Beware of Republican efforts to GOP-mander Colorado

Republicans who increasingly find themselves at odds with a majority of Colorado voters have been hammering home a consistent falsehood in recent weeks: That their eroding influence is owed to how state legislative districts were drawn in 2011.

When your most likely election outcome is a loss, every political problem looks like a gerrymander.

But as someone who was in the statehouse for the majority of the last decade and who was actually in charge of the Democratic campaign operations for the 2014 and 2016 cycles, let me make a simple observation: The erosion of their power is owed primarily to poor leadership, unattractive candidates, and policy positions that are out of step with Colorado.

Colorado has two new citizen-driven redistricting commissions — one to redraw congressional maps and one for legislative boundaries — thanks to Amendments Y & Z. As those commissions travel the state in coming weeks to take public comment on preliminary maps drawn by non-partisan staff, they will no doubt hear from a parade of Republicans trying to “work the refs” by lamenting that they’ve somehow been drawn into their current political situation.

Those hyperbolic claims have been repeatedly shot down in recent weeks by academics who study the issue.

A study from the University of Southern California’s Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy ranked the Top 10 gerrymandered states, and Colorado is not among them.

In testimony before the Independent Legislative Redistricting Commission in June, Beth Malmskog of Colorado College and Jeanne Clelland of CU Boulder, both professors of mathematics with doctorates, used an “ensemble analysis” to generate and analyze two million possible redistricting plans for Colorado. They concluded that Democrats should hold 39 or 40 of Colorado’s 65 House seats. Following two wave elections in which Colorado voters’ overwhelmingly rejected former President Donald Trump by voting against Republicans at nearly every turn, Democrats currently hold 41 seats. For the state Senate, Celland testified her team’s study determined that “the most common outcomes were 20 and 21 seats for Democrats.” Democrats currently hold 20 of the 35 seats in the Senate and, it should be remembered, control of the body changed hands twice in the last 10 years: from Democrats to Republicans in 2014 and back to Democrats in 2018.

In 2014, an election during which I was in a leadership role for the House Democrats, my party held on to the chamber by a mere 666 votes spread across two districts. We eked out those victories with a combination of superior campaigns run by veteran incumbents against inexperienced and disorganized challengers in seats that could have certainly been won by a more skilled opposition.

Former Colorado reapportionment commissioner and Colorado College professor Bob Loevy (a registered Republican, by the way) offered his learned and dispassionate insights to our state’s politics, in testimony before both commissions. He said the current maps have performed as you would expect given the state’s political makeup and recommended using the current legislative districts as a baseline for a new map.

Republicans who’ve made a habit of losing elections are taking advantage of the current redistricting process to blame it on something — anything — else. But that ignores their own, recent post-election analysis.

“I don’t think we’ve effectively communicated that to people, that our policies make their lives better, our policies provide more educational opportunities for their children, so our party has to be better at communicating those issues,” said the current Colorado GOP chair Kristi Burton Brown.

“Our candidates and our county parties look for help, but their phone calls often go unanswered. Republican candidates need support but find little in the way of training, volunteers, and money. Candidates and county parties often beg for better access to voter data,” said former Secretary of State Scott Gessler.

And finally, a December 2020 Denver Post analysis that examined data and relied on interviews with more than 20 prominent Republicans concluded that GOP’s ongoing losses could be traced to: “allegedly mismanaged campaign money; fundamental disagreements within the party over its direction and message; the increasing strength of the Democratic Party; demographic shifts that contributed heavily to the GOP’s disadvantage in voter registration; and the unpopularity of President Donald Trump, whom one pollster referred to as a ‘rocket booster’ for Colorado Democrats.”

So, as the legislative and congressional redistricting commissions begin their outreach to Coloradans, I urge residents to participate in these hearings to be held across the state.  I also urge the commissioners to listen carefully and to adjust proposed congressional and legislative district boundary lines based on the needs of individual communities rather than on political whining. As this process gets underway for the very first time, let’s remind these independent commissioners that the real gerrymandering — or GOP-mandering — is forgetting (or lying about) how we got here and giving Republicans an undeserved edge.

Dickey Lee Hullinghorst was elected to four terms in the Colorado House of Representatives, serving as House Majority Leader from 2013-2014 and as Speaker of the House from 2015-2016. She resides in Gunbarrel with her husband Robert.

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