Lessons from Colorado’s off-year elections

ERNEST LUNING ernest.luning@coloradopolitics.com



The Gazette, Colorado Springs



The dust is still settling on the last of Colorado’s off-year elections, but it’s not too soon to glean conclusions from the results dealt by the state’s voters in a series of local and statewide plebiscites. As lawmakers geared up for a hastily called special session, while newly elected and reelected candidates prepared to take office on school boards and in cities and towns across the state, it’s worth reflecting on some lessons in the wake of the 2023 vote. Most of these are obvious, at least in retrospect, but they bear repeating, if only because there’s nearly always another election around the corner, with a new crop of candidates and a fresh set of questions facing voters in at least slightly different circumstances. On the other side of the upcoming stretch of shorter days and festive nights known as The Holidays looms next year’s election cycle, which will likely be dominated by a rematch between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump. Like every general election in the past decade, it’s convincingly being billed as the most important election of our lifetime. It’s fast approaching. Just over 100 days remain until Colorado’s presidential primary and precinct caucuses kick off the 2024 election year in the first week of March. By then, some enterprising hopefuls will have already been gathering petition signatures for more than a month, and mail ballots will have been in hand for most voters since mid-february. Top strategists insist there are only a handful of binding rules in electoral politics, and while they’re clichés for a reason, they can be easy to disregard in the heat of a campaign amid competing egos and fast-moving events. Politics is about addition, not subtraction. Don’t take the voters for granted. Put in the work. All politics are local. Stay on message. A few others function more as guidelines, since they’re neither hardand-fast rules nor without plenty of obvious counter-examples. Voters prefer authenticity, except when they don’t. A smile beats a scowl, with some notable exceptions. Yard signs don’t win races, apart from the times they do. Veterans of Colorado’s political scene are quick to invoke a few localized entries, mostly involving the folly of ignoring unaffiliated voters, who make up the overwhelming plurality of the state’s electorate and have always swayed statewide elections. This axiom comes with a qualification, however — keep in mind that “unaffiliated” doesn’t necessarily mean they’re “independent” or swing voters. Also, it’s important to remember, it’s election month, not Election Day — a circumstance that’s obvious to local politicians but can be a hurdle for out-of-staters unfamiliar with Colorado’s decade-old mail ballot system. Here are some lessons from this year’s balloting, with a look at Proposition HH — the sweeping, statewide tax-policy ballot measure shot down by voters — and mayoral elections in Colorado’s three largest cities, which resulted in Denver Mayor Mike Johnston, Colorado Springs Mayor Yemi Mobolade and Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman, respectively. Some races across the state this year were close, but these weren’t, with voters rendering decisive verdicts in contests that all appeared at some point to be up for grabs. Keep it simple, silly There’s a blunter version of this all-purpose rule, but the more polite iteration works for our purposes. As the legislature went into a special session Friday called by Gov. Jared Polis to deal with next year’s soaring residential property taxes, a battle rages over the message behind HH’S near-landslide, 19-point loss. The ballot measure’s most vocal opponents — led by a coalition of Republican legislators and conservative-leaning nonprofits — contend the referendum failed because voters don’t want to mess with the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, while its sponsors maintain there were lots of reasons to vote no on the complicated proposal. Like the enduring meme involving a T-shirt already answering questions raised by the T-shirt, boasting that voters had plenty of reasons to reject the measure isn’t exactly a selling point. Regardless, the fiscal contraption had so many moving parts — everything from property tax relief to long-term education funding mechanism and a smidgeon of rental assistance — that supporters had a hard time boiling it down into an easily digestible pitch. The opposition, meanwhile, hammered a succinct message: Don’t let the government take away your TABOR refunds. As a rule of thumb, it’s always easier to vote against a ballot question than to vote in favor, especially when a proposal is hard to understand and could have unforeseen consequences. The measure’s foes played this builtin advantage to the hilt. Compare the fate of HH to its fellow statewide ballot measure, Proposition II, which asked if the government could keep surplus revenue collected under a 2020 ballot measure that boosted tax revenue on tobacco and other nicotine products, instead of refunding it under TABOR. Suggesting that voters are fine relinquishing some TABOR refunds, the simple question passed by an overwhelming margin. Persistence pays off Before voters elected Johnston as Denver’s 46th mayor by a comfortable margin in the June runoff, the former educator and state lawmaker had acquired a reputation as an also-ran in the only other electoral arenas large enough to rival the race he won. After facing term limits in the legislature, the rising star ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2018 and for the U.S. Senate in 2020, both times falling short of the brass ring. Johnston finished in third place in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, behind former State Treasurer Cary Kennedy and Polis, the eventual winner. A year later, Johnston withdrew from the Senate race after former Gov. John Hickenlooper jumped from a White House bid to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner. Although he led the field in fundraising and was polling well, Johnston stepped aside, saying he didn’t want to help Gardner by running the “expensive and negative” campaign it would take to win the nomination. After spending a few years running a major local nonprofit, it turned out the mayoral race was the right fit for Johnston, who finished in first place in the first round in a field of 16 candidates and went on to defeat former Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce CEO Kelly Brough by 9 points in the runoff. Hope any bad news gets out early The last thing candidates want as voters prepare to go to the polls is the proverbial October Surprise or its equivalent in elections held at other points in the calendar. The most welloiled campaign can be derailed at the eleventh hour if the terrain suddenly shift, leaving voters to digest new information that changes the equation. That’s why Coffman, who was seeking a second term, was lucky that a brewing backlash over his once-secretive support to convert Aurora to a “strong mayor” system fizzled by the time voters cast ballots in the fall. The initiative, touted as long-overdue in Colorado’s third-largest city, would have exchanged the burg’s “council-manager” set-up for a system vesting more power in the mayor, who would take over executive functions from the city manager, including budget and appointment duties. Derided early on as a subterfuge, since the proposal’s shadowy backers emphasized a provision that would affect term limits, the initiative drew more pointed criticism as a power-grab when it emerged that Coffman and his allies were behind the ballot measure. Opponents rallied, complaining that Coffman had short-circuited what should have been a years-long process, with even some of the incumbent’s strongest supporters voting to approve a city council resolution rejecting the plan in August. Coffman appeared to be on his heels — City Councilman Juan Marcano, his leading challenger and the sponsor of the resolution, blasted his rival for a lack of transparency behind the potentially disruptive move — but the initiative failed to make the ballot and soon took a back seat to a host of other issues in the mayoral race. In the end, Coffman beat Marcano by 12 points in a three-way race, sustaining a nearly uninterrupted 34-year run of election wins that spanned offices from state legislator to state treasurer, secretary of state and congressman. Don’t assume the die is cast In his first run for office, Mobolade became the first elected Black mayor of Colorado’s second-largest city in May by trouncing Colorado Springs City Councilman Wayne Williams by about 15 points in the runoff, stunning the state’s political observers in the process. A clear underdog, the Nigerian-born pastor and nonprofit head was also distinguished by being an unaffiliated candidate running in a crowded field of Republicans in a city that hadn’t elected anything but Republican mayors for decades. By any account, the race was Williams’ to lose. A former El Paso County GOP chairman, county commissioner, county clerk and secretary of state, he epitomized the kind of civic leader that had long been at the city’s helm. But an innovative campaign that ignored traditional battle lines in the nonpartisan contest propelled Mobolade to a victory that reverberated nationally. Forging unexpected alliances and mounting an optimistic race that mobilized the city’s shifting electorate, Mobolade benefited from divisions between local Republicans and within the developer community that left Williams with deep-pocketed and motivated opponents who were ready to take a chance on new leadership.