If you’re like many keen observers of Colorado’s evolving political landscape, you’ve probably spent some time lately asking yourself a burning question: How did we get here?
Over the past 20 years, Colorado’s political makeup has completely turned upside down, going from a conservative-leaning state with Republicans holding nearly every statewide office and majorities in both chambers of the legislature to an almost exact mirror image this year, with Democrats celebrating their third consecutive statewide sweep.
Historians debate whether events are primarily governed by broad social currents, or whether it’s an accumulation of consequential decisions made by individuals that propel the state of affairs in one direction or another.
Under the assumption that it’s at least some of both, we decided to take a look at instances of the latter, at key moments when things could have gone either way.
There’s no shortage of analyses focused on sweeping forces beyond any one politician’s direct control — the state of the economy, global energy markets, partisan trends, and even consequential election results, such as voters deciding to legalize recreational marijuana or allowing unaffiliated voters to cast ballots in primaries — all of which have shaped the state’s political landscape.
But it’s indisputable, too, that candidates, the campaigns they run — and even a little luck here and there — also exert powerful influences.
Think of it as a “for want of a nail” version of the state’s recent political history.
Here’s a look at 10 turning points that span the past two decades in Colorado, each of which reverberated, nudging the state and its politics toward the current situation.
John Hickenlooper debuts ads early
Blame it on a blizzard.
As Denver voters prepared to elect the city’s first new mayor in a dozen years, one of the seven candidates hoping to replace term-limited Mayor Wellington Webb took a chance, and it paid off in spades.
At the time the longest of longshots, brewpub founder John Hickenlooper was polling at just 4% in February — far behind frontrunners Don Mares, the city auditor, and former police chief Ari Zavaras — when the candidate overruled his strategists and sunk most of the money he’d raised into going on the air early with a pair of entertaining TV ads that showcased his status as an outsider with a sense of humor.
His timing, it turned out, was fortuitous. Just days into the ads’ run in mid-March, as the looming Iraq invasion glued viewers to their TV sets, a historic three-day blizzard struck, burying Denver under nearly 32 inches of snow.
Trying on suits to “look more mayoral” and feeding downtown parking meters in his ads, Hickenlooper was the lone candidate on the air as voters hunkered down to watch the war and weather unfold on screen.
By the time the city dug out, Denver was charmed by the quirky dark horse, who soon led the field and cruised to a win, launching a political career that’s included two terms as governor, a brief presidential run and election last year to the U.S. Senate.
Republicans attempt ‘midnight gerrymander’
In the closing days of the 2003 session, Republican legislative leaders threw the Capitol into disarray with a bold, divisive attempt to redraw more favorable congressional districts mid-decade.
The move, derided as the “midnight gerrymander,” sought to replace a redistricting plan imposed two years earlier by a judge after the GOP-led House and the Senate — which had been controlled for one term, for the first time in decades, by Democrats — failed to agree on maps.
After Republicans regained control of both chambers in the 2002 election, GOP lawmakers rammed through a bill that would have left Democrats with only two winnable seats — based in Denver and Boulder — out of the state’s seven congressional districts.
Spurred on by White House advisor Karl Rove, Republican leaders, including Senate Majority Leader John Andrews and then-state Rep. Doug Lamborn, finally passed the legislation just before midnight as the session ended, following days of acrimony and sustained Democratic filibusters.
Republican Gov. Bill Owens promptly signed the bill over the objections of Attorney General Ken Salazar, the only Democrat holding statewide office. Calling the scheme unconstitutional, Salazar refused to defend the resulting lawsuit by Democrats that eventually overturned the plan after going all the way to the Supreme Court.
The escapade might have gone down as a particularly partisan footnote in Colorado’s political history if not for the resolve it roused in a small group of Democratic strategists and high-dollar donors, who pooled their resources and turned the tables on Republicans in the next election.
There were plenty of motivating factors, but Colorado authors Adam Schrager and Rob Witwer peg the 11th-hour redistricting brawl as the tipping point for initial organizer Al Yates, the outgoing president of Colorado State University, in their 2010 book, ”The Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado (and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care).”
Yates and others, including attorney Ted Trump, brought wealthy donors Pat Stryker, Tim Gill, Jared Polis and Rutt Bridges — later nicknamed the Gang of Four — to the table and in the process developed the organizing strategy that ultimately tipped the political balance in the state.
Ben Campbell drops bid for third term
Heading into the 2004 election year, U.S. Sen. Ben Campbell appeared poised to cruise to a third term. Elected in 1992 as a Democrat, the Ignacio jeweler and former state lawmaker switched parties a few years later and easily won reelection as a Republican.
The only Native American in the Senate, Campbell, a Northern Cheyenne tribal chief, stunned the state when he announced just weeks before precinct caucuses that he wasn’t going to run again, citing health concerns, leaving politicians in both parties scrambling.
Campbell said that he had reassessed his plans after successful treatment a year earlier for prostate cancer and recent hospital visits for chest pains that turned out to be heartburn, though critics wondered if a simmering kickback scandal involving his staff could have contributed to his decision.
Prominent Democrats, including U.S. Rep. Mark Udall and Webb, the former Denver mayor, had previously passed on the race, leaving Rutt Bridges, the wealthy donor and founder of a progressive think tank, as the lone Democratic candidate.
After the incumbent’s surprise announcement, however, Udall declared he was running, but then both he and Bridges made way for Ken Salazar, the attorney general, who grew up on the San Luis Valley ranch that had been in his family for generations. Salazar defeated progressive challenger Mike Miles in the Democratic primary.
Republican Pete Coors, a wealthy heir to the Golden-based brewery founded by his great-grandfather, won the GOP primary against former U.S. Rep. Bob Schaffer.
Although Republican President George W. Bush carried Colorado in the 2004 election, down ballot it was a different story.
Not only did Ken Salazar narrowly edge Coors to take Campbell’s U.S. Senate seat, but his brother, state Rep. John Salazar, won election to the open 3rd Congressional District seat, which had been in Republican hands for a dozen years since Campbell vacated it to run for the Senate.
In the most stunning turn, however, Democrats won majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly for the first time since the early 1960s, fueled by the coordinated effort launched by Bridges and the other members of the Gang of Four.
Bob Beauprez gives up seat for gubernatorial run
After prevailing in the closest congressional race in the country in the state’s new 7th Congressional District in 2002, Republican U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez easily survived the Democrats’ 2004 upsets to win a second term representing the nearly evenly divided district.
A banker, dairy owner and former state GOP chairman, Beauprez opted to run for the open governor’s seat — at the urging of term-limited Gov. Bill Owens and other prominent Republicans — rather than defend the toss-up seat in Bush’s second midterm.
Beauprez won the nomination after a tougher-than-expected primary against Marc Holtzman, a former University of Denver president, who tagged Beauprez with the sticky “both ways Bob” nickname during a debate over the two Republicans’ histories supporting the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.
In the wake of a series of mishaps and stumbles that bedeviled the Beauprez campaign, Democratic nominee Bill Ritter, a former Denver district attorney, won by double digits in November. Democrats also kept their majorities in the legislature, suggesting that the previous cycle hadn’t been a fluke.
Meanwhile, in the 7th CD, attorney Ed Perlmutter, a former state lawmaker, flipped the suburban seat, winning the first of his eight terms and helping Democrats take the majority in the U.S. House.
Beauprez made another run for governor in 2014 and won the nomination but lost the general election to Hickenlooper, who was reelected to a second term.
Bentley Rayburn reneges on primary pact
The two Colorado Springs Republicans who trailed Doug Lamborn in the previous cycle’s 5th Congressional District GOP primary had reached an agreement ahead of the 2008 election.
Rather than risk dividing the vote in their effort to dislodge Lamborn from the safely Republican seat, former chamber of commerce executive and congressional staffer Jeff Crank and retired Air Force Major Gen. Bentley Rayburn inked a pact, whereby they would conduct a poll, and the candidate who performed worse against the incumbent would drop out and endorse the other.
Lamborn, a former state lawmaker, had effectively won the seat in 2006 with just 27% of the vote in a bitter, six-way primary that saw Crank and Rayburn finish second and third, respectively, suggesting that plenty of the district’s Republicans were open to electing someone else.
And that’s what multiple polls found, including a survey commissioned in late May by the challengers’ campaigns that showed Lamborn in the lead with Crank ahead of Rayburn by double digits.
Rayburn, however, decided not to withdraw. As predicted, Lamborn’s two opponents split the anti-incumbent vote, sending the Republican back to D.C. with a plurality.
In his ninth term, Lamborn has faced primary challenges nearly every time he’s run for reelection — including a close, head-to-head rematch with Rayburn in 2014 — but has managed to win an outright majority all but once.
Despite that record, the senior Republican in the state’s congressional delegation remains saddled with an unearned reputation as a candidate who only keeps winning by dividing the opposition.
Bill Ritter taps Michael Bennet for Senate
When Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter announced that he was naming Denver Public Schools Superintendent Michael Bennet to finish Ken Salazar’s term in the U.S. Senate, the collective response was, “Who?”
After newly elected President Barack Obama tapped Salazar as interior secretary, Ritter weighed numerous possibilities, including former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, former Denver Mayor Federico Peña and U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, but he took a gamble on the the untested Bennet, an attorney raised in Washington, D.C., who served as Hickenlooper’s mayoral chief of staff before landing the superintendent job.
Derisively dubbed “the accidental senator” by Republicans, Bennet’s learning curve was steep — politicos still joke about how uncomfortable Bennet appeared wearing a new pair of cowboy boots on early get-acquainted trips around the state — but he ultimately proved the naysayers wrong.
A year after his appointment, Bennet survived a spirited primary challenge from Romanoff and went on to narrowly win election to a full term by defeating Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, a tea party favorite in a Republican-wave year.
Since then, Bennet has won reelection twice — with an underdog campaign for the White House between successful Senate runs — and is on course to become Colorado’s longest-serving senator in another few years.
Frank McNulty blocks civil unions
On the next-to-last day of the 2012 legislative session, Colorado’s Republican-controlled state House appeared ready to pass a civil unions bill — establishing legal rights akin to marriage for same-sex and opposite-sex couples — but House Speaker Frank McNulty, a Highlands Ranch Republican, stopped the legislation in its tracks with a procedural maneuver that also prevented a stack of other bills from advancing before lawmakers were forced to adjourn.
With a single-seat majority in the chamber won in the 2010 election, the Colorado GOP was split on the issue, with as many as 10 House Republicans indicating they supported the bill.
But as angry insults rained down from the gallery, McNulty and fellow Republican leaders held fast through a tense standoff that lasted until the stroke of midnight, which doomed the bills to die on the calendar.
Hickenlooper, the governor, called a special session days later to finish the legislative business, but while lawmakers quickly passed many of the other bills that had been unintended casualties of McNulty’s move, the speaker sent the civil unions bill directly to the House “kill” committee, where it died again.
The demise of the bill, a top priority for Democrats and the LGBT community, energized volunteers and donors alike, propelling the party back into the chamber’s majority in the 2012 election and handing the gavel to Denver lawmaker Mark Ferrandino, the state’s first gay House speaker.
McNulty won election last to the University of Colorado Board of Regents from the 4th Congressional District. Earlier this month, Ferrandino was named head of the Governor’s Office of State Planning and Budgeting after serving nearly two years as executive director of the state Department of Revenue.
Cory Gardner challenges Mark Udall
After firmly ruling out a run in 2014 for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Mark Udall, U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner changed his mind at nearly the last minute, declaring his candidacy just days before precinct caucuses.
Under intense pressure to give up his safe 4th Congressional District seat, Gardner agreed to attempt something no Colorado politician had done in nearly 40 years — unseat an incumbent senator.
The risky decision resulted in the only top-ticket, statewide win by a Colorado Republican since 2002, when Gov. Bill Owens and U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard both won second terms.
Even though it was Obama’s second midterm — spelling difficulty for Democrats across the country — Udall wasn’t seen as particularly vulnerable, but the younger, seemingly more energetic Gardner ran a near-perfect campaign, keeping it competitive in a state that still boasted enough ticket-splitters to matter.
The same night that Republicans narrowly took back control of the state Senate and Hickenlooper won a second term as governor, Gardner defeated Udall by a close margin, proving that the GOP was still viable in Colorado, despite a decade of Democratic wins.
The move also opened a path to Congress for Buck, who was making another run for the Senate but stepped aside when Gardner got in. After easily winning a crowded primary for Gardner’s old seat, Buck has won reelection in the Republican-leaning district four times since.
In 2020, Gardner lost his bid for a second term to Hickenlooper, who mounted a brief presidential campaign after serving two terms as governor.
Ken Salazar opts against run for governor
The 2018 Democratic nomination for Colorado’s open gubernatorial seat was Ken Salazar’s for the asking, but after ascending to the heights of state and national politics, the kid from Manassa in rural Conejos County passed on the opportunity — and opened the floodgates.
While a couple of Democrats, including former state Sen. Mike Johnston (elected last month as Denver mayor), had already launched campaigns, several of the party’s heavyweights awaited Salazar’s decision before announcing their runs, including U.S. Reps. Ed Perlmutter, Jared Polis and former State Treasurer Cary Kennedy.
Later, after Perlmutter withdrew — citing the daunting prospect of competing against the self-funding Polis — Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne also joined the crowded primary.
After pouring at least $30 million into his campaign, Polis won a four-way Democratic primary against Kennedy, Johnston and Lynne and faced two-term State Treasurer Walker Stapleton in the fall.
Technically, it was the third time Salazar had made clear he wasn’t going to campaign for the state’s top executive position.
Less than year after winning election to the Senate, Salazar let it be known in 2005 that he wouldn’t run for the open seat in the following year’s election, even as some Democrats wooed him as an alternative to Ritter, a former Denver district attorney whose lack of statewide campaign experience and opposition to abortion raised qualms within his party.
Again in 2010, Salazar declined entreaties from party bigwigs to step down from Obama’s cabinet to run for governor after Ritter declared he wouldn’t seek a second term. Salazar eventually endorsed Hickenlooper after the Denver mayor decided to run.
While Salazar left the cabinet in 2013 at the start of Obama’s second term and returned to Denver to practice law, he didn’t didn’t give up on politics entirely. In 2021, President Joe Biden nominated Salazar as ambassador to Mexico, a position he has held since.
Lauren Boebert confronts Beto O’Rourke
It was the denial heard ’round the world or at least across the conservative media landscape.
Already boasting some notoriety as the proprietor of Shooters Grill, a Rifle restaurant with armed wait staff, Second Amendment advocate Lauren Boebert burst onto the national political scene when she drove across the state to confront Democratic presidential candied Beto O’Rourke about the Texan’s proposal to confiscate assault-style weapons.
Speaking to a largely supportive crowd on the steps of Aurora’s municipal building, O’Rourke called on Boebert as he began to take questions.
He got an earful.
“I was one of the gun-owning Americans who heard you speak regarding your ‘Hell yes, I’m going to take your AR-15s and AK-47s,'” Boebert said, referring to remarks O’Rourke had made at a recent presidential primary debate.
“Well, I’m here to say, ‘Hell no, you’re not.’”
Within months, Boebert parlayed the attention and excitement she generated into a longshot bid to unseat five-term U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton in the 3rd Congressional District’s 2020 Republican primary, charging the incumbent with being insufficiently aggressive when it came to standing up to the Democrats’ “socialist agenda.”
Tipton, a former state lawmaker accustomed to fending off primary challenges from the right, did his best to ignore the latest one, even as Boebert grouped him derisively with U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the New York Democrat’s fellow progressives, known as the Squad.
Although Boebert claimed she was the more avid supporter of Donald Trump and his agenda, the Republican president endorsed Tipton and brought his congressional ally on stage at a rally. As the primary approached, Tipton did little to fight back, relying on polling that underestimated his challenger’s support because his pollsters didn’t expect voters who had only voted for Trump to turn out in the primary.
But turn out they did, in sufficient numbers to topple Tipton, marking the first time an incumbent member of Congress had been defeated in a primary since the 1970s.
After winning the 2020 general election, the outspoken Boebert quickly elbowed aside the state’s remaining elected Republicans to become the most prominent member of her party in Colorado. She narrowly won a second term last year and is facing what could be the state’s most competitive race in next year’s election.