Opinion

NOONAN | Unaffiliateds went blue this time — but could make or break either party

Author: Paula Noonan - November 15, 2018 - Updated: November 15, 2018

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Paula Noonan
Paula Noonan

One more hindsight look at the Colorado elections shines light on the mystery of unaffiliated (UAF) voters.  At about 39 percent of active registered voters in the state, the UAFs now call the shots, but lawmakers must wonder how they decide to take aim.

Jefferson County is ground zero for contested elections. Voter registration between parties, across Senate and House districts, is close, with a few exceptions.  The county is the experiment and the results are the answers.

Three Jeffco House districts, 22, 25 and 27, offer insight into the present and near future of Colorado’s legislature and the fate of possible legislation.

South Jeffco’s HD-22, formerly represented by Rocky Mountain Gun Owners conservative Rep. Justin Everett,  has been solidly Republican for decades.  The GOP had a 10 percent registration advantage over Dems as of September.  UAFs were +2 percent over the GOP and  +12 percent over Democrats. 

Considering just the GOP and Dem votes for HD-22, the GOP pounded Democrats by 15 points, 46 percent to 31 percent.  But the final result goes like this:  53.67 percent GOP, 46.22 Dem, or only a 7.5 percent spread to the GOP. Dems collected a huge number of UAF votes, and the Republican candidate significantly underperformed.   

HD-25, which now-state Democratic Sen. Tammy Story lost to Tim Leonard in 2016 by 3.6 percent, finally switched to the Democrats after several years of ever tighter contests. This seat was reliably Republican. Leonard resigned from the district in the middle of election season.  Republicans had a 6 point registration advantage in 2018.  UAFs rose from 36 percent in 2016 to 39.5 percent this year.  Democrat Lisa Cutter won by 5.5 percent.  Democrats didn’t just overcome a 6 percent registration deficit, they did it with an 11.5 percent turnaround.

North Jeffco HD-27 then breaks the GOP bank.  This district, like HD-22, has been Republican for years, most recently represented by Libby Szabo and Lang Sias, who in 2018 was on the ballot for Lt. Governor.  Sias won this district in 2016 by 57 percent to 43 percent. The 2018 election ended up at 50.37 percent for the Dem to 49.63 percent for the GOP, a 14 percent reversal.  That’s a very big number.

These UAF results show why statewide offices, House of Representatives, and Senate are now firmly in Democratic control.  What they don’t explain is the results of three tax initiatives, Amendment 73 and Propositions 109 and 110.  

The three statewide tax initiatives lost because UAFs voted them down. Amendment 73 on public school funding hit the skids at 7.3 percent, Proposition 109 on transportation was shot down by 21 percent, and Proposition 110 on transportation took the dive by 19 percent.  

But in Jeffco, the school district ran two tax initiatives, one to raise the mill and one to raise bond money.  The mill passed handily and the bond will squeak through. Voters there said YES to local and NO to statewide tax increases.  

That’s a Colorado paradox. UAFs support Republican aversion to statewide tax increases, will break toward tax increases on local propositions, and then vote Democratic legislators into office.

These results give the parties and legislative leaders a glimpse into voter intention and how they might proceed on policy issues.  The statewide tax initiatives looked like mush to voters, and especially the crucial UAF cohort. Local governments got specific and their propositions passed.  

This Colorado paradox creates a jump ball for legislators and both parties.  Public education and transportation will be high priorities in the 2019 and 2020 General Assemblies. They need solutions.  

UAFs, as referees, tossed the ball up for a tip. Right now, Democrats have an advantage, but Republicans can get back in the game if they develop a solid, constructive vision. It’s actually clear.  UAFs are giving both parties a chance to make a break for practical solutions to practical problems.

Paula Noonan

Paula Noonan

Paula Noonan owns Colorado Capitol Watch, the state’s premier legislature tracking platform.