Between now and New Year’s Eve, Colorado Pols is recapping the top ten stories in Colorado politics from the 2012 election year.
There were several close races in 2012 in which the outcome wasn’t known for weeks after Election Day. But only one of those qualifies as the most important political story you probably didn’t hear about.
The race for County Commissioner (District 2) in Jefferson County was odd from the start. Republican John Odom was selected to replace Kevin McCasky when the latter resigned his seat in early 2011, despite the fact that he didn’t establish residency in the district until one day before the deadline (Odom had been living in District 1 when he lost a State Senate race to Democrat Cheri Jahn in 2010). Once he got into office, Odom figured he could cruise to November 2012 with an easy victory for a full term. History told him he was probably right…sort of.
There are three Commissioner seats in Jefferson County, and while candidates must live in a specific district, the entire voting population of the county can cast a vote. Republicans have dominated county politics in Jefferson for decades because of the heavy concentration of GOP voters in the southern portion of the county; in fact, only a handful of Democrats have been elected Commissioner in the entire history of the county.
So it was that Odom gave little thought to his Democratic opponent in 2012, Casey Tighe. Odom paid so little attention to the election that he never bothered to raise any real money for his campaign. Meanwhile, the unknown Tighe plugged along, raising a modest amount of money and eating lots of rubber chicken dinners at Chamber of Commerce luncheons and the like. Odom finally poked his head up in mid-October, but by then it may have been too late.
The race was too close to call on Election Night, and the winner wasn’t determined until after Thanksgiving. In the end, Tighe defeated Odom by 738 votes out of a total 313,662 ballots returned.
So why should you care about any of this outside of Jefferson County? Here’s why: Odom did so little campaigning that he essentially played the role of “generic Republican candidate” on the ballot. For most of the last century, “generic Republican candidate” would always defeat “generic Democratic candidate,” or even “solid attempt at winning Democratic candidate.” But not anymore, and that should scare the crap out of the Republican Party in Colorado.
Jefferson County is the bellwether county for statewide campaigns. If candidates for Governor, Senate or even President don’t win heavily-populated Jefferson County, it’s a near certainty that they aren’t going to win the election. For decades Republicans have had a voter registration advantage in Jefferson County that gave any candidate a sizable head start; if you removed the names from the ballot, the Republican would naturally get more votes than the Democrat. But Odom’s loss, viewed through the prism of a “generic Republican candidate,” illustrated a seismic shift in Jefferson County’s voter base.
To be sure, Odom was a lazy, disinterested candidate, but historically Republicans didn’t need to be much more than that to ensure victory. Sure, a well-run Senate or Presidential field campaign could eke out a winning margin for Democrats, but down-ballot the Republican candidates (those elected countywide) would still win their respective races.
You don’t need to have an interest in Jefferson County politics to understand what makes the outcome of the 2012 Commissioner race so important: it appears that Republicans no longer have a built-in advantage in the most important electoral county in the state.