Can Democrats flip the Colorado Senate? And would that ultimately be good for them?

One analyst reminds us that the last time Democrats held the governorship and both chambers of the legislature, they faced pretty significant pushback — and recalls.
6 min. read
Scenes from the seat of government on the last day of the state legislative session. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

There's a lot at stake on November 6 -- specifically the elevation of some of our fellow humans into powerful state government roles that control far-reaching policies.

Democrats could have way more control over those policies if they gain control of the state Senate, where Republicans are clinging to a one-seat majority. (Outgoing State Sen. Sheri Jahn became unaffiliated last session to make a point, but votes Democrat.)

It's possible. If Democrats keep their current posts and wrestle at least one seat away from Republicans, the Senate will flip with it. That scenario would make passing legislation a breeze for the Dems, who are expected to keep the House.

Political analysts see five races that could go either way, four of which are in the Denver suburbs of Jefferson and Adams counties, all of which feature women running as Democrats.

"They're very purple areas, very purple districts that tend to go with a particularly compelling candidate or just go with whichever party is the dominant party in that particular year," said Eric Sonderman, an independent political analyst, in an interview.

The dominant party in Colorado this year seems to be Democrat, Sonderman said, "especially given that Trump's approval numbers nationally are marginal, at best, and his numbers in Colorado trail what his numbers are nationally."

Mike Beasley, a Republican lobbyist and former gubernatorial appointee who's been following the races closely, has a different take. The lengthy scroll of well-funded initiatives on the ballot could bring special issue voters out of the woodwork. That fact, along with the effect of mail-in ballots, subdues the influence of the national political climate characterized by a polarizing president and the #MeToo movement, he said.

"Each of those women candidates are extraordinarily strong in their own right," Beasley said. "They're raising records amount of money in their own right and seem to be running very good campaigns. For right now I think things could go either way, and I think that we're really disconnected form that national mood because of all the things that are on the ballot and all the money that's out there in our political system."

One big race to watch: Republican incumbent Beth Martinez Humenik versus Democrat State Rep. Faith Winter.

In Senate District 24, Martinez Humenik beat her Democratic opponent by a mere 896 votes in 2014. This year, two other candidates will hog some votes from both major parties: Adam Matkowsky, who is unaffiliated, and Donald Osborn, a Libertarian who will probably siphon votes from Martinez Humenik, Sonderman said.

While Martinez Humenik has seen more money than Winter from outside groups hoping to influence the election, Winter's individual donations trump her opponent's 4 to 1.

Winter's volunteers have knocked on about 38,000 doors during the ground campaign so far, she told Denverite. She hopes those face to face conversations translate to votes. The Democrat started TV and radio commercials this week. Outside groups have sent 54 separate mailers in favor odf Martinez Humenik to residents, by her campaign's count, and Martinez Humenik's had TV commercials since around Labor Day.

The question is how unaffiliated voters will cast their ballots. They comprise about almost 40 percent of the district's voting bloc.

"The race is more about politics but the discussion among the unaffiliateds, and they're definitely talking about issues."

Another big one: Republican incumbent Time Neville versus Democratic education advocate Tammy Story

Neville beat his opponent by 2.8 percentage points in 2014, making this race in Senate District 16 another critical contest. Like in SD 24, this one includes a Libertarian candidate, James Gilman (advantage: Story).

"It certainly doesn't help Republicans in what is already a very close, hotly contested district," Sonderman said.

Story's campaign has out-raised Neville's 2 to 1 in the zig-zagging district spans from southwest Denver to western Jefferson County.

Republicans obviously aren't sitting back with their feet up.

"I haven't seen Republicans working the ground like they are today since 2002 when Governor Owens was up for reelection, which is intense as I've ever seen on the republican side in terms of getting out the vote," Beasley said.

The other big three: SD 22, SD 20 and SD 5

State Representative Brittany Petterson, a Democrat, is vying to keep Senate District 22's seat blue now that Andy Kerr has left office. She's running against Republican Tony Sanchez in the Lakewood battleground. Kerr beat Sanchez in 2014 by just 1,336 votes. This one is anyone's guess, Sonderman and Beasley agreed.

Then there are districts 20 and 5, both held by Democrats.

State Representative Jessie Danielson is facing Republican Christine Jensen as well as Libertarian Charles Messick. SD 20, a district that falls entirely within Jefferson County.

The other district at play is the sprawling SD 5, which encompasses Aspen, Gunnison and Gypsum. That's where incumbent Senator Kerry Donovan is trying to fight off Olen Lund, her Republican challenger.

"I would regard Republican victory in either of those districts as a significant upset," Sonderman said.

This isn't a competitive sport. What's actually at stake here is policies, not politics.

Democrats would have carte blanche over those policies if they hold onto the state House (likely), gain control of the state Senate (possible) and win the governorship (possible). Political people call this a "trifecta." It's when one party controls the executive branch and both houses of the legislature.

So what would the Democrats do with all that power?

Sonderman thinks maybe reform to TABOR, the Taxpayer Bill of Rights that requires a vote of the people to raise taxes. Education funding would be high on the list, especially if Amendment 73 goes down. Same with reforms to oil and gas rules, particularly if proposition 112 goes down.

A trifecta isn't necessarily ideal, Sonderman said. The Democrats had it in 2006, 2008 and 2012, but it led to pushback from the public. For example, after Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a gun reform package into law, two Democrats were ousted from the legislature in a recall election.

"There's a school of thought out there that if Jared Polis is going to win here -- and he certainly seems to be leading -- that he might be better served... by having some balance upstairs," Sonderman said. "But you're not gonna sell that to the most partisan Democrat around."

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