Election 2018LegislatureNews

ELECTION 2018 | Blue wave gives Polis a Democratic-controlled state Senate

Author: Marianne Goodland - November 6, 2018 - Updated: November 11, 2018

Colorado Sen.-elect Brittany Pettersen, second from left, is applauded by fellow senators Julie Gonzales, left, Jessie Danielson, second from right, and Steve Fenberg during a Democratic watch party in downtown Denver on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via AP)

Colorado’s blue wave didn’t just put Democrat Jared Polis into the governor’s mansion. It also gave him a Democratic-controlled state Senate for his first term in office.

As of now, Republicans have a narrow advantage in the state Senate. Come 2019, the Democrats will have control over both chambers of the General Assembly to go with their wins in the race for governor, attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer — a one-party hold on state government not seen in decades.

Democrats already had a hold on the state House of Representatives, and their leadership seemed secure following the general election.

As of early Thursday, it appeared that all five Senate seats that were seen as key to party control of the Senate will go to the Democrats.

Morgan Carroll, the state Democratic Party chair and a former state lawmaker, said the party was “thrilled” at the election’s outcome in the Senate.

“The voters of Colorado sent a clear message that they endorse Senate Democrats’ forward-looking agenda and reject the politics of cynicism and division,” she said election night.

In partial unofficial results as of 8:23 a.m. Thursday, incumbent Democratic Sen. Kerry Donovan of Vail held a 20-percentage-point advantage in the Western Slope’s Senate District 5 contest against Republican Olen Lund of Paonia.

Jefferson County had another three of the five prized seats. In Senate District 16 — south Jefferson County, including Littleton — incumbent Sen. Tim Neville was defeated, with Democratic challenger Tammy Story leading by nearly 13 points on early Thursday.

The campaign was a hard one, Story told Colorado Politics on election night. “We did everything we needed to do” to ensure the win. “Tomorrow, we get to work.”

Senate District 22, which includes Lakewood, was an open seat, being vacated by the term-limited Democratic Sen. Andy Kerr. Democratic Rep. Brittany Pettersen held a 15 percentage point advantage over her Republican opponent, Tony Sanchez, early Thursday.

Another closely-watched race was in Senate District 20. It is an open seat, currently held by term-limited and unaffiliated Sen. Cheri Jahn of Wheat Ridge. As of Thursday, Democrat Jessie Danielson was winning over Republican Christine Jensen by 11 points.

“It feels great” to have the support of the community, Danielson told Colorado Politics. She said she intends to carry on with some of the same issues she championed in the House, such as equal pay, protecting seniors and getting teachers the resources they need so that every child has a good education.

The fifth seat among the key races is in Senate District 24,  held by Republican Sen. Beth Martinez Humenik in Adams County, who faced Democratic Rep. Faith Winter. Thursday returns showed Winter with a 11.5-point lead.

Democrats also defended the District 11 seat in Colorado Springs now held by Sen. Mark Merrifield; Democratic Rep. Pete Lee won handily over Republican Pat McIntire.

Republicans, meanwhile, held onto the District 2 seat being vacated by term-limited Senate President Kevin Grantham of Cañon City. Republican Dennis Hisey held a nearly 2-1 advantage over his Democratic opponent, Beth Harz.

Democratic Sen. Steve Fenberg of Boulder headed the strategy for the state Senate flip for Coloradans for Fairness.

“We pretty much performed in the way we said we wanted to,” Fenberg told Colorado Politics. “It feels really good to execute a pretty amazing program and to have candidates who will work their butts off no matter what the climate. They came out on top even bigger than people thought they would.”

Another result of the election: Women will outnumber men in the Senate Democratic caucus for only the second time.  (The first time was in 2011-12).

With women in the majority in the caucus, “we’ll have better laws passed in Colorado,” Fenberg said.

The five Senate races drew unprecedented amounts of campaign cash, especially in the waning weeks of the election season.

More than $7.5 million was spent by outside groups on the five races, including $4.5 million on the Danielson/Jensen and on the Martinez Humenik/Winter races.

Spending by outside groups, as well as the candidates themselves, revealed just where a last-minute push was headed.

Campaign finance reports from Oct. 29 showed that independent expenditure groups had spent more than $7.6 million on the five key Senate races. But outside groups backed by both parties spent $2.07 million just on the Martinez Humenik/Winters race, and another $2.54 million on the Danielson/Jensen race.

In all five of the contests seen as key to Senate control, the Democratic candidates outraised and outspent their Republican opponents by huge margins:

  • Story raised $517,000 to Neville’s $216,000.
  • Danielson took in $405,000 to Jensen’s $135,000.
  • Pettersen raised almost $200,000 more than Sanchez.
  • Donovan dwarfed Lund’s campaign fundraising, $228,000 to $31,000.
  • Winter raised $437,000 to $117,000 for Martinez Humenik.

In all five of the Senate districts that were most in play, active unaffiliated voters outnumbered voters from all political parties, including Democrats and Republicans. Democrats have picked up voters in all five of the districts in the last four years, while Republicans have added to their numbers in three of the five and by far smaller numbers. But unaffiliated voter numbers grew substantially in all five districts between 2014 and 2018.

In all five races, the Democrats drew more votes than their Republican challengers in their primaries.

The sweep of the Senate races means legislation dealing with issues for LGBTQ Coloradans that previously went to the Republican-controlled Senate to die may face a very different result.

Daniel Ramos of One Colorado said in a statement on election night that “for the past four years, we have talked about our efforts to flip one vote in the state Senate in order to pass pro-equality legislation that would make Colorado a more fair and just state for all, including LGBTQ Coloradans. Tonight, voters rejected hate and division, and elected leaders who will represent and fight for all of their constituents, no matter who they are or who they love.”

That includes a proposed bill to make it easier for transgender Coloradans to obtain new birth certificates, and a measure that bans conversion therapy for minors.

“We’re committed to changing what’s been the status quo,” said Democratic Sen. Leroy Garcia of Pueblo, who was picked as the next  Senate president when Democrats held their leadership elections on Thursday.

“Republicans have fallen short on leading,” on issues such as the opioid epidemic, affordable housing and investing in higher education, he said. “We’re ready to start governing in a way that Colorado voters expect us to.”

Grantham issued a statement Wednesday on his party losing the Senate.

“It’s never fun losing races or being in the political minority,” he said. “But because Colorado remains at heart a centrist state, where common sense economic and fiscal values still hold great sway, Republicans still have a critical role to play at the Statehouse, by ensuring that a diversity of views are heard and serving as a check on the excesses we might see if Democrats see their advantage as an opportunity to run wild. We of course congratulate the new governor, and all lawmakers who won [on Election Day], whether they are challengers or incumbents, and we look forward to getting back to doing the peoples’ business when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.”

Grantham won’t be among them since he was term-limited.

Editor’s note: This article was updated the afternoon of Nov. 7 to state that women outnumbered men in the Colorado Senate Democratic caucus in 2011-12.

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland is the chief legislative reporter for Colorado Politics. She's covered the Colorado General Assembly for 20 years, starting off in 1998 with the Silver & Gold Record, the editorially-independent newspaper at CU that was shuttered in 2009. She also writes for six rural newspapers in northeastern Colorado. Marianne specializes in rural issues, agriculture, water and, during election season, campaign finance. In her free time (ha!) she lives in Lakewood with her husband, Jeff; a cantankerous Shih-Tzu named Sophie; and Gunther the cat. She is also an award-winning professional harpist.