In 2014, Colorado Republicans wrested control of the state senate by defeating appointed Sen. Rachel Zenzinger of Arvada in Senate District 19. The victor in that race, Laura Woods, faced the unusual prospect for an elected state senator of being up again for re-election in only two years. Because Zenzinger was appointed to replace Evie Hudak early in her second term she stood for election in 2014, then the seat came up again for its regular interval this year.
As we’ve already noted, Sen. Woods was an exceedingly poor political fit for her swing suburban district. As the results of the 2016 election demonstrated, she was not capable of holding this critically important seat. Smart Republicans, many of whom had supported Woods’ 2014 primary opponent Lang Sias knew this, and were already looking elsewhere to hold their tenuous majority.
They found the answer in a Republican pickup, taking a seat long held by Democrats in Adams County. Senate District 25, held by Democratic Sen. Mary Hodge, was contested in 2016 by Republican Rep. Kevin Priola and Democratic former Rep. Jenise May. Democrats had high hopes of winning this seat, not least due to what they perceived to be potent negatives on Priola from his long record in the legislature.
Certainly the SD-25 race was not neglected by either side, but it’s fair to say the fight for SD-19 received the most attention of any state senate race in Colorado. While the media and pundit class stayed focused on Arvada, a combination of familiarity with Priola from his overlapping House district and Priola tirelessly knocking on doors was quietly turning the race in his favor. Priola’s win in this key race, which proved decisive in Republicans retaining any power in our state’s legislative process, is a lesson about the fundamentals of how to win in politics that haven’t changed in generations. The one who knocks on the most doors, who wins votes the old-fashioned way face-to-face, wins–even in the era of ubiquitous social media.
Priola has other qualities that give him significant appeal in Adams County, which has increasingly become a battleground after a long history of working-class Democratic reliability. Priola is a devout Catholic who has bucked his party on issues like the death penalty, and that gives him an opening with the district’s large Latino population other Republicans don’t have. As Democrats work to heal the undeniable rift that has appeared in their coalition in places like Adams County, it’s important to distinguish where Democrats may be weak collectively from Priola’s strengths personally.
In 2016 Kevin Priola was the right man at the right moment, and Republicans owe him their Colorado Senate majority.