Over the past few episodes of our podcast we’ve discussed the women’s marches and the anti-Trump sentiment sweeping across the country, and tried to work out what implications the energy displayed in those marches will have for electoral politics in the midterm elections of 2018. In a lot of ways, it is still far too early to know for sure, but when it comes to electoral politics we fortunately will not have to wait until November 2018 to get a sense of the true power of this movement at the ballot box. This is because the first opportunity for the anti-Trump movement to really flex it’s political muscle will be in Democratic Primary elections. And in an atmosphere where even Senator Elizabeth Warren is failing the litmus tests put forth by some members of the liberal base, enough that she feels the need to justify her vote to confirm Ben Carson in a lengthy Facebook post, it will be fascinating to see whether this anti-Trump energy feeds into a desire for more progressive Democratic candidates at every level of government. To the extent that it does, we really could be looking at the “Tea Party of the Left”.
While that kind of enthusiasm would presumably benefit Democrats in a lot of races around the country, the precise implications would depend upon the state or district. Not all Democratic candidates stand to benefit from establishing themselves as reflexively anti-Trump, Rust Belt Democrats being the most obvious example. In Rust Belt states and districts, candidates may be able to win their Democratic primaries by campaigning fiercely against President Trump, but such a position would appear to put them at odds with general election voters. To again draw from the Tea Party comparison, call it the Christine O’Donnell effect. If you want to dig into that topic further, Dan McLaughlin has done some great work over at National Review.
So what about our home state of Colorado? Bernie Sanders scored a big win over Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Caucus last year. Was that simply due to the fact that caucus states favored the grassroots energy of the Sanders campaign, or might it suggest that there is a more progressive wing of the Colorado Democratic Party that is just waiting to assert itself in a statewide Democratic Primary, even if it means nominating a candidate who is less electable come November?
Colorado’s All-Important Midterms
Before answering that question, let’s digress and take a brief look at midterm elections in Colorado. Midterm elections are crucial here, because that’s when elections for our statewide offices are held. In the past two midterm elections, Republicans have been able to win seven out of the ten elections for statewide office, the only losses being the elusive governor’s office (twice) and Senator Michael Bennet’s election in 2010. The seven wins include Senator Cory Gardner in 2014, and then a 6-0 sweep in the contests for Secretary of State, State Treasurer and Attorney General. Republicans, going back at least half a century, have historically dominated those three offices. The last time a Democratic candidate won an election for Secretary of State was George Baker in 1958 (Bernie Beuscher was appointed in 2009 but never elected). Democrats have had slightly more success in races for State Treasurer – Cary Kennedy in 2006 and a 20-year run from 1975-1995 – and Ken Salazar served as Attorney General before winning election to the U.S. Senate in 2004. But the fact remains that in Colorado, Republicans have typically benefited from the fact that elections for statewide officers are held in midterm years.
Still, it’s not as though Republican candidates are winning these elections by wide margins. The average Republican share of the vote in those seven wins from 2010 and 2014 is only 50.5%, and that’s including the re-election of Attorney General John Suthers in 2010, which at 56.3% is something of an outlier. Granted, these races almost always feature a Libertarian or American Constitution Party candidate who takes more votes from the Republican, but assuming that trend continues, there is not a ton of margin for error for statewide Republican candidates next year.
It is not hard to envision a scenario where Democratic candidates are able to ride an enthusiasm gap in their favor and have more success in 2018 than they’ve had in past midterms. Plus, in 2014 we already had an electorate that was less Republican (37.3% of all voters) than in 2010 (39.6%) and tilted more toward Unaffiliated voters (27.3% to 29.3%). Because Democrats typically win among these Unaffiliated voters, they appear to have their best opportunity in quite some time to win a few statewide offices, while also holding on to the governor’s seat. Considering whether they’ll be able to do so brings us back to our original question: What are the chances that Colorado Democrats, in attempting to capitalize on all of the anti-Trump energy that currently exists and shows no signs of subsiding, nominate progressive candidates who are too far to the left in a general election?
Left Turn Ahead?
It’s a difficult question, simply because there are not many statewide Democratic Primaries that we can analyze in our search for an answer. The last competitive statewide Democratic Primary was Andrew Romanoff’s challenge to Senator Michael Bennet in 2010. Not only was that a long time ago, but it was also a race where there not a clear insurgent, anti-establishment candidate, Romanoff having previously served as Speaker of the House and receiving the endorsement of Bill Clinton and Bennet being an incumbent Senator.
What we can do, though, is take a look at Democratic voters who have registered to vote since 2010. There are 324,790 Democrats in Colorado
today who were not registered here in 2010. That amounts to 28.4% of all registered Democrats in the state, and is nearly equal to the 341,133 who voted in the 2010 Bennet-Romanoff Primary. Not surprisingly, these new Democratic voters since 2010 are a much younger cohort than statewide Democrats a whole: 75% of them are between the ages of 18-44, compared to only 45% of all registered Democrats. The new voters are also more heavily concentrated in Congressional Districts 1, 2 and 5, centered in large cities and college towns where they are more likely to have encountered Bernie Sanders supporters, anti-Trump protests and Democratic political activism in general.
Looking at County-level Democratic politics, though they are inside baseball, can also provide some clues. Earlier this month, El Paso County Democrats elected Electra Johnson, a strong supporter of Bernie Sanders, as their new chairwoman. Johnson was backed by the #DemEnter movement, which works to make sure Sanders supporters remain engaged in the Democratic Party and encourages them to run for office. In other large counties, #DemEnter-backed candidates have had mixed results. JoAnn Fujioka, a Sanders delegate last year, lost her bid for Denver party chair, but retired teacher Lori Goldstein won election as the Adams County chair in a race characterized by State Representative Joe Salazar as “old guard vs. progressive new blood.” It remains to be seen whether this progressive movement will be organized enough to have an impact in a statewide Democratic Primary.
New Voters May Hold the Keys in Democratic Primaries, Though Too Soon to Tell Where They’re Headed
But let’s assume that these new voters who are between the ages 18-44 aren’t caught up in that battle, and they do not become particularly politically active due to Bernie Sanders, the anti-Trump protests or some mix of the two. Let’s assume that only 15% of them vote in the 2018
Democratic Primary, which is roughly equal to the percentage of Democrats age 18-44 who voted in the Democratic Primary back in 2010. That would still mean over 36,000 new Democratic Primary voters, which is greater than Senator Bennet’s margin of victory in the 2010 Primary. So even viewed at their most conservative level of participation, we are looking a bloc of voters who can swing the result in a close primary election.
Long story short, Colorado’s Democrats have done a remarkable job avoiding messy, contentious statewide Primary battles for most of the past decade. It’s a skill that has allowed a politician like Governor Hickenlooper to gear up for November without getting dinged up by fellow Democrats. Setting the Governor’s office aside, though, for all their intra-party unity they have largely been unsuccessful at winning other statewide offices during midterm elections. Will that change in 2018? The answer to that question may hinge on the results of the Democratic Primaries, and whether Democratic nominees emerge that are not too far left to win a general election. Time will tell, and it’s definitely something we’ll be keeping an eye on.