Judging just by the demographics and statistics, Adams County looks plenty blue. There are more registered Democrats than Republicans. Democrats occupy most state legislative seats, the entire board …
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Judging just by the demographics and statistics, Adams County looks plenty blue.
There are more registered Democrats than Republicans. Democrats occupy most state legislative seats, the entire board of county commissioners and all the elected positions in county government.
And yet, a Republican won two consecutive elections in a state Senate district previously held by Democrats. Most mayors in the county are members of the GOP and not long ago, in 2014, Republicans won most elected seats in the county, including the board of commissioners and sheriff.
“I believe that politics in Adams County is ever-evolving. You can see that in the pockets of partisan areas throughout the county,” said County Commissioner Charles “Chaz” Tedesco, “You have some areas that are red and blue, some areas that are majority red, and some areas that are majority blue.”
So, the narrative about politics in Adams County isn’t as monolithic as it appears.
There is a west versus east divide and a suburban versus rural split. Politicians and strategists say the type of neighborhood matters, as does the process to select a candidate. A candidate’s work ethic can make all the difference. Those factors aside, the county’s political future could shift when the state re-draws legislative districts in 2021.
Such anomalies mean that no seat in Adams County is safe, according to longtime political observers.
This year, President-elect Joe Biden defeated President Donald Trump in Adams County by 16 percentage points. He received the highest vote percentages in Aurora, Commerce City and southwestern Adams County near the Denver border, according to a by-city analysis of election results. Trump’s top three areas were Brighton, Todd Creek and eastern Adams County, which includes Bennet and Strasburg.
The margins between the presidential candidates were more pronounced this year than in 2016 between Trump and Hillary Clinton. Clinton won the entire county by almost 9 percentage points. Broken down, Clinton earned 53 percent of Westminster’s vote, while Biden received 61 percent this year. Meanwhile, Trump went from 68 percent to 72 percent in eastern Adams County.
The 2020 and 2016 at-large county commissioner races followed similar patterns. This year, incumbent commissioners Tedesco and Eva Henry won their reelections by wider margins than their 2016 victories. It was closer in the third county commissioner race between Democrat Lynn Baca and Republican Phil Covarrubias. About 10 percentage points separated the candidates in Thornton, Brighton and Henderson, and Baca ultimately won.
But in State Senate District 25, the county’s closest race, state Sen. Kevin Priola won reelection after performing well in Brighton and eastern Adams County while his opponent, Democrat Paula Dickerson, earned higher vote percentages in Thornton and Aurora. The 2020 Brighton and Thornton figures are almost identical to 2016, when Priola ran against Democrat Jenise May.
Looking at the results, some say the east-west divide is clear. “We’ve had more success in the east. But the challenge has always been the west,” said JoAnn Windholz, chair of the Adams County GOP.
Lori Goldstein, chair of Adams County Democrats, agreed. State House District 56, which encompasses Brighton and eastern Adams County, “was definitely drawn to be red,” Goldstein said. The seat is currently held by state Rep. Rod Bockenfeld, a Republican.
Goldstein said there is a connection between suburbanization and liberal sentiment in western Adams County. Conversely, Windholz said smaller and more rural towns tend to be redder.
That said, Tedesco said city-level analysis is too general. He prefers to study precinct-level data, which shows red pockets throughout the county. He said he has received fewer votes in newer, more affluent subdivisions where conservative values are more prevalent. Development, Tedesco said, “lends itself to a more blended mix of all the beliefs and traits of each party.”
At-large penalty for GOP
Just because the county board of commissioners is all-Democratic doesn’t mean Republicans lack enthusiasm for the dais. Part of the challenge is that even though commissioners represent a district, voters elect them at-large.
“Because we are elected county-wide, I think that benefits Democrats in Adams County,” Tedesco said.
In eastern District 5, where Baca defeated Covarrubias, he received 56 percent of the vote in Brighton and 74 percent in eastern Adams County. Baca was strongest in Aurora, Federal Heights and southwestern Adams County.
“People in Thornton might want Democratic leadership. People in Brighton and Bennett might not,” Covarrubias said.
He thinks voters should elect commissioners by district, not at-large.
Henry, a Democrat, doesn’t necessarily disagree. She prefers Democrats on the dais with her, but said, “The rural area is being left out. That’s what I’m seeing is happening.”
The current system dates back to 2012 when voters approved ballot measures to increase the number of commissioners from three to five, and for commissioners to run at-large. Fifty-seven percent of voters approved both measures.
The 2012 changes were beneficial for a few reasons, Henry said. They helped put new checks-and-balances on county commissioners and prevent corruption. The changes didn’t immediately ensure Democratic victories, she said.
In the 2014 General Election, Republicans won two out of three county commissioner races up for election. That year, GOP candidates also won elections for county clerk and recorder, treasurer, assessor, and sheriff. It wouldn’t be until 2018 when Democrats retook many of those offices.
There are other arguments for at-large commissioner elections. Gini Pingenot, director of external affairs for Colorado Counties, Inc., said commissioners in at least 90 percent of Colorado’s counties are elected at-large. The reason, she said, is that “Commissioners believe that the best policy comes from a commission consisting of commissioners representing the entire county.”
Priola’s victory in state Senate District 25 was surprising to some.
“It didn’t seem like it was winnable for any Republican,” said Ryan Lynch, Priola’s strategist in 2016 and 2020.
Before Priola, the seat belonged to Democrats. The district’s bluer sections, such as Thornton and Aurora, previously outweighed the redder ones. Mary Hodge, who’s currently Adams County commissioner and was District 25 state senator before Priola, couldn’t have imagined a Republican winning the seat before 2016.
The district’s purple streak didn’t hand Priola his victories, though. Many say it was his work ethic.
“I’ve worked with dozens and dozens of candidates and I’ve never had one work harder than him,” Lynch said, “The secret weapon is Kevin himself.”
Year-round, Priola knocks on doors, calls constituents and attends civic events. He’s intentional about speaking with people one-on-one.
“He’s very personable and very effective on the campaign trail,” Hodge said.
Lynch said Priola’s reputation as a bipartisan legislator helped. Goldstein, the county Democratic chair, said Priola’s moderate conservatism appeals to many voters in the district.
Almost everyone agrees, though, that Priola’s enthusiasm is a game-changer. It’s also why, Hodge said, “It might be difficult for someone not Kevin Priola, as a Republican, to win that seat.”
Priola will be term-limited in 2024.
“You can’t just recreate him (Priola) in the lab,” Lynch said. In fact, the strategist said Priola’s success can be a model for other purple districts in the metro area.
“More Republicans, especially in the Denver metro area, if they want to replicate the success that Sen. Priola has enjoyed, then they’re really going to need to study his playbook and do their best to replicate it,” Lynch said.
Goldstein also pointed out that the future of District 25 is unknown because Colorado will draw new legislative districts next year.
`Anything is possible’
Hodge won her first election to the Colorado House of Representatives in 2000. Since then, she said, “you had to be a Democrat to win in Adams County.”
Tedesco has lived in the area for most of his life and was president of the United Steel Workers Union’s western district before he became a commissioner. For as long as he can remember, Adams County has been a blue-collar, industrial area, which has lent to greater support for Democrats.
Over time, though, politics in the county has shifted. The 2014 Republican sweep and the 2018 Democrat sweep serve as lessons for both parties. Today, the Republicans are toward the bottom looking up.
“Gradually, I think we’re figuring it out a little bit more each time,” said Windholz, the GOP chair.
The Democrats, who are on top, don’t plan to get too comfortable.
“Every position is vulnerable … you can’t just sit back and expect to be reelected,” Goldstein said. Since Nov. 4, both chairwomen have set their sights on 2022.
“Any seat is attainable by either side. It really depends on the candidates and the politics that play out by those seats,” Tedesco said. The region, and the political sentiment therein, is rapidly changing. In the so-called blue Adams County, Tedesco said,” Anything is possible.”
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