Colorado Lurches Left, but Doesn’t Evict the Establishment Either

Three antiestablishment Democrats put up a strong fight but lost in the final tally

Rep Diana DeGette / Getty Images


There were no "Joe Crowley" moments in Colorado Tuesday night.

Democratic primary races in the Centennial State on Tuesday showed rank-and-file voters still have some of the lingering hunger for more progressive policies such as support for Bernie Sanders's candidacy in 2016, but neither are they ready to "throw the bums out."

If there was going to be a direct analogy to the Crowley episode—the New York district in which 20-year House veteran Joe Crowley lost to political newcomer and socialist candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—then it would certainly had to have been Rep. Diana DeGette's (D) race. Like Crowley, DeGette has also served in party leadership roles.

DeGette's First Congressional District is basically the core Denver metro area. Similar to most other large metropolitan areas, it is safely blue. Despite her 22 years of service, she faced one of the tougher intra-party fights she's had in years from Saira Row, a first-generation Indian-American who was happy to embrace the role of progressive underdog.

Despite solid fundraising by Row that had political tongues wagging, DeGette handled the challenge with a 70-30 victory.

In defeat, Row said the vote "marks the beginning, and not the end," according to the Denver Post, and vowed to continue to try to push the party left.

DeGette now faces Republican Charles "Casper" Stockham in the general, a challenger she beat in 2016 by 40 points.

Colorado's Sixth Congressional District is the one competitive race in November with all of the other seats thought to be relatively safe. And the Democratic infighting in that primary leading up to Tuesday's vote was severe enough to reach all the way to Capitol Hill and touch top leadership members like Democratic whip Steny Hoyer.

In late April, candidate Levi Tillemann released secretly recorded audio of a conversation with Hoyer, in which the whip essentially said in varying ways that party leadership had already decided another candidate, Jason Crow, would be their preferred horse in the race.

Tillemann released the audio to the Intercept forcing Hoyer and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi to defend the party’s position while at the same time Tillemann was accusing the party of trying to take away choices from grassroots voters.

"One thing I've said in the past: I don't really believe in the Republican concept of ‘trickle down' economics," Tillemann told the Washington Free Beacon in early April, alluding to the audio’s release.

"But it doesn't work in the political system either. We don't want to be in a country where political parties are practicing ‘trickle down' politics, where they give all the money and the resources to people who they perceive to be at the top and try to shut people out of the conversation."

Crow, a former Army ranger and corporate lawyer, beat Tillemann 66-34 percent and faces incumbent Republican Mike Coffman, a former Marine and state treasurer currently serving in his fifth term.

In the governor's race, self-funded multimillionaire Jared Polis staved off one challenger backed by the state’s largest teachers’ union and another challenger who had millions of dollars in funding from former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. A third challenger was the incumbent lieutenant governor who failed to gather much momentum either in the polls or through fundraising.

The seat is open because Democratic governor John Hickenlooper is term-limited. Hickenlooper is deciding on a possible 2020 presidential run and since President Trump's election has been a close ally of Republican governor John Kasich of Ohio, providing occasional rumors of a "unity ticket."

According to his website, Polis is running on a platform of creating a 100 percent renewable electric grid by 2040, supports "Medicare for all," while also envisioning a regional single-payer system, in which the single payer is a coalition of western states.

Some political analysts pointed to the enormous resources Polis had at his disposal. According to the last campaign finance disclosures before the primary, Polis had donated at least $11 million to his campaign, and the overall race now seems destined to be the most expensive of its kind for governor in Colorado.

"The story is not Polis's victory," political analyst Eric Sondermann tweeted. "It's the huge margin. Lots of ‘smart’ people anticipated the win. But thought it would be contested with Cary K nipping at his heels and Mike J coming up with late momentum. A walkover win. $11 million still buys something. #coprimary #copolitics"

Polis faces Republican Walker Stapleton, about to be term-limited out of the state treasurer’s office and who has been one of the most vocal supporters of reforming the state’s embattled public-employees retirement fund.

The last opportunity of the night for a progressive, antiestablishment overthrow came from the state attorney general race. Phil Weiser, a former law school dean, ran as a clear anti-Trump centrist and held off a strong challenge from state representative Joe Salazar in one of the closest races of the night. Salazar had been endorsed by Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, something the candidate was furiously texting to potential voters as election night dragged on, according to the Post.

The race was contentious enough to draw in Hickenlooper's influence. The governor endorsed Weiser, a move likely made all the more easier because of the clashes Salazar frequently had with the governor on issues like oil and gas drilling.

Weiser will face Republican George Brauchler, currently the district attorney for the state's 18th Judicial District. Brauchler is best known for his prosecution in the Aurora Theater shooting massacre of 2012.

Tuesday's vote was the first in which unaffiliated voters could participate in one of the party primaries, possibly helping drive high turnout.

Todd Shepherd

Todd Shepherd   Email | Full Bio | RSS
Todd Shepherd is a staff writer at the Washington Free Beacon. He began his reporting career in radio, working as an anchor and reporter for KOMA in Oklahoma City and KOA in Denver. He spent eight years as the investigative reporter for the Independence Institute in Colorado, a free-market-based think tank. Campaigns and Elections magazine named him a "Top Colorado Influencer" for his reporting and news blog. He’s a graduate of the media studies program from Oklahoma Baptist University. His Twitter handle is @shepherdreports.

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