Election 2018LegislatureNews

PRIMARY 2018: Money mattered in statehouse races

Author: Marianne Goodland - June 26, 2018 - Updated: June 28, 2018

Joint Budget CommitteeLooking up inside the dome at the Colorado State Capitol in Denver. (gnagel via iStock)

Colorado’s primary elections mostly determined who you see in the Colorado General Assembly come Jan. 4.

That’s because most of the contested primary contests for four seats in the Senate and 14 seats in the House are “safe” — meaning the person who won the primary is the odds-on favorite to win the general election in November.

But it’s taken awhile to figure out who won in some cases, with several close races.

One key contest was decided not long after voting ended Tuesday: Sen. Ray Scott, a conservative, defeated moderate Rep. Dan Thurlow in the Grand Junction area’s 7th Senate District.

Scott was one of five Republican legislative incumbents facing challenges. Another was Rep. Lois Landgraf of Colorado Springs, challenged in the 21st House District by the more conservative Ray Garcia, who has lost two previous tries to get into the state House when he lived in Denver. Landgraf won that race by more than 30 percent, based on unofficial returns.

Garcia’s loss was despite support from Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, a gun-rights advocacy group. They backed Garcia as well as Frank Francone in Jefferson County, who ran against Colin Larson in House District 22 in the closest race in the entire state on Primary Night 2018. Unofficial results Thursday showed Larson ahead by just 144 votes — enough for Francone to concede.

Two Republican newcomers who were appointed to their House seats in the past year also faced challenges: Reps. Shane Sandridge of Colorado Springs and Judy Reyher of Swink, whose district includes rural Pueblo County. Sandridge beat Kanda Calef by 23 points but Reyher lost to Don Bendell of Florence by 14 points.

And Rep. Phil Covarrubias of Brighton faced a more moderate challenger, Rod Bockenfeld of Watkins; the latter pulled out a 24-point win, based on unofficial results from the Secretary of State.

No House Democratic incumbents were challenged within their own party. There were nine seats — eight of them relatively safe for Democrats — held by Democrats and with Democratic primary challenges.

For Republicans, four to five of the seven seats currently held by Republicans and with primary contests are considered safe and unlikely to switch hands.

For Democrats, it’s money that played the big role in primary wins, both for the candidates and in races where outside political groups have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, unheard of for primary races for the legislature. The question for Democrats to answer is just how all that money (and the groups spending it) influenced the races.

The biggest dollars were spent to see who will succeed Democratic Sen. Irene Aguilar of Denver in the 32nd Senate District.

There were three candidates, but Zach Neumann raised the most money and his candidacy was also supported, to the tune of more than $225,000, by outside groups such as medical liability company COPIC and Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), which dumped another $26,000 into its independent expenditure committee in the five days prior to the election on Neumann’s behalf.

Nevertheless, unofficial returns show Robert Rodriguez winning by 7-1/2 points, and Neumann conceded.

DFER also spent big dollars backing candidates in several other House races, such as House District 5, home to term-limited Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran of Denver and where four Democrats fought for the win; and House District 28 in Lakewood, home to Rep. Brittany Pettersen, who was running for the Senate and where two Democrats vied for her seat.

In the 5th, Alex Valdez, whose campaign benefitted from more than $85,000 in backing from DFER, won the seat with a 13-point margin over former Rep. Joel Judd. And in the 28th, Kerry Tipper won by a 2-1 margin.

The coattails of 2016 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders — and other progressive organizations — were enough to carry a couple of candidates to the finish line. In House District 9, Sanders-backed Emily Sirota defeated Ashley Wheeland. Sirota was endorsed by Sanders and he also did a fundraising call for her that generated thousands of contributions from outside the state. Sirota’s husband, David, is a former Sanders spokesman.

The Colorado Working Families Party is another group that touted its progressive stance and candidates backed through its independent expenditure committee (IEC). The IEC supported Sirota; Julia Gonzales in Senate District 34, home to term-limited Sen. Lucia Guzman; Robert Rodriguez in Aguilar’s Senate District 32; and Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez in House District 4, home to term-limited Rep. Dan Pabon of Denver. All four won.

And two former Democratic lawmakers who hoped to win a return to the state Capitol learned from voters it wasn’t meant to be. In addition to Judd, former Rep. Jim Riesberg hoped to return to the House, but Greeley City Council member Rochelle Galindo won by a wide margin in House District 50.

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland is the chief legislative reporter for Colorado Politics. She's covered the Colorado General Assembly for 20 years, starting off in 1998 with the Silver & Gold Record, the editorially-independent newspaper at CU that was shuttered in 2009. She also writes for six rural newspapers in northeastern Colorado. Marianne specializes in rural issues, agriculture, water and, during election season, campaign finance. In her free time (ha!) she lives in Lakewood with her husband, Jeff; a cantankerous Shih-Tzu named Sophie; and Gunther the cat. She is also an award-winning professional harpist.