Colorado’s Blue Tsunami: Taking it Nationwide

by Joan Harvey

Photo by Dave Russell;

Colorado has been a purple state so long that the last time the Democrats had all down ballot State offices, the State House, and State Senate was in 1936. We’re a cowboy state. On the map we’re a sea of red with a tiny blue area to the east of the Continental Divide, plus the tiny population of Aspen. But those small urban and suburban areas have more and more people, and increasingly those people have a voice. And this time that voice has brought us a gay Jewish Democrat as governor, as well as a Democratic attorney general, secretary of state, and treasurer. Democrats will control the State House and State Senate. We’re so damn Blue we’re almost cobalt.

How did we do it? Can it be duplicated on a national level? It’s national news that we elected the nation’s first openly gay governor. But we also elected Colorado’s first African American congressman and he’s only 34. We elected the first transgender state rep. We elected more Latinxs to the state legislature. We elected the first Democratic woman to the position of secretary of state and she beat the incumbent in a seat that hasn’t been held by a Democrat since the Eisenhower years. All five of the female candidates in competitive districts for State Senate won handily. And for Congress, Democrat Jason Crow aced the previously unbeatable Republican incumbent Mike Coffman, who had won the previous five terms. Trump blamed Coffman for not embracing him, but in actuality it was Crow’s ability to tie Coffman to Trump that helped Crow win.

Maybe it’s marijuana. Coloradans are so relaxed they just couldn’t work up a rage against a small raggedy caravan of women and children hundreds of miles away. But clearly, the real reason for the great Blue success is Trump.

Coloradans woke up after the 2016 election so horrified, so shocked, by the policies and lying and boorishness of the new president, that for once the Bernie people and the Hillary people and the people who could care less about voting all knew they had to do something. People who’d never been in politics before began forming resistance groups and talking among themselves. Resistance can sound radical, but many of the main players involved live in nice suburbs and have young children and standard jobs and wouldn’t look out of place in a Republican gathering. Most of them were neither hardcore Bernie supporters nor part of the entrenched establishment. The difference was that they had values that went beyond self-interest, as well as a deep concern for the future, especially the future of their children. Women in conservative districts who voted for Hillary, but were too shy to be open about their support for her, were shy no more.

At first different resistance groups formed without much coordination, but fragmentation was short lived. Success was due to of a kaleidoscope of factors, one of which was how quickly the resistance, with a passionate, angry, grassroots membership, became extremely well organized,. Groups were helped by the Indivisible Guide, written by some former progressive congressional staffers aware of the effectiveness of the Tea Party’s tactics. In Colorado two groups in particular were fundamental—Indivisible Front Range Resistance (IFRR) and Colorado Resistance.

Katie Farnan, a librarian with children aged two and four, is one of the heads of IFRR. A keenly intelligent and gentle person, she tells me she was motivated by rage. In early January 2017 she and one other IFRR founder showed up to protest at Senator Cory Gardner’s office, and got coverage on the Rachel Maddow Show, the first national coverage of an Indivisible group. In a couple of days membership jumped from 400 to 2000. Throughout 2017 Farnan posted daily actions on the IFRR Facebook page with specific instructions about calling, rallying, writing, marching, and knocking on doors. In other aspects IFRR is relatively unstructured, and Farnan learned that trying to silence dissent within the group only worked to maintain the status quo and those traditionally in power. Realizing that many marginalized communities did not have access to congressional offices, and that you can’t advocate for justice in a closed room, she also helped organize many extremely effective public actions: for example, when Mike Pence came to Denver, 100 women showed up dressed as handmaids, and when Senator Cory Gardner refused to have town halls, IFRR created Cardboard Cory, a life-sized cutout (there were actually 9 of them) who, unlike his missing-in-action real counterpart, showed up at every event and brought an enormous amount of attention to Gardner’s failings as senator.

In 2018, the defensive energy of resisting turned toward the positive energy of winning the election, with Farnan questioning the now 4000 members every week about what they were doing to get out the vote. Many members of IFRR and other resistance groups went door to door in flippable districts, as Farnan herself did, often carrying her youngest child along. Others wrote thousands of postcards and made thousands of phone calls.

Meanwhile Colorado Resistance created the Colorado Resistance Manual, cowritten by Steve Fenberg, a progressive state senator frustrated by how Republicans in the Senate shut down civil debate and conversation on any bill they didn’t like. To turn the Senate around, Fenberg focused on vulnerable districts—there were only 17 seats up for election, and it was relatively clear, using data on voter turnout and demographic changes, which districts to work on. Much of the focus was on the suburbs where the Trump narrative was very unpopular. The Resistance Manual explained why state races are so important—one factor is that state legislatures control the redistricting process, allowing Republicans to gerrymander elections in their favor. Beyond this, the manual was a step-by-step guide on how to target state representatives, fundraise for the most strategic districts, get volunteer support, and activate people in blue parts of the state to help swing the red parts. Key races were identified and groups formed to support the Democratic candidates even before the candidates had declared.

A good example of a newly energized activist working with both groups is Tim Howard, an investment banker, not previously involved in politics. The Trump victory was particularly upsetting to him because he has three young daughters. He also knew it was important to elect women. He read about Cambridge Analytica and realized he too had plenty of expertise in marketing and analytics.

A number of people told Howard that he should stick to only one campaign, but he ignored their advice, working instead for many candidates, especially for a group of women who came to be known as the “Fab Five,” all running for competitive State Senate seats, and all of whom, in the end, won their seats by double digits. They each had a compelling story and put forward pragmatic programs rather than focusing on ideology. Howard put in effort every day to assist them, using his own money, holding fundraiser after fundraiser, examining the underlying voters for targeting purposes, and working with candidates and other members of the resistance groups on how to message. He attributes the wins to several factors: great candidates, intelligent selection of which seats could be won, fundraising that began even before the candidates declared, the willingness of the Colorado Democratic Party (which already had a structure in place) to coordinate with the energy and numbers of the resistance, and soft money contributions to add to the war chests. Money for these races from liberal-leaning groups and small donations beat the spending by the oil and gas industry, the Koch brothers, and Republicans, something which had never happened before (although overall in this election much more money was still spent in Colorado on Republican issues).

Early identification of key seats, as well as established bank accounts, allowed Democratic contenders to compete right out of the gate. Take one candidate, Tammy Story, for example. In 2014 she ran for State House but lost by only a few hundred votes, with lots of attack ads against her. This time, the first fundraiser for her run for the State Senate was held an astounding 15 months before the election. By the end of the campaign she had raised an unheard of $500,000, mostly from small donations, all of it transparent. The most any State Senate candidate had raised before was $275,000. Her messaging was focused on education, transportation, and the environment rather than gun control and women’s reproductive rights. And it probably helped that the incumbent, Tim Neville, opposed programs that promoted renewable energy, supported criminalizing abortion as a Class 1 felony, and supported replacing public education funding with vouchers for private schools.

The candidates also stood by one another, and even went door to door for each other. There was a spirit of cooperation, which I attribute to this movement being so strongly female. Morgan Carroll, a fiery veteran of the State House and Senate, and elected chair of the Colorado Democratic Party in March 2017, was wise enough to listen to people organizing outside of the party structure. In turn the Party helped lend structure and political know-how to the energy, new ideas, and numbers of the Resistance groups. Overall turnout in Colorado for the midterms was the second highest in the country.

It also helped that there was an excellent candidate at the top of the ticket, though at the beginning some weren’t sure a gay Jewish man could carry the state. But Jared Polis was already well known, extremely popular in his district, and a successful entrepreneur, and, without hiding his sexual orientation, he managed to give off a kind of independent cowboy vibe. It didn’t hurt that he’s tall, sociable, an experienced politician, and most of all, that he had almost unlimited funds. He was open about being gay (there is a photo of him and his husband in a Gay Pride parade wearing t-shirts that say Take That Mike Pence), but he didn’t make an issue of it, and so came across as straightforward, an independent thinker, not beholden to anyone, the kind of guy you’d want to have a beer and actual intelligent conversation with. And, as some gay friends remarked, he’s a terrible dresser, which probably didn’t hurt. Polis volunteers going house to house left flyers describing the qualities of the down-ballot Democratic candidates, knowing that in past elections people who voted for a Democratic governor often voted for Republican secretaries of state or attorneys general.

Briefly now, back to marijuana. For years Polis has been outspoken in his support for legalization, including recreational sale and use. He even hired a “cannabis outreach director,” and messaged employees in the cannabis industry, a group not known for going to the polls. It was another demonstration of Polis’s bold kind of cowboy quality that Coloradans like. Even Republicans don’t want to lose their legal weed.

Cooperation was also a theme among different soft money organizations. Labor groups worked with environmental groups. The Colorado Sierra Club and Planned Parenthood played big roles, as did Eric Holder’s National Democratic Redistricting Committee, a group called Coloradans for Fairness, and dozens more. New Era Colorado, started by Senator Fenberg, worked on getting young people to vote: turnout rate for young voters 18 to 24 years old was 45 percent, an 11-point increase from 2014. And what was really astounding were the number of unaffiliated voters who voted—more than either Democrats or Republicans. More women voted overall than men.

Finally, Colorado has a very good voting system, ranked number 2 in the nation for ease of voting, after Oregon. One can vote by mail and track the ballot every step of the way. Although we have had Republican secretaries of state for decades, they’ve decently refrained from blocking voters’ rights. Where the incumbent Republican Secretary of State Wayne Williams blew it was in enthusiastically giving voters’ information to the short-lived and generally reviled Voter Fraud Commission headed by Kris Kobach (who also just lost his bid for reelection). Had Williams not done this (as well as using public funds for some fancy Western duds), he might have had more chance for reelection. Instead Coloradans went for Jena Griswold, a 34-year-old voter rights attorney who focused on more transparency in campaign finance and making voting more accessible. Griswold was not only the first Democratic woman elected to serve as Colorado’s secretary of state, but also the first Democrat elected to the position since Eisenhower’s time.

Post election, no one is resting. The national Indivisible organization has just come out with a new guide that has already been featured on Rachel Maddow. This time they’re playing offense. People should take heed: their advice for implementing their strategy locally has worked brilliantly here.

Resistance groups are already organized to hold the newly elected officials accountable to progressive values. Katie Farnan of IFRR wrote a letter celebrating the wins, but reminding officials that it was the time and effort the resistance groups put in that got them elected. Her letter demands of the officials that they, among other things, “Protect and expand state (and federal) voting rights. Work swiftly and proactively to reunite immigrant families, and protect our communities from ICE overreach. Implement wide and aggressive measures to combat climate change… Reform our local, state, and federal criminal justice systems—from policing to courts—that disproportionately put families of color at risk… Address the gun violence epidemic through legislation.”

State Senator Fenberg, just elected Senate majority leader, stresses that what is important now is day-to-day governing in terms of what voters want; progressives will not be able to have all their demands met. So I guess we still are kind of purple. But Fenberg also stresses that finally the big issues frustrating voters will now be addressed. Things like oil and gas reform, increasing renewables, and banning gay conversion therapy, as well as more difficult issues like lower health care costs and free full-day kindergarten.

With this huge a win, it is no wonder Coloradans are energized and thinking about ways to make this national. As the rally chant goes, “This is what Democracy looks like.” Now that they’ve had such great success, there is talk of taking what worked here to the rest of the country, and, if nothing else, giving the Senate another Democrat in 2020. People strategized, worked like mad, and won the jackpot. Of course each state is different, but the closeness of so many races in so many states makes a change from red to blue seem quite possible. Every candidate that Tim Howard supported won, including five women running for State Senate, as well as Brianna Titone, Colorado’s first transgender state representative, and the new secretary of state and attorney general. Howard has had success in the financial world; politics was new ground for him, but he put his skills to great use, and went in for the win. He and others like him aren’t sitting back; the adrenaline is high, and they’re ready to take on the nation.