'Blue wave' continues in Arapahoe County

Democrats gained ground over the decade, flipped local seats this election

Ellis Arnold
earnold@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 11/9/20

In the 2012 general election, large swaths of south Arapahoe County — mostly south of Quincy Avenue — voted for Republican Mitt Romney over then-President Barack Obama. Long stretches of …

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'Blue wave' continues in Arapahoe County

Democrats gained ground over the decade, flipped local seats this election

Posted

In the 2012 general election, large swaths of south Arapahoe County — mostly south of Quincy Avenue — voted for Republican Mitt Romney over then-President Barack Obama. Long stretches of uninterrupted red showed on the county's map of results.

Englewood, Sheridan and most of Aurora encompassed almost all of the non-rural Democratic wins.

The result was even redder in the 2014 U.S. Senate race, when Republican Cory Gardner bested Democrat Mark Udall, with Republican-won neighborhoods running farther north into Aurora.

Then, the county saw a dramatic reversal in the 2016 presidential race, with Hillary Clinton flipping much of west Centennial and parts of Littleton — and areas near where south Aurora meets east Centennial — in her unsuccessful race against President Donald Trump.

In 2018, Democrat Jared Polis made further gains, holding virtually the same neighborhoods as Clinton and picking more up in the east Centennial and farther-east Aurora areas.

The years of changes seemed to culminate this Election Day, when Democrats flipped three local seats: a county commissioner district that includes reliably red parts of the Littleton and Cherry Hills Village areas; a state House district in Littleton and west Centennial; and the state Senate district whose borders encompass Centennial and nearby areas. Democrats even came within a thin margin of flipping another county commissioner seat, keeping it so close it could end up in a recount.

“The brutal fact for Republicans is that we've got a problem with suburban voters,” said Dick Wadhams, political strategist and former chair of the Colorado Republican Party. He added that the challenge applies “not only in Colorado but in the nation.”

The shifts become even starker the closer observers look: Four years ago, Republican Jeff Baker ran for the county commissioner seat in the east Centennial and Aurora area and bested his Democratic opponent by 12 percentage points.

This year, he and his new Democratic opponent, Idris Keith, were neck-and-neck in a race that sat in automatic recount territory as of the evening of Nov. 6, three days after Election Day.

And four years ago, Republican Kathleen Conti — a former representative in the Colorado General Assembly — ran unopposed for the county commissioner seat that covers Littleton, Englewood and Cherry Hills Village.

This year, her Democratic challenger, Carrie Warren-Gully, overtook her by 11 percentage points.

“It's clear that voters who didn't like Trump decided that Republican candidates down-ballot were no different than Trump,” Wadhams said. “And we saw the same thing happen in 2018 — the (well) respected sheriff in Arapahoe County and Matt Crane went down.”

That's a reference to Sheriff David Walcher and the county's former clerk and recorder, who were swept out in what became known as Colorado's “blue wave.”

This year, a party switch in state House District 38 came by way of Democrat David Ortiz beating incumbent state Rep. Richard Champion by 11 percentage points. The closely watched race for state Senate District 27 saw Democrat Chris Kolker best Republican Suzanne Staiert by almost the same margin: nearly 11 percentage points. That's according to results as of Nov. 6.

Not just a Trump rebuff

Wadhams noted that it's likely not just a referendum on President Trump that's driving the trend toward Democrats. And it's not likely a case of registered Republicans and independents switching party loyalty to Democrats either, Wadhams said.

“I really don't see that,” Wadhams said. “I think what's interesting is the Republican base is still pretty solid” in terms of voter turnout. Wadhams added: “I think there's an inclination of the new arrivals (in the area) to register as unaffiliated. It doesn't mean they're conservative.”

A large number of Colorado voters — somewhere around 40% — are unaffiliated, meaning they aren't registered to either major party, Wadhams highlighted.

A key part of the tilt toward Democrats, Wadhams said, is recent demographic changes in population-booming Colorado.

Newcomers are “generally young and more liberal in their attitudes, and that is definitely affecting the Denver metro area, definitely making Denver and Boulder more (blue) than they ever were,” Wadhams said.

“It's affecting Jeffco and Arapahoe but even Douglas and El Paso (counties),” which are typically more conservative than their neighbors to the north, Wadhams continued. “The percentages for president and senator were much lower than they should have been. Those two counties underperformed what they normally do for Republican candidates.”

Ground game, COVID may be factors

While changes in the makeup of Colorado — and Arapahoe County — have been at work for years, the head of the county's Democratic Party points to its “boots on the ground” and a shift in strategy.

“About a year ago, we decided we were going to focus on county (commissioners),” said Kristin Mallory, the county Democrats' chair. She added: “We felt really good about Carrie Warren-Gully because she was on the Littleton school board.”

Mallory felt confident Democrats could flip that seat — District 1, home to incumbent Conti — partly because “all our candidates worked together,” she said.

That area, which overlaps state House District 38, “is one of our most organized House districts,” Mallory said. “Even on their Zoom meetings, they'll have 50 to 100 people join. There were a lot of boots on the ground, knocking on doors … thousands of phone calls. Mailings to apartment complexes. They put it all on the table. That's just on the party side, not what the campaigns do themselves.”

Commissioner District 3, the close Baker-Keith race, was “our stretch goal,” as Mallory calls it.

“That is a tougher, more moderate area with a very high population of unaffiliated voters, and they take a lot of courting,” Mallory said.

Regardless of the eventual outcome, her party is “very proud of the progress,” she added. “It's just a matter of time. That area is changing. More and more working-class people live in Aurora.”

She thinks the COVID-19 pandemic played a part in the election results, too, in that it “really opened people's eyes to the power that the county commissioners have, with Tri-County Health” and how consequential a local health department's actions can be, Mallory said. The health department's leaders, or board members, are appointed by county commissioners.

A number of Republicans came into the Democrats' county office this year asking for a sign supporting presidential candidate Joe Biden or asking to get involved in helping him, Mallory said.

“It's not a large percentage, but … in roughly four years, it's the most Republican enthusiasm I've seen,” Mallory added. She thinks Republicans were moved to volunteer for Biden because of issues of “decency” and being turned off by the president's behavior

Some — not necessarily from any one party — came in because they lost their job amid the coronavirus' economic effects and they “thought the national response to pandemic was lacking,” Mallory said.

Path forward

Backlash could be coming down the pike for Democrats, though, a possibility Wadhams is relying on. He thinks Biden could end up “immensely unpopular” in 2022.

“I do have some optimism about that because now that Biden has (potentially) won the presidency, I think he'll be a miserable failure — I don't think he's mentally or physically ready for the job,” Wadhams said. “Throw in the state Legislature, which won't be able to control itself, fiscally and every way. They are going to pursue a far-left agenda. There's no such thing as a Democratic moderate in the state Legislature.”

Presidents, historically, experience midterm elections that are challenging for their party, and “I think Democrats will particularly have trouble under Biden” in 2022, Wadhams said.

He also sees Democrats as “intent on killing the oil-and-gas industry,” a bent that he argues could affect the state's entire economy and render Colorado less attractive to people in other states who may consider moving here.

Baker, the incumbent commissioner running against Keith, nodded to Arapahoe County's demographics changing as people arrive in Colorado from “all over the country.” He remembered Arapahoe “was a red county for many years.”

“I think the demographics are changing — I think it sends a message to politicians to be moderate. That's how I take it,” Baker said. “They don't want their representatives to be far right or far left. Middle ground is where people want their politicians to be.”

The path forward has to include reaching out to younger voters, Baker said.

“The cliché is when you go to a Republican meeting, it's a bunch of old white guys. And that isn't completely true, but they're in the majority,” Baker said. “We've got to reach out to young people. You can have your personal views on social issues.”

LGBTQ issues are “not something we're going to win votes on, and it shouldn't be something we even bring up as an issue,” he continued.

“Social issues need to be put behind us. We need to embrace the people who are enthusiastic about their conservative values. And it's got to be fiscal conservatism,” Baker said. “It's got to be transparency of the government and effective and efficient use of taxpayer dollars.”

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