Young climate voters fueled Democratic sweep in Colo.

Source: By Avery Ellfeldt, E&E News reporter • Posted: Sunday, November 8, 2020

Democrats last week swept the Colorado elections on the heels of an unprecedented wildfire season, expanding their majority in the Legislature and securing control of both U.S. Senate seats and the state’s presidential vote.

Yet Colorado’s mounting vulnerability to climate change didn’t necessarily sway those races, experts say. Instead, they were dominated by the prospect of a second Trump term, the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing economic crisis.

Even so, climate change likely will be a deciding factor in whether the state remains in Democratic hands, polling data shows — requiring politicians of all stripes to convince voters they’re geared up to address global warming.

“The two largest fires in state history happened one after another this summer. People know what that is, people know what’s causing that, people know what’s making them bigger and longer and stronger and worse,” said Ian Silverii, executive director of ProgressNow Colorado, a liberal group.

“Between the activism you’re seeing at the local level … combined with the devastating effects of climate change, combined with a highly educated electorate and a public lands-driven economy,” he added, “it’s a huge issue here.”

More than 55% of Coloradans this week voted for former Vice President Joe Biden, according to preliminary results, while 53% of voters sent Democrat John Hickenlooper — a former Colorado governor — to the U.S. Senate, replacing Republican Sen. Cory Gardner.

The blue wave overtook the state government, too. According to The Colorado Sun, it’s the first time in 84 years that Colorado Democrats secured political control across the board.

Democratic success this cycle was driven in large part by young voters — a still-expanding demographic that’s well-known for prioritizing climate change, said pollster David Flaherty, founder of Magellan Strategies. More than 25% of votes in Colorado were cast by people between 18 and 34 years old, he added.

But young, left-leaning voters in Colorado aren’t alone in their climate concerns.

More than half of the state’s adults think local officials should do more to address global warming, according to Yale University’s 2020 climate opinion map. And nine out of 10 voters surveyed by Morning Consult in September said they’re concerned about wildfire risk — including 82% of Republican voters. Three-quarters of voters, meanwhile, reported feeling more fearful of climate change because of recent weather events, including wildfires.

That’s significant, Flaherty said. But it’s not necessarily what drove them to the polls.

“They’re turning out to vote against Donald Trump and his policies. And that’s what we’ve seen in the last two elections here. We’ve had massive Democratic and unaffiliated voter turnout to vote against somebody and somebody’s policies as much as it is to promote their own,” Flaherty said.

“Very few Republicans were even given the time of day,” he added, “and [they] were punished, including Cory Gardner.”

‘Irrelevant in the long term’

Climate change may have taken a back seat this year to the coronavirus and national political environment. But every person interviewed for this story said it’s clear that global warming will be a top-line issue for Colorado voters moving forward — especially if Biden takes the White House.

“If you’re going to be a candidate in 2022, regardless of your party, you better have some [climate] plans ready to go,” said Joe Salazar, executive director of Colorado Rising, an advocacy group.

The Democratic Party has a clear edge in this regard. But that hasn’t exempted many top Colorado Democrats — Hickenlooper among them — from the scrutiny of green groups, which have been critical of local politicians who are friendly with the oil and gas industry, or who reject the Green New Deal.

Matt Dempsey, an oil and gas consultant with FTI Consulting, said Hickenlooper’s win this week continues a Colorado tradition of electing moderate Democrats who care about climate change — while also supporting oil and gas production.

In Dempsey’s eyes, Democrats Sen. Michael Bennet, former Sen. Ken Salazar and former Gov. Bill Ritter also fit that category. He said they serve as examples of how both major parties in Colorado have traditionally agreed that the fossil fuel industry should play a role in addressing global warming.

Gardner also serves as an example. For years, the Republican senator, who embraces both fossil fuels and clean energy, has touted his commitment to the environment. This year, ahead of his run for reelection, he sponsored the Great American Outdoors Act, which was enacted in August with bipartisan support (Greenwire, Aug. 4).

“So even [Gardner] — a cynical politician who is largely funded by the oil and gas industry, the [National Rifle Association] and pharma — understood that in order to make an appeal to Colorado voters, he needed to talk about conservation,” said Silverii.

A notable exception is Republican Lauren Boebert, whom voters elected to represent Colorado’s oil- and gas-reliant 3rd District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Boebert — a staunch gun rights activist who has expressed support for the QAnon conspiracy theory — defeated Democrat Diane Mitsch Bush, a former state lawmaker who emphasized environmental issues during her campaign.

Even with Boebert’s victory, Joe Salazar and Silverii said they think the 2020 elections make a strong case that Colorado is becoming a firmly blue — and climate-concerned — state.

Republican consultant Tyler Sandberg disagreed in part; he said he can envision the “pendulum swing[ing] back in ’22.”

But “for Republicans to be a governing party ever again,” he said, “they have to take climate change seriously. It is an overwhelmingly open-and-shut case with voters, especially under 50.”

“If they don’t do it,” he added, “it’s going to make sure they are essentially irrelevant in the long term.”