Republican worries are growing that Colorado is slipping further into the hands of Democrats after recent defeats and close calls in the most conservative parts of the state.
The latest blow to the GOP in the Centennial State came this week when Republicans lost the mayoral race in Colorado Springs, marking the first time in decades that a member of the party wouldn’t take the helm of the conservative bastion.
That followed a surprise near-upset last year when Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) almost lost her reelection bid in one of the midterms’ biggest surprises.
Colorado’s changing political landscape, which Republicans believe is due to a culmination of factors, comes as the party looks to hold onto its slim House majority in next year’s elections.
“Across the board in Colorado, we saw a swing to the left that was wholly unanticipated” in the November midterms, said Sandra Hagen Solin, founder of lobbying firm Capitol Solutions, who has worked in Republican politics.
“Historically, Colorado has been a place where folks vote the person, and you have a lot of vote-splitting historically. And in this election cycle, it was largely an up-and-down-the-ticket vote for party, for Democrats,” she added.
Colorado Springs residents elected political newcomer and independent candidate Yemi Mobolade on Tuesday to take the helm of their city over Republican Wayne Williams, a former Colorado secretary of state. It will be the first time in 45 years that a Republican won’t be mayor of the city.
The results of the initial 12-candidate mayoral race in April had shown early indicators that Mobolade was leading the race, but the margin of the Tuesday runoff showed a remarkable landslide win of 15 points in a once-Republican stronghold.
“It’s clear Colorado Springs is less conservative than it used to be. When I was chairman here (of the El Paso County Republican Party) we had no Democratic state reps. Now we have three,” Williams explained following his election loss, according to The Gazette. “So there are significant changes that have taken place and I congratulate Yemi on an excellent campaign.”
While experts attribute that wide margin win to a few factors — Mobolade’s strong campaign, a divided GOP and the state’s rapid growth, which has impacted cities like Colorado Springs and changed the electoral dynamic — past election cycles have pointed to a changing political landscape over at least the past decade.
Back in 2016, former President Trump won El Paso County, which includes Colorado Springs, by more than 20 points. But by 2020, Trump had only won the county by 11 points. Joe O’Dea, the Republican Senate challenger who lost to Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) last cycle, won the county by a margin of 9 points with 55 percent of the vote there.
“That’s a defeat for a Republican candidate,” said former state GOP chair Dick Wadhams, regarding O’Dea’s margin of victory in El Paso.
Boebert’s congressional district offers another data point. She represents the 3rd Congressional District in the state, which encompasses southern and western portions of the state. In 2018, former Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colo.), who represented the district before Boebert, won it by 8 points.
Boebert, on the other hand, won it in 2020 by 6 points and in 2022 by less than a percentage point. Democrat Adam Frisch, who challenged Boebert during the 2022 midterms, has already announced a second bid to reclaim the district as Republicans brace for another competitive election.
Republicans say there are a few reasons why Colorado’s once purple status has started to trend blue in more recent years. One of those reasons is the state’s rapidly changing demographics, as Colorado has seen a surge of people moving there.
Roughly 744,000 people moved to the state between 2010 and 2020, according to U.S. Census Bureau data — a nearly 15-percent increase during a decade that was double that of the national country’s growth, according to The Colorado Sun. Experts say the migration includes people coming from states like California, which has shifted the political landscape. Those new arrivals are younger, too.
That goes hand in hand with a surge in unaffiliated voter registration. In November 2016, unaffiliated voters made up about 35 percent of the voting electorate in Colorado. Democrats and Republicans each made up 32 percent at that time.
But by last November, unaffiliated voters made up a whopping 45 percent of the voting electorate, while Democrats made up 28 percent and Republicans made up 25 percent.
“I think it’s literally demographics are the hugest reason why Colorado is shifting more blue. The people moving into our state are by and large more liberal, and the people leaving our state are by and large, more conservative,” said Kristi Burton Brown, who recently stepped down as state GOP chair.
Burton Brown explained that the increase in unaffiliated voters in the state is partly due to automatic voter registration. But she also suggested there’s been a rise in unaffiliated voters because “a lot of younger people are disillusioned with how divisive politics has become.”
“I think if either party were able to bring back more basic respect in politics and a positive vision that moves people forward instead of always just saying what people are angry about, that could draw younger people, I think, to a party,” she said.
But other experts says there’s a bigger problem for Republicans, one that is hurting even some of their best candidates, such as O’Dea.
“The Republican brand in this state has been so damaged by not just Trump, although he’s very toxic in the state, but beyond that, just by their sort of taking extreme positions on previous nominees, on ballot initiatives that were often soundly defeated on abortion and some of the other issues that O’Dea couldn’t get out from under the brand,” said Denver-based pollster Floyd Ciruli.
At the same time, recent events have shown a divided GOP. Former state Rep. Dave Williams, an election denier who tried to have the anti-Biden phrase “Let’s Go Brandon” listed as part of his name on a ballot for a House GOP primary that he lost last cycle, won the state GOP election for party chair in March.
That prompted several well-known Republicans to leave the party. Hagen Solin, the founder of the Capitol Solutions lobbying firm, suggested state party leadership isn’t reflective of what the state GOP used to embody.
“We’ve had a wonderful history of Republican leadership in this state that’s quite moderate over the years, but at present those in positions of leadership within the party … do not reflect that more moderate, pragmatic sort of tone,” she explained. “And it’ll be a little bit of time for us, for the Republican Party, to sort of restore that trust.”
In an interview with The Hill, Williams rejected that criticism.
“These are excuses from failed Republicans who want nothing more than to support sell-out Republicans who have failed us,” he explained.
“We’re not here to necessarily favor one side over another, but we’re certainly not going to let failed consultants and establishment Republicans of the past escape from the blame that they are due. They’re the ones who have failed us,” he added.
Williams suggested that O’Dea fared poorly in his race because “he just wasn’t a quality candidate that people could believe in.”
On the Colorado Springs mayoral race, the former lawmaker said that the first round of the mayoral race in April had left the Republican candidate bruised heading into the runoff, but he also suggested that grassroots Republicans had concerns with Williams.
At the end of the day, observers say that Republicans will need to build back their brand in the state if they have any hope of being successful in competitive House districts like the 3rd and 8th in 2024, and to even win Senate and gubernatorial races in 2026.
“I think Republicans are in for a little bit of a ‘time out’ in the wilderness until they have shed themselves of the Trump-MAGA brand, which could take a long time,” said Democratic strategist Craig Hughes. “I think outside of that, they’re going to need very unique candidates who have unique stories.”