More voters participated in Colorado’s June 26 primary election than ever before. Unaffiliated voters were mailed ballots for the first time and both political parties had contested races. As for the top of the ticket, the governor’s race has been narrowed down to two very different candidates.
Republicans are hoping state treasurer Walker Stapleton will put the governor’s office back in GOP control for the first time in a dozen years. Democrats think congressman Jared Polis is the right choice to replace Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is term-limited.
“Both candidates have a challenge to talk about issues that they did not talk about in the primary election,” said Dick Wadhams, the former Republican party state chairman.
He said Polis and Stapleton went to their respective ideological corners to win the primaries, but that won’t work in the general election.
“Jared Polis clearly is the most liberal Democratic nominee for governor we’ve ever seen,” said Wadhmans. “Walker Stapleton embraced Donald Trump to win the Republican nomination.”
Stapleton ran as a supporter of President Trump’s tax cuts and immigration policies, such as increasing border security.
“The president has offered the ability for a million people plus to have legal status in this country, many of them Dreamers, many of them children, in exchange for enhanced border security and we can have both. We do not have to choose one or the other,” said Stapleton.
It’s a message that resonated with Mesa County commissioner Rose Pugliese. She attended Stapleton’s watch party in the Denver Tech Center. She’s gotten to know him over the years because she said he’s reached out to rural Coloradans in his role as state treasurer. Pugliese said he understand rural issues and also thinks Trump’s popularity in rural parts of Colorado will help Stapleton.
“President Trump’s policies have been really good for my county,” she said. “A lot of people can see, if you really were to talk about his policies it’s hard to point to one that really hasn’t been good for our country or for rural America.”
Meanwhile, Polis pitched himself to voters as someone who can work with the president – if it’s good for Colorado.
“And if President Trump is serious about investing in infrastructure, if he's serious about creating jobs, he'll have a partner in me. But you know that I won't be beholden to him and when he divides us rather than unites us. I will stand up with our inclusive Colorado voice,” said Polis.
A pathway to citizenship for young immigrants who grew up in the U.S. but weren’t born here is a top priority for Norberto Mojardin. He’s a small business owner from Denver. He thinks Polis would support the Latino community.
“For me, that’s our future of Colorado," he said. "By him winning in the elections, he can make a big difference for our Dreamers more than anything.”
If elected, Polis could also become Colorado’s first openly gay governor.
Most people expect the race to be divisive. After the votes were in Tuesday, the two candidates wasted no time in starting to distinguish themselves.
“Jared Polis has spent an unprecedented amount of money to buy this election,” said Stapleton. “He has spent more money to win a contested race on the Democratic side than Republicans, Democrats and all outside groups spent combined in the last election. So, it is David versus Goliath. I am ready to be David.”
“On almost every question before us this election, from whether or not health care is a human right to whether immigrant children deserve human decency and human rights, to even the basic question about whether or not honesty is important in the public sphere ... Walker Stapleton comes out on the wrong side,” said Polis.
This race and other ballot issues are likely to pull more voters to the polls in November during the critical midterm elections – including unaffiliated voters. Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams said the primary could be an indication of that. More than 1 million people participated, the highest turnout so far.
“Both parties had interesting races, both parties had important races to decide," said Williams. "That drove turnout.”
Democrats voted in higher numbers than Republicans and Williams said 60,000 more unaffiliated voters chose to vote in the Democratic primary rather than the Republican.
But just how that translates to the general election is unclear. It could be a sign of enthusiasm for Democrats – or it could be because of other factors. Polis spent more than $10 million of his own money to try to get out the vote.
KUNC's Matt Bloom contributed to this report.
Capitol Coverage is a collaborative public policy reporting project, providing news and analysis to communities across Colorado for more than a decade. Fifteen public radio stations participate in Capitol Coverage from throughout Colorado.