The purple-tinged east suburban communities ringing Denver are proving to be more and more progressive as voting Democrats favor further left-leaning candidates.
On Super Tuesday, Democrats in Douglas, Arapahoe and Adams counties all turned out for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders over more moderate former Vice President Joe Biden. The Vermont senator, who calls himself a democratic socialist, was the top vote earner in greater Aurora, along with most of the state.
In Adams County, Sanders picked up 42 percent of the vote from Democrats and unaffiliated voters who chose to vote in the Democratic primary. 35 percent in Arapahoe County went for Sanders, and 28 percent in Douglas County.
Biden picked up the second most votes in all three counties: 22 percent in Adams County, 25 percent in Arapahoe County and nearly 30 percent in Douglas County.
Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who dropped from the race after Super Tuesday, finished out the top three candidates in the three counties. 19 percent in Adams County, 21 percent in Arapahoe County and 24 percent in Douglas County. He opened an office in Aurora last month.
The story was similar for last week’s caucus for U.S. Senate. Results showed former Colorado State House Speaker Andrew Romanoff leading across the state over former Gov. John Hickenlooper. Romanoff won 55 percent of the raw vote, while Hickenlooper garnered nearly 31 percent.
Susan Gilbert, president of the Colorado chapter of Progressive Democrats of America, said she’s hopeful that more left-leaning Democrats will continue to do well in Colorado. The group endorsed Romanoff after a statewide poll of the membership overwhelmingly supported the candidate.
“Progressives went out to caucus, and that means they are passionate enough to make sure their candidate gets on the ballot and gets elected,” she said.
Overall, the growing support for more progressive Democrats is not entirely surprising for Gilbert. The Aurora City Council has been steadily trending blue, with the election of three self-described progressive candidates in 2017 and then two more in 2019.
Progressive candidates are more mainstream than they used to be, she said.
That could be because of the make-up of Aurora’s voting base in Arapahoe County.
“It’s been said that the voters are a third Democrat, a third Republican and a third independent,” Gilbert said. “Former Democrats who may become disillusioned with the party and become independent are more left-leaning than they have been in the past.”
Those independent voters have helped swing races from overwhelmingly Republican to solid blue, like the election of Congressman Jason Crow in 2018. That race has even influenced the thinking of some political researchers who now bet a Democrat will beat out U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner in November. He won by 2.5 points in 2014. That year it was nearly a toss up between Gardner and then-incumbent Mark Udall.
“The current iteration of CO-6 has existed since 2012 and, in statewide elections, has typically picked the winners — despite Gardner’s success there in 2014, then-Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) carried it as part of his successful reelection effort that year,” writes Kyle Kondik and J. Miles Coleman of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics wrote of the district.
“Two years later, Hillary Clinton would carry the Centennial State’s electoral votes by a 5 percent margin, but she fared even better with the suburbanites in CO-6, winning it by nine percentage points. In fact, between those 2014 and 2016 contests, CO-6 swung nearly 13 percentage points from Udall to Clinton — no other district in the state saw a double-digit blue shift. Perhaps more notably, in 2016, CO-6 leaned four points more Democratic than the state as a whole.”
The Center for Politics previously rated the Colorado Senate race a toss-up, but has since updated the rating to “leans Democratic.”
When voters in the 6th Congressional District elected Crow after having elected Coffman for a decade, Gilbert’s group endorsed an even more liberal candidate for the seat, Levi Tillemann.
Tillemann made national headlines for sounding the alarm over national Democrats backing Crow well before the primary. He taped a meeting with the-No. 2 Congressional Democrat Steny Hoyer, who said “a judgment was made very early on” to support Crow.
Similar stories played out in other districts. For Tillemann, it wasn’t enough to stem the tide of voter support.
Gilbert isn’t sure if there has been a tipping point in the last few years that has pushed Democrats further left, but the state of national politics has to be some indication.
“I think more in the last couple of years (the lean left has been) because of the dynamics of what’s happening in Washington,” she said. “People are so afraid of the direction we’re going, and they feel the progressive voice is needed.”
Burbs moving to the left across the nation
Nearly two years after suburbanites like those in Aurora helped drive a Democratic surge, there are clear signs these voters are engaged and primed to vote Democratic again.
Turnout in the Democratic presidential primary has been strong across suburban counties, from coast to coast, and right here in Colorado.
It’s what fueled a 2018 wave of successful Democratic campaign. In several key counties, turnout has exceeded that of four years ago. In some cases, it has bested the party’s recent high water marks reached during the 2008 primary battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
That has been particularly good news now for Biden, even as Colorado and Aurora turned out for Sanders.
The former vice president, who’s running as a moderate, consensus candidate, soared to the top of the Democratic field this past week, showing strength in suburban counties. A strong showing across the country in Tuesday, March 10 primaries underscored that.
Many suburban Democrats said they are motivated by their desire to oust Trump and a fear that Sanders is a riskier bet.
“My main goal is to not have Trump get reelected,” Gail Hayes, a 67-year-old retired child care provider, said outside a coffee shop in Burnsville, Minnesota, a Twin Cities suburb.
Hayes noted that she’s ideologically more aligned with progressives such as Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator who dropped out of the race Thursday. But Hayes described herself as pragmatic and said she voted for Biden because she thinks he can win.
“I wanted to pick someone more moderate,” she said. “I really didn’t decide until a couple hours before I voted.”
Democrats’ hope focuses on suburbs that will be pivotal to the November general election.
Consider Burnsville, part of once-reliably Republican Dakota County. There are several parallels to Aurora and the surrounding community.
The sprawling community has grown more racially diverse and more Democratic in recent years. The strip mall where Hayes grabbed a coffee also housed a halal grocer linked with an African restaurant and a Latin grocer linked with a taco shop.
A surge of anti-Trump sentiment in the area helped Democrats flip a Republican-held House seat in 2018, similar to Aurora’s 6th Congressional District seat long held by now-Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman.
Now Dakota County is among the places Trump’s campaign must pick up ground if it wants to make good on its promise to win Minnesota in November.
“The suburbs have been a killing zone for Republicans in the Trump era,” said GOP strategist Alex Conant, a top adviser on Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s failed 2016 presidential campaign. Conant said Republicans must do better to attract young families and professionals or Democratic gains in suburbs will almost certainly continue.
The opening contests of the Democratic presidential primary, including the last two weeks of contests, brought few signs that the Trump backlash in the suburbs has ebbed. In a dozen counties with swing suburban communities, Democrats cast more ballots than they did four years ago, an analysis found. In nine of the 12 counties, the vote totals eclipsed 2008.
The numbers are a sign of both the energy and the population growth driving Democrats’ suburban strength. Both were evident last Tuesday in Virginia, where Democrats have won three straight election cycles since Trump was elected, powered largely by voters in suburban areas. That success includes every statewide race and flipping partisan control of the Legislature and congressional delegation.
Voting was up for Democrats in Texas’ Dallas County, another area that flipped a House seat to Democrats in 2018, though turnout was not as high as when Obama was on the ballot.
In Virginia, about two-thirds of suburban voters describe themselves as moderate or conservative, rather than liberal, as do about 60% of suburban voters in California, Colorado, Minnesota, North Carolina and Texas, according to AP VoteCast surveys of voters in eight states that held primaries last Tuesday.
That moderate tilt proved to be an advantage for Biden over Sanders, whom many suburban voters said they viewed as less likely to beat Trump. Biden soundly beat Sanders in Dakota County, Chesterfield County and Fairfax. In California, a state Sanders won, he beat Biden in suburban havens of Orange and Riverside counties, although by relatively narrow margins.
Michael McDade, 62, a Democrat who cast his ballot in Cary, North Carolina, home of the Research Triangle Park area, said he voted for Biden as a matter of pragmatism rather than preference.
“I just felt like he had the best chance of consolidating Democrats behind him and the best chance of beating Trump,” he said. The 40-year resident has watched Wake County swell with out-of-state newcomers filling jobs in the booming pharmaceutical and technology industries and surrounding universities, and making the area “much more cosmopolitan.”
Progressives argue that the party’s focus on the suburbs and its cluster of moderate and older voters risks leaving behind the young voters, Latinos and liberals at the core of Sanders’ coalition.
“A campaign that is not inspiring to a rising American electorate, especially of young voters, can be a real challenge for Democrats,” said Neil Sroka at the pro-Sanders Democracy for America. Democrats’ focus shouldn’t be on the so-called swing voter who shifts between Republicans and Democrats, “but those who swing in and out of the electorate,” he said.
Indeed, Sanders’ supporters stand out for their skepticism of most other candidates in the race. At least half of his voters across eight states surveyed said they would be unhappy with Biden, according to VoteCast.
At the Burnsville coffee shop, Sanders supporter Ali Sugule, 39, wasn’t enthusiastic about Biden. Nevertheless, the Somali American who considers himself a progressive said he “will back up anybody” the Democrats ultimately nominate.
Sherman Bausch, 44, a business technology consultant from Lakeville in Dakota County called Trump a “horrible role model” but said he also would be “very, very frustrated” to have to vote for Sanders.
“I don’t think replacing one guy at one end who’s yelling at everybody with a guy on the other end who’s yelling at everybody is an appropriate move for the country at this point,” he said. He voted for Biden.
In Aurora, Andrea Staron, 38, said she used to vote Republican. But she left her presidential choice blank in 2016.
On Super Tuesday, the law student, who is anti-abortion and deeply interested in anti-poverty work, voted on Super Tuesday because she wanted to play a role in choosing an opponent to a president she detests.
Sanders has some “very interesting ideas,” she said, but “I want somebody who can beat Trump.”
She waited until the last minute. And she voted for Biden.