Affordable housing. Crowded highways. Crumbling roads. More money for schools. A safe retirement for public employees. The fate of young immigrants. The issues stretch across rural and urban lines, …
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Affordable housing. Crowded highways. Crumbling roads. More money for schools. A safe retirement for public employees. The fate of young immigrants.
The issues stretch across rural and urban lines, promising to focus the 2018 governor’s race on what matters most to local residents.
But in the eyes of Eric Sondermann, a Colorado commentator who made a name for himself analyzing public opinion, another key element also will affect the outcome: President Donald Trump.
Some experts say his hard-line stances on legal immigration and undocumented immigrants who arrived as children — and even his character and behavior — could wind up handing Republicans a handicap and force them to decide how far to the fringe they’ll go.
GOP leaders from metro-area counties, however, see things differently. Some say Trump won’t be a factor and that Coloradans will be focused on local issues. Others maintain he could benefit Republicans’ efforts to get elected.
Just how much any issue — local or national — will color the contest remains to be seen. Here’s what political experts and party officials around Colorado have to say about the governor’s race that voters will decide in November.
Where budget meets the road
“You ever try to get on I-25 on Friday at rush hour?” asked Joe Webb, Jefferson County Republican Party chair. “When it takes people an hour and a half to get from Lakewood to Westminster, they’re gonna want everything fixed.”
That concern, along with spending on education and Colorado’s public-pension program, PERA, will be top state-specific issues in the race, according to party chairs, a state Democratic Party official and political pundits.
“Fix the roads without any increase in taxes, and I think that’s very, very doable,” Webb said.
State lawmakers have recently pointed to hundreds of millions of dollars in previously unanticipated state revenues that could be divvied up different ways.
In a state with a booming population, Eric Walker, spokesman for the Colorado Democratic Party, said his party’s candidates would support an “ambitious infrastructure plan” — Democratic state lawmakers have supported a bill based partly on a sales-and-use-tax increase of less than 1 percent to raise money for transportation spending — and expand affordable-housing tax credits to mitigate rising costs.
On another hand, fracking, energy development and environmental issues have more traction here than in other states, said Sondermann, a political analyst who founded the Denver communications agency SE2, which does marketing related to public policy and opinion.
U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, “will clearly be pinned as an environmental extremist with an energy policy that will hurt Colorado,” said Tom Peterson, Elbert County Republican Party chair.
The Public Employment Retirement Association, known as PERA, which provides retirement and other benefits to employees of government and public entities in Colorado, is more than $30 billion underfunded, and Republicans and Democrats are likely to fight over how to address the problem.
“PERA and making it stable is number 2” in issues that will affect the race, Webb said. Republicans would likely support moving to a defined-contribution plan, Webb said — like a 401(k), in which the employee chooses to fund the plan, which takes the risk off the employer, which in this case is the state government. Democrats in the state Legislature have indicated they want to keep the defined-benefits plan — in which the employer guarantees a specific retirement amount and bears the risk of promising the investment will be available.
But “current retirees have to be protected,” Webb said of a potential shift to a defined-contribution framework. “We have to gradually find a way to modernize the system.”
Lori Goldstein, Adams County Democratic Party chair, said the issue of public-education funding will also affect the race.
“I think voters have been demanding for a long time (that) we need schools to keep pace,” said Walker, noting that Colorado ranks toward the bottom of states nationwide for per-pupil education spending.
The Trump factor
Drawn-out fights in Washington over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, building Trump’s proposed Mexican-border wall and his push to cut legal immigration could play a role in Colorado as the race unfolds.
“I think we’re in a different age — politics has been turned on its head. Twenty years ago, the old adage was, ‘All politics is local.’ All politics is national (now),” Sondermann said. Trump “and all the emotions he arouses, whether it’s support on one side or resistance on the other,” can influence local fights.
With the state’s increasing Latino population, hard-line positions on illegal immigration in the spirit of former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo and a push for what his supporters might call amnesty may make for a clash in Colorado.
Even with Tancredo’s recent exit from the race for the GOP nomination for governor, “his supporters still have influence,” and on the Democratic side, to some extent, “it’s an outrage contest — who can be the most outraged,” Sondermann said. “But I do think Democrats (are) energized these days, so animated, so ginned up by Trump being in the White House.”
The question is how far the GOP nominee will have to move toward positions like Trump’s or Tancredo’s to court voters, according to Sondermann.
Criticisms of Trump will cast a shadow on candidates here to some extent, said John Straayer, a professor of political science at Colorado State University.
“How much, I don’t know, but it will, and should be, a concern for all Republican candidates,” Straayer said. “No doubt Democrats will seek to tie the Rs to (Trump) on matters including character and behavior, the environment, pot and surely more issues.”
Some county party chairs see it differently, though.
Trump and national politics won’t be a factor, said Anil Mathai, Adams County GOP chair.
“Colorado residents are focused on local issues,” Mathai said.
Mathai said immigration debates won’t affect the race here either.
“We have many people here legally of Mexican descent and/or from Spanish-speaking countries, and they believe in the rule of law,” Mathai said.
Immigration issues will have an impact on the election but may not change the results, Peterson said.
“It will be interesting to see the response to the president’s four-pillar position that was presented in the State of the Union address,” Peterson said, referencing Trump’s proposal for a path to citizenship for about 1.8 million young undocumented immigrants; $25 billion toward border security, including the border wall; ending the visa lottery; and limiting family-based immigration.
“If Congress can pass comprehensive immigration reform this year, this issue may be less of a factor in Colorado come November.”
Independents may be able to shake things up this November because of two ballot measures voters passed in 2016 allowing unaffiliated voters to participate in the primary process, which is how parties whittle down the candidates to select one Republican and one Democratic nominee to compete in the general election.
“Propositions 107 and 108 will make it more easy for independents to participate — that is the great unknown, how independents are gonna vote,” Sondermann said. Colorado is “in a test tube right now. This is the first election under the 107 and 108 rules, so there’s lots of speculation and conjecture and no knowledge.”
If someone like state Attorney General Cynthia Coffman can organize a strong campaign, Sondermann said, as a more moderate Republican and a woman, she could appeal to independents.
“More centrist Democrats like (Noel) Ginsberg and (Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne) are banking on independents more than Cary Kennedy or Polis is,” he added.
Personality may play a big role, too, Sondermann added, because governors tend to be more frequent faces in voters’ lives than, say, senators, who garner more party-line votes.
“A lot of this election ... is gonna be more dictated by emotion than it is by position papers,” Sondermann said. “Historically, Colorado has really favored governors that voters not only respect, but that they actually like.”
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