Five takeaways from Election Night in Colorado

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DENVER — After an election in which fewer than 1.2 million Coloradans — roughly 30 percent of the electorate — cast ballots, it’s hard to draw too many big conclusions about our state.

But it’s safe to say that the overwhelming defeat of Amendment 66, an income tax hike that would have funded a number of education reforms, is another reminder of the near-impossibility of raising taxes under TABOR and another rebuke to the Democrats who control the state Capitol.

The results here, and in races around the country, are informative. Here are five quick takeaways about what happened last night.

1. Colorado is still a centrist state

Even as demographic trends are continuing to turn Colorado a darkening shade of blue, the Democrats who have amassed political power over the last decade need to be careful if they hope to hold on to the levers of power. If Chris Christie can easily win in a state like New Jersey, a Republican — the right kind of Republican(s) — can win here.

The Democrats’ legislative agenda in 2013 was ambitious. Most of the legislation approved, taken one by one, has widespread support across the state. But the composite picture, and the resulting backlash of recall elections and secession measures, is one of overreach.

Colorado may approve of universal background checks on gun purchases, civil unions for gay and lesbian couples, in-state tuition for undocumented students and changes to election laws guaranteeing that every registered voter receives a mail ballot.

But the fights over a controversial ban on high-capacity magazines and a renewable energy mandate on rural electric providers, which both became law, and a proposal to repeal the death penalty, which didn’t, galvanized people outside the Capitol. Unaffiliated, less ideological voters, those who just want calm and consensus from their state government, have seen Colorado’s politics turn toward the near constant tumult more common in Washington, DC. And they don’t like it.

Thus, Democrats trying to convince their neighbors to approve the tax hike, from Gov. John Hickenlooper with his diminished approval ratings on down, did so with a weakened hand. In some ways, the party appears to have lost the trust of the state’s swing voters, the suburban women; Tuesday’s overwhelming defeat of Amendment 66 by a two-to-one margin (the Yes on 66 campaign still thought it had a chance to win as of just a week ago) shows their message never really resonated with moderates, never mind many Democrats (even in liberal Denver, voters were split on it).

Convincing voters to raise their own taxes is going to take more than politicians, smart strategists and willing donors. It’s probably going to take a genuine grassroots movement.

2. The Obamacare Effect

When a ballot measure loses by such a wide margin, especially with a $10 million campaign behind it, questions can rightly be asked about the campaign’s strategy. And they are being asked: Was the two-tiered income tax the right “transaction”? Was the “Big change. Small price.” message the right one? Was 2013 the right year? Was Hispanic outreach sufficient?

But there’s another debate going on as to how news about the Obamacare debacle and the recent government shutdown may have impacted the vote. And as much as some Democrats don’t want to talk about, as much irritation as it may spark when an Amendment 66 backer like Sen. Mike Johnston mentions it as a factor, the truth is that it’s hard not to accept the premise that near wall-to-wall media coverage of the early failures of a ballyhooed government program likely did discourage some voters from trusting government with more of their money.

Yes, the Obamacare problems have nothing to do with Colorado’s education measure. But the national narrative provided the mood music for this swing state election — and the music was loud.

No, it doesn’t explain away the wide margin of defeat. But it can’t be overlooked.

Case and point: Virginia, where Democrat Terry McAuliffe was polling ahead of Republican Ken Cuccinelli by 10 points just a couple of weeks ago.

McAuliffe squeaked by, winning last night by less than three percentage points. Why? Cuccinelli, a Tea Party extremist abandoned by his party’s donors toward the end of the race, ended his campaign by framing the Virginia contest as “a referendum on Obamacare.” Obama himself crossed the Potomac to campaign for McAuliffe on Sunday, which appears to have hurt.

Exit polls showed that 53 percent of Virginia voters oppose the new health care law; and 81 percent of them voted for Cuccinelli. McAuliffe’s win isn’t, as some have argued, that he — and Democrats — won a referendum on Obamacare; it’s actually evidence of how harmful it turned out to be for a candidate who appeared to have the race in the bag just a week ago.

In Colorado, the Yes on 66 campaign saw a precipitous drop in its own poll numbers roughly a week before Election Day, according to multiple operatives behind the effort. Make of that what you will.

3. Bloomberg: The Biggest Loser

If anyone had a worse night than Colorado Democrats and Cuccinelli, it was New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Bloomberg watched New Yorkers elect a liberal Democrat, Bill de Blasio, to replace him in a landslide, which amounted to a strong rebuke to Bloomberg’s business-minded, unapologetically corporate style of governance.

And, for the second time in two months, Bloomberg failed to affect his desired outcome in Colorado. He gave $1.03 million to the Yes on 66 campaign, which went down in flames. In August, he gave $350,000 to the effort to defend the two Democratic state lawmakers who were ultimately recalled for their support of gun control legislation — gun control legislation that Bloomberg’s group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, was the driving force behind.

In all those instances, from the legislative fight to the two failed campaigns, opponents used Bloomberg’s name and his money to bludgeon the Democrats he supported, accusing them of listening to out-of-state interests and effectively portraying themselves as underfunded underdogs.

Has Bloomberg’s influence, and Colorado Democrats’ increasing reliance on his deep pockets, been toxic? One thing’s clear: the billionaire businessman’s recent ROI, or “return on investment”, has been nil.

4. Big Money doesn’t always win

The defeat of Amendment 66 is but one instance that shows a well-funded campaign is no guarantee of success.

These instances remain outliers — asking voters to raise their own taxes is always an uphill fight, and money was certainly a factor in McAuliffe’s eventual victory in Virginia, not to mention many of the local school board races in Denver, Douglas and Jefferson counties, where better-funded “reform” candidates prevailed Tuesday night.

But big money was also defeated Tuesday night in Boulder, where voters overwhelmingly rejected a ballot question put before them by Xcel Energy in an effort to block the city’s plan to break away from the energy behemoth and form its own municipal utility using mostly renewable energy.

Xcel Energy out-spent New Era Colorado and the other small, grassroots groups that support the municipal utility by a two-to-one margin.

And Xcel lost Tuesday night — by a two-to-one margin.

Whether it’s voters in Boulder or across the entire state, Tuesday night offered ample evidence that no amount of money and not even the slickest of advertisements will move the electorate somewhere a clear majority doesn’t want to go.

5. What happens next?

For Colorado Republicans after a decade of near constant defeats, there’s growing optimism about a GOP renaissance after voters twice this fall rejected Democrats in September’s recall election and by turning down Amendment 66 Tuesday night.

“The progressive machine that has been invincible for nearly a decade has lost its third big fight in two months,” said Evergreen Republican Rob Witwer, a former state lawmaker.

But Witwer also understands the reality: that his party isn’t likely to capitalize on whatever headwind may be building behind them unless it puts forth the kind of candidates capable of winning in a state where, last night, some counties voted to ban fracking while others voted to secede and form a 51st state.

While Obamacare hurt Democrats this year, it’s likely the White House will have ironed out the kinks by next November; and the fallout from the GOP-forced government shutdown last month, while off the front pages, hasn’t been fully felt (although if you think it wasn’t still on voters minds last night, go talk to Ken Cuccinelli).

Gov. Chris Christie presented his reelection last night in New Jersey as a model for Republicans across the country looking to win in places other than the reddest of states and congressional districts. But, chances are, the Ted Cruz wing of the GOP tunes him out.

If Republicans can find a way to get mainstream candidates through a primary process controlled mostly by the party’s more implacable base, they’ll give beleaguered Democrats a run for their money in 2014, both in Colorado and across the country.

Losing has a funny way, too, of highlighting the fissures within a party’s coalition. Colorado Democrats, after the recalls and now Tuesday’s defeats, aren’t pointing fingers publicly. But it’s fair to say, even within the ballroom Tuesday night where the Yes on 66 campaign was licking its wounds, a number of party activists were chatting privately about what went wrong and who and what’s to blame.

Democrats have been better than Republicans of late — much better — at keeping the party’s coalition together. Maintaining that relative unity and cohesion in the face of a couple stinging loses, and learning the correct lessons after having overestimated the alignment between a boldly progressive agenda a blueish but still consensus-driven electorate, could be what determines where the party goes from here.

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