Blue Wave

The blue wave was huge in Colorado and good enough to take back the U.S. House! Photo by Austin Schmid

Finally – we’re all entitled to deep breaths. The long midterm election cycle ended Tuesday, which is probably even bringing relief to people who weren’t deeply involved, if only because the TV ads are over. Personally, I’ve been involved in this cycle since February, when I started doing caucus training, and worked right up until Election Day on vote-chasing. I’m ready for other activities and thought processes, but found a little time for this election wrap-up.

My ballot had 21 initiatives, on top of the Colorado candidate races, and of course there was a lot to process nationally. There is no way I’ll try to write about all of this, so I’m just sticking with a few mostly bigger-picture observations. Of course there were mixed results. It’s a win-some, lose-some world for most of us. But overall, I’m moving into 2019 a much happier political person, and looking forward to seeing if we can swing some of what’s happened over a rough couple of years back in a more positive direction. Lots of us worked for it, and I was heartened by everyone’s involvement.

House Flipping Makes America Safer Again: I said early and often that the most important thing in the 2018 election was to flip at least one chamber of the U.S. legislative branch, and it happened. With the new Democratic House majority, I rejoice, even if the main importance of this event is defensive. We now have one check in our system of checks and balances after two torturous years of single-party rule, one branch of government that can vote down at least the worst of the bad policy ideas that will continue being introduced. Maybe the “Blue Wave” wasn’t as big as people expected, but this is less important than wresting back the House majority for at least two years. I will tell people until I am blue in the face that we need to appreciate structural elements of governance, and this new House majority is a piece of structure with real power. My hat is off to everyone who worked so hard to make this happen.

Colorado Government: Blue Through and Through: Colorado again has a Democratic Governor, Dems regained control of the state Senate, and Ds kept control of the state House. Plus, Dems took every statewide elected office – Attorney General, Secretary of State, State Treasurer, and At-Large CU Regent. I’m ecstatic but will offer a little cautious advice, based in part on personal experience.

Overreach leads to an equal and opposite reaction – and that’s probably the main reason so many worked so hard to take back the U.S. House after watching the GOP proposals coming out of Washington. I worked at the Colorado Capitol earlier this decade, including years when Dems enjoyed healthy majorities, but Republicans were successful in framing the 2013 legislative session as one of left-wing overreach, and the Senate flipped in 2014, staying in the hands of the GOP from 2014-18. My main message to the Statehouse Dems is to “use your power, but use it wisely.” Listen and analyze if people say they’re getting hurt, get rural and moderate voices to the table, don’t lose focus on the economy, and if someone says a proposal is “too extreme for Colorado,” at least check this out – even if only to consider amendments – before forging ahead. You have great opportunities to prove that Dems can manage and improve a very special state, and if you succeed, your run of majorities should be lengthy.

Campaign Finance – One Downer in a Sea of Happiness: I don’t automatically criticize all money in politics, but this election cycle once again highlighted that certain levels of political involvement are getting more and more out of reach for “normal” people. Unfortunately, without reversing Citizens United, only marginal improvements are possible, since our major problem is unlimited funding (oh, right, it’s called “speech”) from outside groups and self-funded campaigns. I tried to warn people in 2016 about the impact of letting Trump make the next round of U.S. Supreme Court nominations, but here we are, with two new conservative Justices on the SCOTUS for life, so Citizens isn’t getting overturned in the courts any time soon. This probably means my lifetime and yours, unless maybe you’re from whatever generation is younger than the millennials.

Colorado’s Amendment 75 was a largely partisan measure that could have only made a marginal difference – hardly “leveling the playing field” as advertised. It deserved to fail. It would not have eliminated unlimited funding from self-funded candidates or outside groups that did not “coordinate” with a campaign. So, a collection of five-digit individual donations would not have made a game-changing impact in the face of seven-or-eight-digit contributions from self-funded candidates or outside groups. In practical but snarky terms, it could have added up to more campaign pizza, pieces of literature, and postage, but not much expensive TV time, if any at all. Its new individual limits would have been triggered at $1 million, and in fairness, the new limits under 75 might have helped if campaigns actually stayed close to $1 million – but not at $20 million, or the bigger figures we might see in the future.

I know Jared Polis to a limited extent as a person, like him, and was happy he won the Governor’s race, but there’s no doubt many good people have been troubled about the role money has played in his political races. I happen to believe he brought a great resume and strong qualifications to his 2018 race for Governor, but money was a heavy advantage when he ran for the State Board of Education and in his first Congressional primary back in 2008. But let’s remember, purists – Jared is competing in a campaign finance world with the likes of the Republican Governors Association, Americans for Prosperity, Sheldon Adelson, and a host of organizations able to sling some pretty hefty cash. In a Citizens United world, progressive or liberal candidates might still need real financing to compete, and denouncing money when running against a well-funded opponent might be an admirable moral choice but also might contribute to defeat.

And it’s all sort of demoralizing. In other years, I would send out modest contributions to a few campaigns, but really have a tough time justifying it anymore since it’s such a drop in the bucket in bigger races. The pro-oil and gas forces spent more than $40 million to defeat Prop 112 and support Amendment 74 this year, Polis spent $20 million of his own money, Republican Vic Mitchell spent something like $5 million during his Governor’s primary only to lose, and a few state Senate races certainly generated heavy spending over seats that pay $30,000 per year. It’s intimidating and discouraging for normal folks who would like to have some say or influence when it comes to issues that impact our own lives. I know a lot of folks have ideas about possible improvements, but without tackling campaign finance at the top, and I mean Citizens United, it’s nibbling around the edges of a major problem.

New Era! New Era Colorado was founded in 2006, and today its influence has far exceeded my expectations. Folks who have been involved with New Era now holding office include our new Congressman Joe Neguse, our new Boulder County Clerk Molly Fitzpatrick, our sitting State Senator Steve Fenberg, and the re-elected State Rep. Leslie Herod from HD-8. I know a bunch of other New Era alums who have enjoyed real success on campaigns or as political staffers. New Era co-founder Fenberg was a prime Senate sponsor of three resolutions that became referred ballot measures and passed in 2018, and all three will be in the Colorado Constitution. New Era co-founder Neguse will become Colorado’s first African-American Congressman when he’s sworn in. The organization registered more than 40,000 voters during this election cycle. These are incredible results, and I’m sure I missed some.

I often heard people talk about what “we” needed to do to get young people involved in this election. In the back of my warped mind, I usually thought, “New Era probably registered 20 people to vote during the 10 minutes you were pontificating.” Younger voters are still more likely to get involved during presidential-year elections than midterms, and they could have done better in 2018, but you can’t blame New Era for any of this if you look at the scoreboard.

Amendment 71’s First Test: In 2016, Colorado voters passed Amendment 71, creating a 55% supermajority requirement to amend our Constitution, along with new petition signature requirements. It was designed in part to make it more difficult to amend the Constitution than to amend state statutes. Opponents warned that it might kill the initiative process, especially if a non-wealthy group wanted to amend the Constitution. I think the 2018 results proved A-71 critics were only partially right.

Three citizen-initiated amendments qualified for the 2018 ballot – Amendments 73, 74, and 75, despite the new petition laws. They all had some level of financials available to them – 73 from education professionals and supporters, 74 primarily from oil and gas, and 75 at least partially from oil and gas. They all lost, though they all also would have lost if they only needed a simple 50%-plus-one majority.

The test in the future will probably be to see if campaigns not backed by big money can get a constitutional measure on the ballot. With our modern technological age, we might see future advances such as online petitioning or better statewide database organizing. As the law stands today, campaigns without big funding will have to figure out how to gather petition signatures in all parts of the state, and this will take either some type of money or more effort or innovative strategies. This can admittedly be tough, but it’s the current reality.

Remember, if a campaign can’t raise some funding for petitioning, it’s a really bad sign if they then need to run a statewide campaign or pay for TV ads, both of which tend to be vastly more expensive than petitioning. Meanwhile, we also had four statutory propositions make the 2018 ballot, for a total of seven citizen-initiated statewide ballot measures. This, plus the additional six amendments referred by the Legislature, was plenty to digest for most Colorado voters. It might be imperfect, but Colorado’s initiative process is definitely not dead.

Time to Tackle False Ads: We are rightfully expecting Facebook and Twitter to watch out for content on their platforms, especially since so much malevolent political junk went out during the 2016 cycle. It’s time for TV and those producing printed material to follow suit. This will be tricky, since there could be legitimate free speech found within ads that are misleading, partially false, or stretching the truth. But if we can put a man on the moon (sorry, trite and hackneyed) – we should be able to do something about ads and documents with undeniable lies.

I watched a few of the anti-Polis ads, referring to his 1999 workplace altercation, with real concern that I was watching propaganda. They took printed reports and highlighted certain phrases and sentences in bright yellow to suit their purposes, while I could see non-highlighted and faded phrases on the screen that literally debunked the message they were trying to get voters to believe. It would be like reading the following sentence “I hate prejudice against African-Americans” and highlighting only “I hate…African-Americans.”

To its credit, Denver Channel 7 (and maybe others) took down these ads. This should happen more often. Amendment 74 proponents also sent out mailers with complete falsehoods. This included claims of Colorado Springs Gazette support that was actually rescinded, and claims that without 74 the government could take your property (“takings” are already protected against in the state Constitution section A-74 sought to amend). There should be some type of recourse against this type of activity, since people might have read the mailers or watched the ads, voted based on this information, and learned of the falsehoods after returning their ballots.

The existence of legitimate slander and libel laws proves that the First Amendment does not provide blanket protection for dissemination of false information. To me, the battle over false ads seems to be something the state Legislature could tackle. I’d consider big fines and mandatory, visible public retractions as good first steps. The question of “who judges what’s false?” is a good one, but we have an Independent Ethics Commission and the court system, and I believe this is a pressing issue that ought to be addressed.

The Colorado Voting System Should Be a National Model: I talked to people from other states during this election cycle, and some had not heard of mail ballots, while others basically had to vote on Nov. 6 only. This sort of blew my mind, in a bad way.

Colorado should be proud of its system, in which most of us get ballots in the mail around three weeks before the deadline, and in a place like Boulder County there are like 25 places to return them if you don’t put them in the mail. With this system, you can comfortably review candidates and issues at home before voting, and you’re not screwed or even stressed out if you have to work on Nov. 6. Adams County had a problem with delays in getting out more than 60,000 ballots, but this was an exception and Adams voters still had plenty of time to cast their ballots. Colorado now generally has among the best voter turnout percentages in the nation, and it’s because voting is relatively easy.

Turning on the news, we far too often still hear stories about voters being purged from voter rolls; long lines at voting centers because there aren’t enough polling places to handle the volume; over-demanding voting laws like Georgia’s “exact match” law or North Dakota’s provision against using P.O. box information on IDs required for voting; or moving voting centers to inconvenient locations. None of this should happen in a 21st century democracy, and in some cases, laws or practices can call the legitimacy of an election into question. By now, we should have universal voter registration for all legal citizens and voting timelines that acknowledge how most of us work on weekdays, while still keeping professional practices in place to make sure people are not gaming the system. At bare minimum, voting should be reasonably easy for all who are eligible, and Colorado has provided a template that some of the rest of the nation ought to learn from.

It Takes a Big Tent to Get Big Results: Don’t hate on me for this next sentence until reading into the second paragraph. If I told you that Jason Crow’s victory in Colorado’s 6th district proved that Dems should only run white male attorneys with military backgrounds who were not the favorites of progressives in their primaries, you’d have every right to say horrible things about me. Yet Crow did beat Mike Coffman, while other Dems of differing demographics or political identities lost to Coffman in 2012, 2014 and 2016.

But I don’t believe Crow’s victory proves anything in broader terms except that he was a strong candidate running at the right time, and in that vein I have grown tired of claims that other victorious candidacies prove our future leaders have to fit any one mold. I rejoiced over Jared Polis, the nation’s first out gay Governor; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a young Latina Democratic Socialist; and Conor Lamb, a centrist who won special and general House elections on traditionally conservative turf. After watching an inspiring Election Night speech from Stacey Abrams, who was running to become the nation’s first female African-American governor, I hope we haven’t heard the last of her. Women might not enjoy the level of political power they deserve yet, but it was a good election for women, including the group of candidates who helped Colorado take back the State Senate and Jena Griswold, Colorado’s first Democratic Secretary of State (-elect) in decades.

Together, these different people will work toward what most folks from center to left-of-center want – better health care, environmental protections, access to higher education, protection of personal freedoms, high-quality public education, fairer tax policy, advances in clean energy, voting rights, and more. They’ll win some and lose some, they’ll have to compromise, but they’ll make improvements where and when it’s politically possible.

The recent progressive movement brought fresh blood and calls for stronger policy action into the mix. Unaffiliated voters reportedly broke toward the left this year, in some cases taking inspiration from these bolder voices, and in some cases understanding the need to break the Trump/GOP stranglehold on our federal government. Old-guard Dems did a ton of work like always – and new-school activists ought not discount the nuts-and-bolts stuff that isn’t sexy but makes center/left-of-center victories possible. Many “traditional” Dems also felt some pressure from the left and stepped up their games – and if they didn’t, they might have lost primaries or watched their margins of victory grow smaller.

But together, folks of the center or left-of-center really hustled so they could enjoy some positive electoral results in 2018, and once we all sleep off some of the overwork and stress, we should all feel at least a little better about our near-term future. Let’s keep this team aspect in mind for the next election cycle – with big Senate races and the next Presidential election coming up – and guess what? The next cycle basically starts today!