Arapahoe goes red, again — for now

Posted 11/6/10

As the United States goes, so goes Arapahoe County. Such was the prevailing mood Nov. 2 when many county Republicans walked to victories. The wins …

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Arapahoe goes red, again — for now


As the United States goes, so goes Arapahoe County.

Such was the prevailing mood Nov. 2 when many county Republicans walked to victories. The wins came as the GOP also wrestled control of the the federal and state houses of representatives and took new governorships in nine states.

In the Arapahoe County government, three Republican incumbents held on to their seats in easy wins for the sheriff, assessor and clerk and recorder. The party also regained the county treasurer’s office — taken by Democrats for the first time in 2006 — by a healthy 10 percentage points.

In the race to represent Arapahoe County’s District 2, Republican Greenwood Village Mayor Nancy Sharpe handily defeated Democratic Centennial City Councilmember Rebecca McClellan by 22 points.

At the state level, two Centennial Republicans — state Reps. Spencer Swalm and David Balmer — each beat back challengers by 22-point spreads. In Littleton, first-time Republican Kathleen Conti defeated state Rep. Joe Rice, a moderate Democrat, by a narrow 2 points.

Celebrating the range of GOP victories was Dave Kerber, chairman of the Arapahoe County Republican Party. He helped field the party slate and calls the elections a sign of widespread dissatisfaction with Democrats.

“I’m not sure it was a tsunami, but it kind of put us back to where we were in ’06,” the chair said of Republican wins. “We’ll have most of the seats back in the county. It looks like an R-brand year. We’re kind of back.”

Back, that is, after two disappointing election cycles in the once Republican-safe county. Mike Hamrick, chairman of the Arapahoe County Democratic Party downplays the recent losses as part of the cycle of politics.

“We took a little bit of a hit,” he said. “But we still have seven of 11 state House members and four out of the five in the Colorado Senate. At the end of the day, we’re the majority party in Arapahoe County — but it’s close.”

Change to believe in

The 2006 and 2008 election cycles reflected the fragile Democratic majority in Arapahoe County. As a result of demographic shifts and the 2006 Obama registration push, Democrats still hold an advantage of more than 8,000 voters in a county once known as a Republican bastion.

Unaffiliated and minor-party voters — the wild card in the increasingly “purple” and highly competitive county — number slightly below the Republicans.

The Democratic infusion has been as politically substantial as the more recent Tea Party movement and 2010’s midterm rebellion against President Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress.

In 2008, Obama beat Sen. John McCain by 13 percentage points, marking the first time Arapahoe County had gone for a Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

That election also brought a narrow victory for state Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, and the re-election of Rep. Joe Rice, who had taken his seat in the formerly Republican district two years earlier in a surprise win.

On Democratic coattails came Doug Milliken, the county’s first Democratic treasurer. And, for the first time in history, two Democrats served at the same time on the five-member Arapahoe County Board of Commissioners.

The trickle-down effect

What a difference two years can make.

Arapahoe County in 2010 was a microcosm of the Republican resurgence that had been predicted for months everywhere from Fox News to the political blogosphere.

According to Democrat chair Hamrick, the trickle-down to local, highly functional county races was an unfortunate side effect of national frustrations.

“A lot of the backlash you see locally is backlash at D.C. I think it’s misplaced,” Hamrick said. “The folks that control elections, the unaffiliateds, decided we needed change from top to bottom.”

For example, Hamrick thinks Treasurer Milliken’s investment successes took a back seat in the low-profile race to national concerns about healthcare reform because of the “D” by Milliken’s name on the ballot.

But incoming Republican Treasurer Sue Sandstrom, who had questioned Milliken’s work ethic and personal finances during the campaign, thinks there was more to her 20-point victory than party politics.

Sandstrom, a Republican Aurora City Council member, had lost to Milliken in Democrat-friendly 2006 before successfully challenging the incumbent again this year.

“It certainly didn’t hurt being a Republican this time around,” she said. “But four years ago, it was an open seat. This time, there was an incumbent involved. I take that as a statement that people wanted change.”

A dead heat

The coroner’s race illustrates how far the Republican sweep has gone. Although Democrat incumbent Dobersen may eke out a victory, the contest to lead the functional office was among the most overtly partisan in the county.

Dobersen is one of only four coroners in Colorado who is qualified to conduct autopsies. There are no legal requirements for county coroners so most appoint medical examiners.

At press time, Dobersen, M.D., a nationally recognized forensic pathologist, was leading Republican attorney Ledbetter by little more than 1,100 votes. During the campaign, Ledbetter emphasized his Republican affiliation and questioned Dobersen’s ethics, though he later retracted his most scurrilous charges.

Hamrick, the Democratic chair, calls the coroner’s race “shockingly close.” Dobersen says he has been dumbfounded by the partisan nature of the campaign.

“I don’t know that people understand that these [jobs] are nonpolitical and we should get the most qualified people,” Dobersen said of the coroner’s office. “As much as we worked to get that message out, obviously, it didn’t reach enough people.”

Ledbetter says he trusts the electorate to choose who is best suited to serve.

“Voters make their decisions based on what they know. They look like they split pretty evenly,” he said.

Red 37?

The Republican advantage was no more apparent than in state House District 37, where incumbent Republican Swalm handily defeated first-time candidate Brett Godfrey by 22 percentage points.

In what had been an increasingly competitive district after years of favoring Republicans, Swalm has previously defeated his opponents by a few points. He has even purchased bus-stop advertising — an expensive proposition that would have been overkill for a District 37 Republican five years ago.

Swalm thinks Godfrey may have learned hard lessons on his first run for office in a competitive district.

“Like him or not, Brett didn’t do anything,” Swalm said. “He hardly rang any doorbells.”

Sharpe contrast

Like Swalm, Republican Nancy Sharpe resoundingly defeated Democrat Rebecca McClellan by 22 points in the race to represent District 2 on the Arapahoe County Board of Commissioners.

The two had served together — and often sparred — on an intergovernmental coalition that was established to facilitate the redesign of the intersection of Arapahoe Road and I-25. The subject had become a major focus of the contentious campaign.

“I’m focusing on jobs, controlling spending and making sure we have transportation solutions, even though that has been distorted [by McClellan],” Sharpe said.

Exceptions to the rulers

Despite obvious Republican leanings this year, Arapahoe County was not entirely unfriendly to Democrats.

At press time, Democrat Nancy Jackson was narrowly leading Republican Bob Fitzgerald by 54 votes in the District 4 race for county commissioner. The district is centered largely in Aurora, the county’s longtime Democrat stronghold.

The county also handed victories to Democratic Gov.-elect John Hickenlooper, who bested second-place hopeful Tom Tancredo by 13 points in the county, and gave a narrow win to Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet.

“I figured it would be close,” Kerber said. “I think those ads that just pounded may have hurt [Republican Ken Buck] with unaffiliated women.”

U.S. Rep Ed Perlmutter defeated rising Republican star Ryan Frazier by 23 points in Arapahoe County — though the 7th Congressional District also includes parts of Democratic-leaning Adams and Jefferson counties.

“Find somebody that works harder for the community — there isn’t any,” Hamrick said of Perlmutter.

Political futures

As both parties face the looming 2012 presidential election, Hamrick and Kerber think their respective parties can seize the changing partisan zeitgeist by staying tuned in to the body politic and putting forth the best candidates.

“We also need to publicize our officials and what they do,” Hamrick said, noting what he considers the under-appreciated work of lesser-known Democrats like Milliken and Dobersen.

Kerber thinks Republican fortunes in two years will be tied to performance of officials, top to bottom. Incumbents elected this year will have a significant impact on 2012, according to the Republican chair.

“If Arapahoe County is run well, if it’s efficient, if there’s no scandals with the officials, I think most people will say, ‘I’m not going to mess with them.’” Kerber said of GOP incumbents. “We need to represent the people well. That sounds kind of trite, but it’s really true.”

Results at a glance

State House District 37

Spencer Swalm, R - 61%

Brett Godfrey, D - 39%

State House District 38

Kathleen Conti, R - 51%

Joe Rice, D - 49%

County District 2

Nancy Sharpe, R - 61%

Rebecca McClellan, D - 39%

Clerk and Recorder

Nancy Doty, R - 68%

Ray Flesher, D - 32%

County Treasurer

Sue Sandstrom, R - 55%

Doug Milliken, D - 45%

County Assessor

Corbin Sakdol, R - 56%

Annette Springs, D - 44%


Grayson Robinson, R - 59%

Tom Donahue, D - 41%


Michael Dobersen, D - 50.3%

Jay Ledbetter, R - 49.7%

[At press time, Dobersen led

Ledbetter by 1,028 votes.]


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