Long dominated by its intrinsic libertarianism and western individualism, Colorado spent most of the last decade producing political premonitions that have been mirrored nationally today.
Early History – Laying Progressive Groundwork
Spanish conquistadors were the first Europeans to set foot in Colorado in the late 1500s, and the state was initially part of a province of New Spain. In the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, the United States claimed the eastern part of Colorado but saw land disputes with Spain. Explorer Zebulon Pike, for whom Colorado’s Pikes Peak is named, was captured by Spaniards in the Colorado region in his expedition into the disputed territory. The mid-1800s saw traders, trappers, and settlers establish posts along the rivers within the state.
In 1846, the U.S. defeated Mexico in the Mexican-American War, which required Mexico to relinquish control of its northern territories. Most settlers bypassed the rugged Rocky Mountains in search of Oregon, California, or the proposed Mormon state of Deseret. Colorado’s first permanent settlement came in the form of San Luis in 1851.
An accidental gold discovery in 1850 started a small gold rush – the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush – to the Rocky Mountains. While gold did not remain a top commodity in the area, other metals – notably silver – allowed the population to continue to boom.
After a brief stint as the Jefferson Territory, Colorado became its own territory in 1861, allowing the North to establish Union control of another mineral-rich area during the Civil War. On August 1, 1876, Colorado was admitted as the thirty-eighth state. Its year of admission earned it the nickname the “Centennial State,” one hundred years after the declared independence of the United States.
True to western progressivism, women earned the right to vote in Colorado in 1893 and the state was the first in the union to grant universal suffrage.
Colorado’s first election in 1876 proved consequential to the election of Rutherford B. Hayes (R-OH). Colorado’s electoral votes were assigned to Hayes based on the state legislature, rather than direct popular vote, the last time this has happened in American history. Colorado’s three electoral votes gave Hayes the advantage over Samuel Tilden (D-NY). Colorado would vote for Republicans from 1876 to 1888 by fairly strong margins before going for James Weaver, the Populist Party nominee, by a landslide in 1892.
Industrialization – Coalfield Wars and “The World’s Sanitarium”
The Pike’s Peak Gold Rush and a following silver discovery allowed the population to boom around the Denver area. As mining became a chief industry of Colorado, it not only became ground-zero for miners’ unions, but also formed a Populist culture that would dictate its political allegiances. As Colorado’s mines grew older and were dug deeper, they became much more dangerous. Colorado’s early coal mines produced one of the highest death rates in the country.
Miners were also abused by unscrupulous business tactics and even violent outbreaks between mining companies. In addition to the dangerous conditions, the concept of “mineral rights” resulted in conflicts between mining companies, with workers square in the middle. Coal miners were also angered by having to pay for safety installations in the mines and their compensation in company credits that could only be used at the company store. What started as strikes and union formations turned into violent revolts and even a small war – the Colorado Coalfield War – which required martial law declarations and interventions from the governor and even President Woodrow Wilson (D-NJ).
In addition to the mining boom, Colorado’s population increased due to an unexpected factor: tuberculosis. Doctors recommended sunny, dry climates for patients, and so many patients moved to Colorado for the climate that the state’s hospitals were overwhelmed, resulting in jails being used to house them. Colorado earned the nickname “The World’s Sanitarium,” and it is believed that one-third of the state’s population by 1900 were residents because of tuberculosis.
The 1930s brought much-needed unionization for the coal miners, while another major industry was being formed: skiing. Ski resorts were built in areas like Estes Park, Gunnison, and Loveland Pass, adding a unique economic strength to the mountain west that continues to be a fiscal boon today.
The agricultural and mining profiles of the state made it an easy member of the Populist and bimetallist fold. William Jennings Bryan (D-NE) became the first Democrat to win Colorado in 1896, and his 71% of the vote is the best performance of any candidate in the state’s history. The Populist era began a political divide between Republican-leaning agricultural eastern Colorado, and the Democratic-leaning mining towns of western Colorado. The state would enter a swingier period of politics by sticking with one party over the course of two or three elections at a time. Much of Colorado’s political history is defined by consistent Republican wins with the occasional Democratic win after 1916.
Republicans took the state back in 1920, with Warren Harding’s (R-OH) once-in-history sweep of all sixty-four of Colorado’s counties. FDR (D-NY) was able to wrangle the state into his New Deal coalition in 1932 and 1936, but Colorado would flip back to the GOP in 1940 as farmers and miners soured on FDR. After 1940, Democrats would only win Colorado in three elections: 1948, 1964, and 1992. Colorado’s intense Republican lean would also face spirited challenges from notable third-party candidates over the years, as the state has always, even today, registered as one of the best states for third parties. Notable elections include 1980, 1992, 2000, and 2016.
Geography – Two Sides of the Rockies
- Eastern Colorado: Flat, agricultural, and industrial; more politically aligned with neighboring Kansas, intensely Republican.
- Denver Metro: Denver was once a more evenly-split city that reflected Colorado’s usual ticket-splitting tendencies. 1980 marks the last time Denver city and county have voted GOP. More powerful than the city, however, were its suburbs – namely located in Adams and Arapahoe counties – which have raced to the left as influenced by the state’s historic progressivism and libertarianism. Denver’s brutal leftward shift has taken the state mostly off the competitive board.
- Northern-Central Colorado: Contains rich communities like Boulder and Vail; once strongly Republican rural communities that are now drowned out by the intensely Democratic urban sprawl from Denver.
- Western Colorado: One of the most fascinating political regions in the country; rural conservative whites, working-class Hispanics, and uber-liberal, rich ski towns, home to Pueblo and Grand Junction. This area should be bluer on paper but has proven to be a white whale for Democrats over the last decade. Recent progressive shifts might push the region to the left if not countered by a rightward shift among Hispanic voters.
Current Political Leanings – A Tectonic Leftward Shift
Colorado spent most of its history as a solidly Republican, working-class Mountain state. The last Republican to win this state was George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004. Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 wins were convincing, but Colorado was still regarded as a markedly purple state. Hillary Clinton’s narrow five-point win in 2016 wasn’t a huge surprise, but the state’s thin rightward shift demonstrated Trump’s populist message appealed to a classically populist state.
However, 2016 is also viewed as the downward spiral for the state GOP. Other Democrats won by similar margins to Clinton, showing that a relatively new swing state was less inclined to split its tickets as often as it once did. Democrats formed a trifecta in 2018 and even ousted a popular, moderate Republican Secretary of State.
2020 and 2022 solidified Colorado’s new blue hue, as Biden carried the state by a whopping 13.50 points, the strongest Democratic performance in the state since Lyndon Johnson (D-TX) in 1964. As Biden carried the state by a landslide, Senator Cory Gardner (R), then Colorado’s last statewide Republican, lost re-election by a similar margin. 2022 saw Governor Jared Polis (D) re-elected in a landslide while Senator Michael Bennett (D), once a prime target for the GOP, cruised to re-election despite polls showing a more classically competitive race.
Republicans last held both Senate seats in 2005, and last governed the state in 2007. Despite Colorado’s red-state profile, the GOP had not governed the state since 1975.
While the GOP can alter its messaging to appeal to moderates, the tough reality is that prime middle simply doesn’t exist in Colorado like it once did. Denver’s urban sprawl continues to put more conservative areas in play, while the state’s innate libertarian profile makes it a tough sell for the modern GOP, despite more populist overtones the party sports today.
An even tougher reality: while the county map has not changed significantly, Democrats have added hundreds of thousands of votes to their margins in each election since 2018, signaling compounded votes in high-turnout, high-population areas. This makes it difficult to forecast Republican strength in the state for the foreseeable future.