By all accounts, La Plata County’s June 28 primaries were successful with voter turnout exceeding Clerk and Recorder Tiffany Lee’s goal of 40%.
But for one party in particular, the primaries were a boon.
Ballots cast in the Republican primary more than doubled Democratic turnout, with unaffiliated voters heavily favoring the GOP and leaving the party with confidence heading into November’s midterm elections.
“We are doing more outreach to voters than I’ve seen in a decade. It’s everything from door knocking to meet and greets and people calling precinct chair persons to be the leaders holding events at their homes,” said Dave Peters, chairman of the La Plata County Republicans. “We’ve got a fair amount of confidence going into the elections right now.”
Republican and unaffiliated voters cast 11,660 ballots in La Plata County’s Republican primary, outpacing the 5,510 submitted in the Democratic primary, according to unofficial results from Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold’s office.
Unaffiliated voters skew those results, but the vote counts from local elections, which are a more accurate sign of turnout given the loose attempt by Democratic voters to change affiliations to unseat Rep. Lauren Boebert, also signal stronger turnout for Republicans.
In Colorado House District 59, Democrat Barbara McLachlan and Republican Shelli Shaw ran uncontested in the primaries. But Shaw received more than 6,400 votes to McLachlan’s roughly 4,950.
Likewise Brad Blake, the Republican candidate in La Plata County’s District 1 commissioner race, gathered 7,077 votes to Democrat Clyde Church’s 4,704 votes.
Turnout among unaffiliated voters in the June primaries was even more skewed toward Republicans.
Unaffiliated voters cast nearly five times as many ballots in the Republican primary as the Democratic primary.
Accounting for the movement by Democrats to change affiliations, which saw more than 1,300 Democrats in La Plata County flip to unaffiliated since Feb. 1, unaffiliated voters cast their ballots about 4 to 1 in the Republican primary.
It was a trend that was visible across Archuleta, Montezuma, Dolores and San Miguel counties.
“What we kind of validated was the national polling that says that the independents are swinging toward Republicans and Latinos (toward Republicans),” Peters said.
The discrepancy between the two parties among unaffiliated voters was unlike any primary since Colorado voters approved Proposition 108 in 2016, which allowed unaffiliated electors to vote in the state’s primaries.
County-level data is unavailable for 2020, but unaffiliateds statewide cast ballots in the Democratic primary at more than double the rate of the Republican primaries.
In 2018, more than 1,500 unaffiliated voters cast a ballot in La Plata County’s Democratic primary. Exactly 700 voted in the Republican primary.
Lee said the trend in unaffiliated voters was pronounced this year.
“I would call it particularly unusual,” Lee said. “It’s very high.”
But while Peters views this year’s turnout as a sign that Republicans are appealing to unaffiliated voters ahead of the midterms, those voters are also changing the messaging of the party.
In past elections, Republicans focused more on partisan messages, but local candidates this year have emphasized nonpartisan issues, Peters said.
“People are more conscious now that after many years of losing elections we’ve got to have a broader appeal,” he said. “That’s starting to come out statewide.”
Though it could be a signal that unaffiliated voters are reshaping the GOP in La Plata County and Colorado, Peters said Republican candidates were not altering their platforms to appeal to unaffiliated candidates.
“The candidates really aren’t changing their fundamental values, but they’re highlighting some things that (have) a broader audience,” he said.
Yet, Anne Markward, chairwoman of the La Plata County Democrats, viewed the results of this year’s Republican primary differently.
Republicans Heidi Ganahl and Joe O’Dea won their primaries for governor and U.S. Senate, respectively, as the more moderate candidates, and controversial Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters, who has been indicted on charges of election tampering, lost in the GOP race for Colorado secretary of state.
“Look at the number of Republican ballots that were cast and look at the outcome. The extremists did not win,” Markward said.
Though Republicans reported healthy turnout in La Plata County’s June primaries, Markward is not alarmed. She points out that Democrats in La Plata County had just one contested race to vote on statewide – the 3rd Congressional District in which Adam Frisch, Sol Sandoval and Alex Walker were vying to run against Boebert.
“I’m still very firm in my belief that the reason we had such a low voter turnout is because people are comfortable with the elected representation that the Democrats have, but that they will show up big time in November,” she said.
For Democrats to attract the unaffiliated voters who cast ballots in the Republican primary, the party must highlight its accomplishments while controlling the governor’s office and the Colorado Legislature, Markward said, painting a contrast with Congress where Democrats hold a slim majority in the House and an even split with Republicans in the Senate.
Recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down Roe v. Wade, shrink the regulatory scope of the Environmental Protection Agency and limit tribal sovereignty have bolstered Markward’s confidence heading into the midterms.
For the first time, the Supreme Court has become a significant motivator for voters, she said.
“All of a sudden the SCOTUS actions are being felt and understood by people as being super immediate,” she said.
Republicans’ strong showing in the La Plata County primaries and the Biden administration’s inability to curb the impacts of issues such as inflation and gas prices have instilled optimism in Peters with November around the corner.
“We’re not taking it for granted, but we feel real good right now,” he said.