Over the past few years, journalists, pundits and think-tankers have touched down at Denver International Airport with hopes that the Centennial State can be their crystal ball. Their lofty ponderings range from wondering if Colorado congeniality can straight up save the entire country, to coronating it with premier bellwether status and, as long as they’re here, seeing if the weed is any good. Like Ohio in the 2000s, Colorado maintains a certain amount of swing state swagger. But is the state still as purple as all these people want you to believe?
In the Denver-Boulder corridor, shiny Subarus clog the highways, 20-somethings fill the breweries in overhauled urban neighborhoods and luxury apartment cranes litter the thin air. And even though the onslaught has abated, the diverse, youthful presence is more than just anecdotal. The state’s population has boomed, increasing by 11.5 percent in just seven years.
There are plenty of intriguing contests in Colorado during the 2018 midterms. In Congress, Jason Crow looks likely to unseat incumbent Mike Coffman, flipping the sixth congressional district from red to blue for the first time ever — a drastic turn from Tom I Swear I’m Not Racist Tancredo’s decade in the seat. A statewide ballot initiative, Amendment 73, seeks to bolster public school funds through income taxes on corporations and on well-off citizens, some of whom are, in Paul Ryan-esque fashion, describing $150,000-plus salaries as “middle class.” And then there’s Proposition 112, a fracking initiative aiming to increase minimum distance requirements for vulnerable nearby areas, which has brought just about every Colorado politician with a pulse out of the woodwork, and even inspired a fatuous ad starring John Elway: Come for the doublespeak, stay for the science teacher who inexplicably dissolves into the ether!
Perhaps most captivating of all is the gubernatorial contest between Jared Polis and Walker Stapleton. Polis is gay and Jewish, but perhaps what might draw the most ire of an Infowars-watching ring-winger is his home and district of Boulder, an almost cartoonishly liberal college town. On Thursday, President Trump weighed in on the race, tweeting his support of Stapleton and, stop us if you’ve heard this one before, claiming Polis is “weak on crime and weak on borders.”
“What’s great about our state is that the unaffiliated voters control our destiny,” Polis tells Rolling Stone when asked if he thinks Colorado is now a blue state. We’re in Boulder at the tail-end of a meet-and-greet in late October. In typical Boulder fashion, the event is staged at a hippie brewpub where they only take cash, the tips are pooled and they serve tempeh reubens under a mural of a meditating woman who is feeding deer while sitting in the lap of a dragon. Polis is wearing a salmon polo shirt that’s tucked into khaki pants that shelter his well-worn blue sneakers. “There’s roughly equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans,” Polis continues. The likely successor of his congressional seat, Joe Neguse, speaks with voters a few feet away. “It’s all about courting independent voters and showing that we have a better plan to move our state forward,” Polis says. The five-term congressman looks drained from the trail, where he estimates they’ve done over 300 of these gatherings in every corner of the state. For the past three days, Polis and his bus — a big, blue Gray Line that idles outside — have been in Alamosa, Durango and Grand Junction.
Polis is running ahead of his Republican opponent — recent numbers have him up seven-to-12 points. “I’m most excited about cutting the income tax for small businesses and residents,” he says, uttering words you might not expect from someone that the GOP wants to paint as malignantly liberal, even socialist. But, Polis is a businessman, a massively wealthy entrepreneur who you may have bought flowers from at some point.
During the interview he’s frequently distracted by the cell phone in his hand. He often returns to talking points: universal healthcare, free full-day preschool and kindergarten and a state run on renewable energy by 2040.
Stapleton’s agenda, on the other hand, is boilerplate Republican. The scion of complicated conservative Colorado royalty, his website contains a smattering of resentful platitudes. Like much of the Trump-led GOP, Stapleton’s views are less for something than against: He’s anti-single-payer, anti-sanctuary cities and anti-taxes. The current State Treasurer does love guns and oil, though. (His campaign did not reply to repeated requests for comment for this piece.)
“Our state has always looked to the person, not the party,” Polis says. Michael Fields, executive director of Colorado Rising Action, a conservative political action group, echoes this point when reached by Rolling Stone. “The quality of candidates makes a big difference in a state like this. Cory Gardner beat an incumbent senator in 2014 because he was a good, smart candidate.”
Sen. Gardner headlines a Colorado GOP that also, for now, controls the State Senate. There are three Dems, including Polis, and four Republicans, representing Colorado on Capitol Hill. There’s only been one Republican governor in Colorado in 44 years. Trump’s disapproval in the state is just a hair under 60 percent. Over the past 26 years, Coloradans have voted to elect Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama (twice), George W. Bush (twice), Bob Dole and Bill Clinton for president.
So, what to make of it all?
“I still think we’re a purple state,” Gov. John Hickenlooper tells Rolling Stone. He’s at the Des Moines airport, flying back to Denver, where he was attending something called the World Food Prize while also — let’s be serious, really — testing the waters for a 2020 presidential run. “We may be a little more blue,” the term-limited Hickenlooper concedes. “Polis has run a strong campaign. I don’t think he’s gone way to the left. And I certainly don’t see him as anti-business in any way.”
“Colorado has been trending more and more blue for a while thanks in large part to the influx of out-of-staters into Denver and the surrounding areas,” says Tim Miller, a Jeb Bush campaign alum who hails from the state. “That trend has been exacerbated as the cultural grievance message that Trump successfully campaigned on in the Upper Midwest doesn’t resonate in a state that is 20 percent Hispanic, and where the real unemployment rate is essentially zero.” Beyond his Bush clan association, Miller is a GOP strategist and frequent Trump critic. “Republicans aren’t dead in Colorado though,” Miller asserts, before bringing up the political C-word. “The state is not yet California.”
As Fields attests, “Since Coloradans pride themselves on being independent, our state will never be all blue or all red. Our biggest political party is ‘unaffiliated,’ and it’s only growing.” It’s true and even if unaffiliated, or independent, voters may not show up in the same percentages as partisans, they are a topic Polis returns to time and again that day in Boulder. For the first time, unaffiliated voters were allowed to vote in the primaries and more voted for Democrats than Republicans. “We, of course, want to turn out voters that will vote for me, both Democrats and some moderate Republicans, but the people that are unaffiliated are the people that will determine who the next governor will be,” Polis says.
I point to a fellow seated at the bar nearby. He has a gray ponytail and is wearing a Trump 2020 T-shirt. This is a Democratic event in Boulder; the outfit this man pulled from his closet is emblematic of the independent, idiosyncratic and often contrarian ways of the West. What would Polis, the candidate, say to him? “In an election season, it seems like the political divide looms large,” Polis begins. “There’s divides between the Western Slope and the Front Range, between urban and rural Colorado, between ag and industry. And we want to be the bridge that helps bring Coloradans together to make our state even more amazing.”
Polis and his staffers show off a tool they’ve developed: a running, real-time, tally of ballots that have already been collected. On this day, there is already over 200,000 each of Republican and Democratic votes in the bank. The program also shows just under 200,000 unaffiliated votes have also been counted.
“We have every color in the spectrum,” Hickenlooper, who knows more about the Colorado voter than most, says.
The question, it seems, isn’t whether or not Colorado is a blue state now — it’s whether or not unaffiliated voters will make it a blue state for now. Colorado has long been attractive to people on the fringe, the outlaw ways of the Old West endemic to its appeal. Coloradans don’t like to be told what to do, whether they’re ripping a bong full of Granola Funk — yes, that’s a real weed strain name — or blasting a 12-gauge at an empty can of Coors. What happens Tuesday is anyone’s guess.
This article has been updated to clarify the role of Colorado Rising Action and the fact that Republicans in Colorado control the State Senate, not the State House. We regret the error.