On a cold, damp afternoon this past week, Angela Giron rocked an empty white tea mug on her dining room table and came to grips with Election Day.
The Pueblo politico and former state senator worked tirelessly for Hillary Clinton, encouraging usually reliable Democrats to return their ballots to seal a win in the county where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 41,880 to 25,225.
But that’s not what happened.
Donald Trump got 36,245 votes in Pueblo County . That was 376 more votes than Clinton. Trump was the first GOP presidential candidate to win the county in 45 years, since Richard Nixon got 54 percent of the vote to Democrat George McGovern’s 42.
“There were those hidden Trump supporters, Democrats who were hidden,” said Giron, who was recalled and replaced by a Republican in 2013 over passing tougher state gun laws. “I remember walking the precincts thinking we were turning out his people. I was thinking, ‘Jesus Christ, we’re turning out their people.'”
By contrast, incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet got 7,424 more votes than Clinton in his easy Pueblo County win over El Paso County Commissioner Darryl Glenn.
It’s hard to know what a Pueblo Democrat is anymore.
During decades of dominance, the working-man’s heart beat to the sound of the local steel mill, Colorado Fuel & Iron, where union organizers and stewards enforced the importance of voting Democrat.
Today, 100 miles south of the gold domed Capitol in Denver, the political heart of purple Colorado beats in the burger joints, beer halls and pretty downtown business district along the Arkansas River.
Both campaigns spent time in Pueblo in the final weeks. Hillary Clinton, who ultimately won the state without Pueblo County, made her only Colorado visit in the finals six weeks in Pueblo on Oct. 12. Trump visited on Oct. 3, and Bill Clinton tried to rally voters here the Friday before the election.
“Trump was for jobs and gun rights, and that’s what I’m for,” said Democratic defector Tony Smith, a former steelworker, over eggs and bacon at the Pantry Restaurant. “He’s not really a Republican, and I wanted to vote for somebody who’s not part of the system. The system doesn’t work anymore.”
As Democrats nationwide try to reconnect with the party’s working-class base, they will look to places exactly like Pueblo County to figure it out.
Pueblo County has a population approaching 165,000, the 10th most populous county in the state, but scrawny by Front Range standards. The city of Pueblo seems much smaller than its roughly 110,000 residents, because of its quiet downtown streets lined by mom-and-pop stores and family restaurants.
According to U.S. Census Bureau numbers, 42.7 percent of the county’s population identifies as Hispanic, twice the state average.
In Pueblo County, the median home price is $137,600, a far cry from the state’s two other Democratic strongholds. In Denver the median home price is $257,500, and in Boulder County it’s $358,000.
“There’s a big difference between a Pueblo Democrat and a Boulder Democrat,” said Republican strategist Chris Hansen.
He said 2014 was the canary in the coal mine for Democrats, when his former boss, Cory Gardner, lost by only 309 votes to incumbent Mark Udall, out of nearly 60,000 ballots cast in the county,
Hansen stepped down as Gardner’s chief of staff this month to become executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
“The Democrat Party in Colorado is controlled and run by Denver and Boulder liberals,” he said. “That’s not a talking point. That’s a fact. Their priorities are pushed by Boulderites and Denverites who don’t understand the rest of Colorado.”
Abel Tapia, a leading Pueblo County Democrat for more than 20 years, agreed with that.
“The abortion issue is a major issue,” said Tapia, a former state representative who lost a race for Congress to incumbent Scott Tipton in 2014. “Most Democrats down here are Catholics. The Catholic Church is 100 percent against abortion, so you get Democrats who are confused, ‘Do I go with my church or do I go with my party?’
“A lot of union guys are hunters, so they’re gun advocates, and they’re usually Democrats, because Democrats are who represented most of their values,” Tapia said. “But when it comes to guns, they’re more ‘leave my gun rights alone.’ We’ve got to sit down and see if we’re representing the true values of the Democratic voters.”
Less talk, more listening
Former state Republican Party chairman Dick Wadhams cut his political teeth in Pueblo County. He grew up 80 miles east in Las Animas and graduated from what was then called Colorado State University-Pueblo. One of his first political jobs was running U.S. Sen. Bill Armstrong’s southern Colorado office in Pueblo from 1980 to 1982.
He, too, saw 2014 as a tipping point for Democrats, a year after conservatives from both parties rallied against guns, which took down Giron.
“When Udall embarked on that all-abortion-all-the-time campaign against Cory I think it did turn away a lot of the more socially conservative Catholic and evangelical Democrats across the state, but especially in Pueblo,” he said. “They have deep convictions on some issues, and I don’t think Democrats were listening.”
State Rep. Daneya Esgar, a Democrat, was re-elected without opposition this year.
“I think we need to stop, take a big deep breath and we need to listen to what people’s concerns are and we need to hear them from where they stand,” she said.
“I know the Democrats have been working hard for the working families of Colorado, but we need to show them what we’ve been doing,” she said. “It’s one thing to pass legislation. It’s another thing to make people understand what legislation we’ve passed and how it impacts their lives. That’s where I think we’ve sometimes dropped the ball.”
Republican native Clarice Navarro of Pueblo, a strong Trump advocate who was re-elected to the state House this month, said Americans voted for a philosophy over a party this year.
“The government should be seen as the alternative and not the solution,” she said. “Therefore, you saw a draw to the Republican candidates who believe in personal responsibility and personal accountability.”
That philosophy has long been on the right and voters in Pueblo and elsewhere bought in, she said.