from Colorado-based Republican polling firm Magellan Strategies, Senate District 19 may no longer be competitive for the GOP:
…back in 2014 Republicans actually had a turnout advantage with a plurality of 35% of the vote, largely due to lower Unaffiliated turnout.
And while it’s not a perfect apples to apples comparison since there wasn’t actually a Senate race in SD 19 in 2018, come 2018 that advantage is completely gone. Even with about 12,000 more voters compared to 2014, there were actually 700 fewer votes cast by Republicans. Compare that to 4,755 more votes cast by Democratic voters and 7,863 more votes cast by Unaffiliated/Other Party voters.
While that suggests a turnout problem with a fairly simple solution (get more Republicans to vote), in reality, the problem is not quite that easy to overcome. That’s because turnout in 2018 wasn’t even especially low for Republicans – 84% of active Republicans in the district voted, which matched the percentage for Democratic voters. For a midterm, it is hard to expect much better than that. No, the real problem can be seen looking back at voter registration: The numbers simply aren’t there anymore. It’s basic math. A comparative advantage for Republicans in SD 19 has been completely wiped away by increased Unaffiliated registration and increased voter turnout among both Democratic voters and Unaffiliated voters. [Pols emphasis]
As you can see from the Magellan Strategies chart at right, Republican voter turnout in SD-19 has plummeted over the last two election cycles. Those trends seem to fit with what we saw in Colorado in 2018 in general, when Democrats gained a “trifecta” in state government — control of the State House, State Senate, and Governor’s office. When all of the votes were counted in 2018, Democrats had flipped multiple Republican-held seats for a 41-24 majority in the State House and a 19-16 majority in the State Senate.
The numbers in SD-19 are going to be pretty disheartening for Republicans, who need to net at least two seats in order to regain majority control in the State Senate (the House is almost certainly unwinnable for the GOP this year). Heading into this election cycle, SD-19 was among four State Senate districts widely thought to be the most competitive races in 2020 — along with SD-8 (Carbondale-ish), SD-25 (Adams County), and SD-27 (Arapahoe County). But SD-19 is the only one of these four districts with a Democratic incumbent; Republicans can’t gain ground in the Senate merely by holding onto the other three seats.
In 2016, Republican Kevin Priola barely managed to eke out a victory in SD-25, a seat previously held by Democrats, by a margin of about four points. That same year, incumbent Republican Sen. Jack Tate won in SD-27 by a nearly seven-point margin. Both Senate districts have moved closer toward Democrats in recent years. Republicans only maintain a healthy historical advantage in SD-8, where Bob Rankin is seeking election to a full term after replacing Randy Baumgardner in 2019.
Now, back to SD-19: Zenzinger entered 2020 with about $56,000 in the bank, and she has strong name ID in the district after essentially campaigning non-stop since 2013. Republican Matthew Lantz formally entered the race about 10 days ago, but he was not recruited into the race by top Republican officials and it’s unclear whether he will be able to run a strong campaign without a GOP Primary challenger. Either way, persistent polling problems for both President Trump and Sen. Cory Gardner suggest that there won’t be much in the way of coattails for any down-ballot Republicans in 2020.
Colorado Republicans will have a hard time regaining control of the State Senate unless they can win in SD-19…which doesn’t seem likely at the moment. The GOP’s next best hope for flipping a seat might be in SD-26, but that’s also a tough sell; Democrats have never lost in the current iteration of this Arapahoe County seat, and they have a strong incumbent candidate in Sen. Jeff Bridges.
It’s entirely possible that the best-case scenario for Colorado Republicans in 2020 is to just not lose any more ground in the State Senate. That’s a hard slogan to fit onto a bumper sticker.