Maps mean tough choices for some lawmakers

Move or drop out? It's a game of political musical chairs


One Democratic state senator was drawn into a district that now leans heavily in Republicans’ favor. A GOP House member, meanwhile, will run in a district that’s now solidly Democratic.

And a handful of incumbents will have to decide whether to challenge their colleagues in an awkward primary or general election contest or quickly move to a new part of the state.

While the new state House and Senate maps drawn by an independent redistricting commission and pending approval by the Colorado Supreme Court appear to favor Democrats’ maintaining their majority in the General Assembly, the proposals are forcing lawmakers to make tough choices that could alter the political fabric of the state for years to come.

“Somebody’s ox is getting gored no matter what they do,” said Rep. Perry Will, a New Castle Republican who would live in a district that would favor Democrats by 16 percentage points. “Would I prefer to represent the district I currently do? Absolutely. Can I do a good job of representing the new one? Absolutely.”

Democrats now hold a 20-15 majority in the state Senate, but at least nine seats will be competitive over the next two years. They hold a 41-24 advantage in the House, where nine seats would be considered tossups in 2022.

More competitive seats — and incumbents trying to win in districts that suddenly favor the opposite party — could lead to more spending in the 2022 election. In 2018, candidates and outside groups spent more than $15 million on five highly contested Senate races, all won by Democrats. In 2020, outside groups spent $10.5 million and candidates spent $1.1 million on three key Senate and two competitive House contests. Republicans won three of those five seats.

The clock is ticking

The state constitution requires candidates for the General Assembly to live for at least a year in the district they run in the next election, which will be Nov. 8, 2022. This means incumbents considering a bid in a different, potentially more favorable district will have to make that decision soon.

“It’s U-Haul time for some incumbents,” said Tyler Sandberg, co-founder of the conservative education policy and political action group Ready Colorado. “The clock … is ticking real fast to move to a place that’s winnable.”

They may have to make that choice before the Supreme Court issues a decision on the legislative maps. After hearing oral arguments on Oct. 25, the court has until Nov. 15 to either approve the maps or send them back to the Independent Legislative Redistricting Commission for changes.

“I think all of us are just waiting to see what maps ultimately are final, and then figure it out from there,” said state Sen. Brittany Pettersen, of Lakewood, who under the current maps would live in the same district as Sen. Jessie Danielson of Wheat Ridge, a friend and fellow Democrat.

Pettersen and Danielson will need to decide whether to challenge each other in a primary, move into another district or run for another elected office. Pettersen wants to run for U.S. House but said she would not run against U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, an Arvada Democrat who is up for re-election in 2022.

Whatever Pettersen and Danielson decide, they would be in a solid blue district, unlike in 2018, when both faced competitive contests with hundreds of thousands of dollars in outside spending.

That’s not the case for Democratic Sen. Tammy Story of Evergreen, who finds herself in a newly drawn 4th District that would favor Republicans, according to a competitiveness report by nonpartisan redistricting staff based on the results of eight statewide races between 2016 and 2020.

President Donald Trump won the new district by nearly 30 percentage points in 2016. The largest population base is Fremont County, followed by western Jefferson County, and Teller, Chaffee and Park counties.

In 2024, Democrats would have a solid advantage in five of the eight open seats, while two Democratic and one Republican incumbents would find themselves in tossup districts. Democrat Sen. Chris Kolker of Centennial would wind up with a competitive margin, in District 16.

'Whiplash for some'

Some current members of the House are also eyeing open seats.

State Rep. Kevin Van Winkle, a Highlands Ranch Republican, has filed to run for the open Senate District 30 seat, which will be vacated by Sen. Chris Holbert, who is term-limited.

In the state House, 16 seats would be open in 2022 due to redistricting, term limits or members running for higher office, with a relatively even advantage for the two parties. Seven Democratic incumbents face competitive battles, compared with one Republican.

Five Republicans and three Democrats would also be living in the same district as another incumbent. With 31 safe Democratic seats and only 19 safe GOP seats, Republicans face an uphill battle.

“Some of these races are very safe districts, and all of a sudden, are very competitive. That’s going to be whiplash for some of these representatives,” Sandberg, the GOP consultant, said.

Rep. Tom Sullivan of Aurora, a Democrat who has faced recall threats over his advocacy for gun control laws, would live in House District 61, the second most competitive district under the new map.

Rep. Colin Larson, a moderate Republican from Ken Caryl who has considered a run for U.S. House would also live in a competitive district.

Meanwhile, two Democratic incumbents, Rep. Kerry Tipper of Lakewood and Rep. Lisa Cutter of Littleton, would live in House District 28, an open toss-up district.

Both Tipper and Cutter also live in the open Senate District 20. But, like most lawmakers, Tipper said she hasn’t made a decision yet on if and where she will run in 2022.

“(The) goal is to decide by December,” Tipper said.

The state Senate is Republicans’ best hope for gaining traction, and nine seats will be open in 2022 with Republicans and Democrats having a solid shot at four districts each, with one a tossup.

Eight House members and six senators are term-limited in 2022, opening up several seats.

In recent years, typically four to five Senate seats and a handful of House seats have been competitive. It appears that could increase under the new legislative maps.

Democrats now hold a 20-25 majority in the state Senate, but at least nine seats will be competitive over the next two years. They hold a 41-24 advantage in the House, where nine seats would be considered tossups in 2022.

“It is very hard to comment on these maps before they’re finished,” said Matt McGovern, executive director of the Democratic House Majority Project. “However, there will be a number of districts that are much closer.”

'A bit arrogant'

After the last round of redistricting in 2011, Democrats seized control of the state House away from Republicans in the 2012 election, increasing their margins the rest of the decade. But Republicans took back the state Senate in 2014 and held it until 2018.

The split chambers prevented both Republicans and Democrats from enacting what some would see as partisan legislation, from banning abortion on the right to abolishing the death penalty on the left, something that was accomplished under Democratic control in 2020.

Democratic consultant Ian Silverii noted that Colorado has changed in the past decade.

“Colorado 2022 is not Colorado 2014,” he said. “Despite their efforts, it doesn’t seem like Republicans were able to gerrymander the state. (The maps) seem pretty fair; we’ll find out if they are next November.”

Republicans are holding out hope, however, that the new districts could lead to a majority in the Senate.

Sandberg, the GOP consultant, thinks Republicans could win four, maybe even six, competitive seats in the state Senate. With strong candidates and a focus on issues like crime, cost of living and schools, Republicans could regain control of the chamber, he argues.

“Democrats have gotten a bit arrogant and see Republicans as an afterthought,” Sandberg said. Competitive districts will also force lawmakers to consider a broader range of voters in their legislation. “You could be set up for a very interesting 2023 in Colorado.”

This story is from The Colorado Sun, a journalist-owned news outlet based in Denver and covering the state. For more, and to support The Colorado Sun, visit The Colorado Sun is a partner in the Colorado News Conservancy, owner of Colorado Community Media.


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