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El Paso County Democrats make slow progress on local level

Life of the party


Electra Johnson ran an unusual campaign. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Electra Johnson ran an unusual campaign.

On the early evening of Tuesday, Nov. 8, Liz Rosenbaum was at The Antlers Hotel in a ballroom reserved for the El Paso County Democratic Party. Wearing a crisp, white jacket — an ode to suffragists of yore — she sat under a net that held a bevy of red, white and blue balloons.

Rosenbaum was running for the District 4 seat on the El Paso County Board of County Commissioners against stiff odds: No Democrat had won a seat on the board since the 1970s. But, for the moment, Rosenbaum wasn't thinking about that. The night before, she told the Indy, she dreamed she had won the election, and balloons were falling on her head. Now, here she was, seated under the balloons.

Maybe it was a sign.

It wasn't — not this year, anyway. Rosenbaum lost to Republican Longinos Gonzalez, 62 to 38 percent. Electra Johnson, a Democrat who ran a rather electrifying campaign for commissioner District 3, lost to Republican Stan VanderWerf, 53 to 47 percent. Democrat Mark Anthony Barrionuevo was considered a solid candidate for State Senate District 10 — winning the endorsement of both the Independent and The Gazette — but he lost to Republican incumbent Owen Hill, 66 to 34 percent.

The county's voters decided eight state representative seats this election, including six with Democratic candidates. Just two went to Democrats; Pete Lee won his fourth and final term in reliably Democratic District 18, and Tony Exum Sr. won back District 17, a seat that typically goes to Democrats in presidential election years and Republicans in off years.

Given the Republican surge countrywide, perhaps it was the best that could be expected in El Paso County, home to 184,029 Republicans, 164,651 unaffiliated voters and just 100,134 Democrats. But here's the question: Are the county's Democrats doomed to stagnation in perpetuity? Or is there a chance that at some Election Night in the future, they may have more to celebrate?

Kathleen Ricker, chair of the county's Democratic Party, notes what local Dems delivered Nov. 8: Exum's and Lee's victories; 33 percent for Hillary Clinton, enough to help her win the state; and nearly 36 percent for U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, enough to help the Democrat retain his seat.

"We did our jobs," Ricker says glumly, "but that doesn't make me feel any better."

State Sen. Michael Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, thinks Dems are making slow progress in El Paso County, but it's tough. Quality candidates often decline to run because they don't think they can win, he says. And donors often don't support candidates facing long odds.

"You can understand why they wouldn't invest in a race where the numbers are so backwards," Merrifield says, "but it's frustrating."

Merrifield's right. Donors tend to favor safe races, which can make gains difficult. Take Lee — he's won his district four times, always with at least 53 percent of the vote. For his first race in 2010, he raised $80,225. In 2012, he raised $159,113; in 2014, $127,180; and by Oct. 26, his 2016 campaign had collected $98,801. He was out-raised by a Republican only once, in 2012, when Jennifer George hauled in $164,723 in campaign donations.

Likewise, Merrifield brought in $166,298 to Republican Bernie Herpin's $116,415.62 in their 2014 race for state Senate District 11. The seat usually goes to Democrats, but Herpin had taken it during the low-turnout recall election of former Senate President John Morse. Merrifield snatched it back with over 52 percent of the vote.

Exum's campaigns also see heavy investments — despite the district see-sawing. Exum has out-raised his opponent all three times he's run. As of Oct. 26, he'd brought in $128,273 this time around.

Compare those numbers to Barrionuevo's campaign in a very conservative district, raising just $3,155.40 to Hill's $11,950. Or Democrat Misty Plowright's challenge to Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn. As of Oct. 19, she raised $13,775 to Lamborn's $566,553. Rosenbaum, likewise, was heavily out-raised by Gonzalez, who had brought in $11,491 (plus $21,300 in loans) by Oct. 30, to her $5,205.

Sometimes candidates in lopsided races get big-time support. Democrat Irv Halter challenged Lamborn in 2014, and the well-liked retired Air Force major general brought in $834,943 to Lamborn's $590,022. That same year, Democrat Jariah Walker was considered a good challenger for Republican Peggy Littleton for her District 5 county commissioner seat. He brought in $30,121 to Littleton's $29,610 but lost handily. Then there's Johnson, who as of Oct. 30 had raised an impressive $47,324.81 in her bid for county commissioner. She was nevertheless out-raised by VanderWerf, with $74,322.69 in that time period.

Unfortunately for Dems, all of those candidates lost.

Asked how to win more elections, some local Dems say demographics will need to change, others say candidates need to improve, and others think the party should lead the way on being more innovative.

Rep. Lee says candidates must be involved in the community and willing to reach across the aisle. He says he's on many committees and commissions, and he names a couple Republicans who he thinks do a great job — outgoing County Commissioner Sallie Clark and Mayor John Suthers.

"I think Sallie is very responsive to citizens, she digs into issues, she returns phone calls," Lee says.

Johnson says if Dems want to win elections, they have to think outside the box. She never hired a campaign manager, relying on advisers and her own gut. Johnson says she engaged people on issues they cared about, brought her own passion and fearlessness, and paid attention to branding, or what she calls "the other half of a campaign."

"I think sticking to the way that we've done and run campaigns doesn't work," she says. "I think having new voices is a powerful thing."

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