Douglas County remains red, but hints of blue emerge

While Republicans dominated Nov. 3 election, Democrats say inroads are being made

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Republicans from Douglas County again defeated their opponents in all races for the board of county commissioners and state Legislature this year, with most contests being decided by more than 10 percentage points. But margins of some of those victories were significantly smaller than in the past, and voters from one part of the county narrowly chose a Democrat to represent them in the U.S. House.

The county is still clearly red, but to some, the Nov. 3 election offers rays of hope for Democrats amid a slowly shifting political landscape.

“We’re eating away at their lead,” said Dana Torpey-Newman, the head of the Douglas County Democrats.

Andy Jones, vice president of the Douglas County Republican Party, said the droves of people moving into the county are contributing to a shift in the county’s political makeup. But overall, the community is still firmly conservative, he said.

“We had an incredibly difficult and very uphill battle against candidates that were funded by outside dollars,” Jones said. “The citizens of Douglas County said ‘no that’s not us. That’s not who we are.’”

One election Jones and others have pointed to is the state House District 43 race. Democrats focused on this race and outraised Republican Kevin Van Winkle by $13,500. On Nov. 3, Van Winkle defeated his Democratic opponent, Jennifer Mitkowski, by 6 percentage points. His margin of victory, however, has shrunk since he was first elected in 2014. That year, he won by 27 percentage points. In 2016, it was 21, followed by 9 in 2018.

Changing demographics

The district Van Winkle represents is made up almost entirely of Highlands Ranch, one of the areas county Democrats and Republicans agree is changing in political demographics.

Also this year, Highlands Ranch residents — represented by Congressional District 6 — chose Democrat Jason Crow, albeit by fewer than 200 votes. The district also includes Aurora, Centennial and other parts of Arapahoe County. In 2018, incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman lost the seat, but defeated Crow in Douglas County by nearly 6 percentage points.

“Highlands Ranch is far more progressive than the rest of this county,” Torpey-Newman said.

Jones agrees that Highlands Ranch — the largest community in the county with nearly 100,000 residents — is different.

“I think it’s obvious to everybody that demographics in Highlands Ranch are changing and that’s where we’re seeing a lot of this being reflected,” he said.

CD6 was the only race in which a Democrat won Douglas County, but the races for commissioner, 4th Congressional District, U.S. Senate and president showed smaller margins of victory for Republicans than in recent years.

Newly elected commissioner George Teal, however, doesn’t see this trend leading to seats flipping blue any time soon.

“I really don’t buy it,” said Teal, a Republican. “If they’re in for a 20-year haul they may get results. Or Douglas County will remain the place where Republicans can run, win and govern.”

The margin of victory in Teal’s race for the District 2 seat has significantly decreased. In 2016, Republican commissioner Roger Partridge beat his Democratic opponent by nearly 37 percentage points. This year, Teal defeated Democrat Lisa Neal-Graves by 13 percentage points.

“Yes, they closed a significant gap, but maybe that’s the gap that money buys,” Teal said. “They’re likely going to need to do a significant financial investment just like they did this year to even go down that road.”

Democrats spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in an effort to flip two county commissioner seats, while also spending much more in pursuit of seats at the state Capitol.

Democrat Darien Wilson — who was defeated in the race for commissioner of District 3 by Republican incumbent Lora Thomas — agrees to an extent, adding that she doesn’t see significant gains for Democrats in Douglas County until the demographics change even more.

Democrats comprise only about 20% of the registered voters in the county, with Highlands Ranch having the highest concentration at roughly 23%. Countywide, Republicans account for nearly 40% of voters, while unaffiliated voters make up more than 40% of the electorate.

“I don’t see the county going blue for 10 years, probably would be my guess,” Wilson said. “We’ve seen it happen in Jefferson and Arapahoe Counties. It’s just a matter of time.”

In 2016, Thomas won her race by 33 percentage points. This year, her margin of victory was cut to about 18 percentage points in her race against Wilson.

Wilson was disappointed that the margin wasn’t slimmer.

“For how hard we ran, I expected a lot more movement,” she said. “I think people just voted party lines down the ticket.”

Thomas said she plans to dig into this data in the coming weeks and identify who contributed to this margin change.

“That’s an opportunity for me to reach out to these groups and see what it is I need to be more responsive about,” she said.

In the state Legislature races, most of the Douglas County Republican candidates won on Nov. 3 by margins similar to their winning tallies in 2018. The biggest difference is when compared to 2016. For example, state Rep. Patrick Neville, of Castle Rock, won the House District 45 seat by 40 percentage points in 2016, 25 percentage points in 2018 and 23 percentage points last week.

Focusing on the message

Jones, the vice president of the county Republicans, said he thinks this year’s bump in Democratic votes could be an anomaly. 

“This was a presidential election year, so you’re obviously going to have higher turnout rates,” Jones said. “We may go back to normal voting patterns in say two years from now and all of these margins and inroads that were gained by the Democrats would disappear.”

But Torpey-Newman, the leader of the county Democrats, says this isn’t the last the county will hear from her party.

“A lot of people have thought that there are no Democrats in Douglas County and what we’ve shown is that we’re a force to be reckoned with,” she said. “We’re not afraid, and we’re going to keep coming so we can get actual representation.”

In the coming years, Torpey-Newman wants to focus on getting more people in the county involved in local politics, she said. 

“You can tell that the demographics are changing and the more we educate people about what’s going on locally and what elected officials are and are not doing, the more upset people get,” she said. “These are extremist policies that people don’t like. We need to get much more public about all the things elected officials are doing.”

Jones says Republicans also plan to focus on messaging.

“We will continue to drive home the messaging of ‘why do you live in Douglas County? Because it’s a great place to live,’” he said. “‘Why is it a great place to live? It’s because our elected officials understand the proper role of government.’”

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