by Floyd Ciruli, pollster, political analyst, Director of the Crossley Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Denver
Featured in the September/October 2018 Colorado Medicine.
Colorado is approaching a transformative election – one of those moments when the political environment becomes unstable due to a mix of surging new social movements, changing voter attitudes, rising unconventional leaders and shifting demographics. Like the earth’s surface, the plates slip and create a new configuration of politics. Nationally, the election of Donald Trump released that kind of new energy.
Colorado has had ruptures of similar proportion in the last four decades, and we are heading toward one this November. The anti-Olympic movement of 1972 and Dick Lamm’s environmentalism, which captured the Democratic Party, changed the history of Colorado in the mid-1970s. The passage of the TABOR Amendment in 1992, accompanied by a surge of local Reagan Republicans, made Colorado a conservative redoubt through the 1990s and into the early 2000s. And now, after more than a decade of rapid growth, a rise of unaffiliated voters and a shift to more liberal politics, it appears another inflection point is approaching, and Colorado voters will decide a new direction for the state.
It is easy to observe the shift in the state’s politics since early in this century when George W. Bush won Colorado in two presidential elections (2000, 2004) and Bill Owens gained his 2002 gubernatorial reelection with 65 percent of the vote. That year was the apex of Republican dominance. Colorado had two Republican U.S. Senators and both state houses, and five out of seven congressional seats were in Republican control. Contrast that with this year. Democrats have erased a 160,000-plus deficit in voter registration since 2000 and are now ahead. They had 119,000 more voters turn out in the June primary than the Republicans. Democrats have won the last three presidential races in Colorado. The party’s nominee for governor is currently favored after an eight-year term by Democrat John Hickenlooper. And, of course, they may benefit from a wave of support this November due to the normal midterm election referendum on a new president.
The party that dominates the state this November is likely to shift its politics dramatically. The major issues Colorado voters face in November’s election are starkly differentiated between the two parties and candidates for governor. Energy, education, transportation and health care have produced different analyses of the problems and contrasting solutions. Health care is rated the top issue today in national and Colorado polls. The state is one of the most engaged in the issue. When Obamacare was passed in 2010, Gov. Hickenlooper jumped on the program, setting up a newly authorized health care exchange and expanding Medicaid. Even voters have gotten involved. In 2016, Colorado voted on a single-payer system, but strongly rejected it.
The issue is a significant focus in the governor’s race with Democrat Jared Polis endorsing a version of a single-payer system and Republican Walker Stapleton rejecting it. But, the issue has become much more complex since Obamacare first passed and both parties are being forced to adapt.
The Republican battle cry to repeal Obamacare, which was so politically successful in the 2010 and 2014 elections and so pervasive in the 2017 Congressional deliberations, is now a liability in competitive elections. The public fondness for Obamacare grew just as it was most embattled, and Republicans are scrambling to deal with questions on pre-existing conditions, access to coverage and rising insurance rates. But, Democrats are finding limited support for single-payer proposals due to criticism about the cost, reduced choice in care and government control of the medical system. After the 2018 election, significant changes in health care policies are likely to be implemented by the governor-elect. Health care is increasingly seen as a basic right, which won’t go away as a political challenge, whomever is elected.
Although the Colorado electorate will also face choices that could significantly change the partisan makeup of the state Senate, constitutional statewide offices (attorney general, treasurer and secretary of state) and the congressional delegation, it may be ballot issues that could most alter the state’s trajectory.
A ban on oil and gas fracking is on the ballot after almost making it on the 2014 ballot. Although it is gathering little establishment support, it could affect the general election as millions of dollars of oil and gas money may be spent to oppose the initiative and the Democratic Party is split on the issue. Billions in new taxes are proposed for the K-12 public school system. A massive school tax increase was rejected in the 2013 election, but supporters of the initiative are hoping the new proposal aimed at upper-income Coloradans has a friendlier electorate in 2018. Finally, on that ballot is another billion-dollar contest over how to fund transportation with either increased sales tax dollars or a diversion of existing state tax revenue (revenue which has been used for other programs, especially Medicaid expansion), which could control future state budgets as profoundly as the TABOR Amendment.
It is possible Colorado voters will stay with their historically conservative position on new state taxes and fracking, yet will put a very liberal team in charge of state government. But, the odds are that the forces that have been building for a decade in Colorado are likely to be released, producing new politics and policies for the next decade.