Lessons from the election that delivered Colorado’s most diverse General Assembly ever
A new report shows how the 2018 election reshaped the state’s legislature along racial and gender lines. Here’s what that means for Colorado and what it portends for November’s election.
Candidates of color were overwhelmingly successful in the Centennial State’s 2018 legislative elections, with two-thirds of Black or Latinx Democratic candidates emerging from primary victories to also win their general elections. All of the nine women and 80% of men running as Latinx Democrats won their respective general elections. Colorado also sat the second-highest number of women in its state legislature in the country, according to the report – women held 47% of the state’s legislative seats.
Racial, ethnic and gender diversity in the Colorado legislature mattered during the legislative session, said Rob Preuhs, Ph.D., professor and chair of the University’s political science department. The report was compiled as part of his applied-political-research lab.
“Introducing new voices alters the dynamics of what issues elected officials discuss and how they connect with their constituents,” he said.
During the subsequent legislative session, Latinx lawmakers introduced more legislation related to immigration and labor/employment laws than their white counterparts, who were substantially more likely to introduce transportation-related measures, Preuhs said.
The report shows that a diverse state legislature brings different stories to the table, said report co-author Marlen Saucedo Bustos, who graduated from MSU Denver last spring.
“One of the most important characteristics of a democracy is substantive representation. We tend to elect candidates that advocate for issues that affect us,” she said.
Colorado didn’t just elect more women – there were more female candidates overall, the report found. In state House primaries, Democrats fielded substantially more (42 women; 32 men) than their GOP counterparts (22 women; 44 men); this was even more pronounced in the general election, with Democrats representing 31 of the 39 seats won by women.
“2018 was widely seen as the ‘Year of the Woman,’ so I’m not surprised to see this national trend reflected in Colorado,” said José Romero, co-author of the report whose work focused on sections related to voter turnout. The recent MSU Denver graduate will embark on graduate study in public policy at George Washington University this fall.
The report also explored the intersection of campaign financing, finding that female candidates spent 3.5% more than male counterparts, even as the former accounted for only 41% of total candidates. Latinx women in House races led the way in fundraising, with $85,772 on average.
That figure could be a response to historic funding inequities, Romero said.
“When it comes to politics, we still live in a very male-dominated realm where women have to spend more to get their names out and break the mold that’s solidified,” he said.
The data also show that diverse candidates don’t overcome inequities with “grit” alone, Preuhs added. Money is critical to their success.
“You’re also seeing this financial support successfully come together behind these candidates,” he said.
The 2018 off-year election made headlines nationally as the influx of new Democratic legislators resulted in the most racially and ethnically diverse national Congress to be sworn in. Though it primarily helped Democrats elect more women and people of color, it was also fed by a wider range of candidates choosing to run for office, Preuhs said. Looking ahead, he sees the trend continuing in November and beyond.
“Once candidates win, they become incumbents, which puts them at an advantage; you also have contemporary issues mobilizing potential voters to turn out and participate in Colorado’s legislative bodies,” he said. “All that said, the national presidential election is going to dominate everything at the top of the ticket – all eyes are on Trump and Biden.”
Since the 2018 election, the country and Colorado now face the public-health crises caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and widespread protests calling for the dismantling of systemic racism. Saucedo Bustos predicts that the growing role of the government in addressing these massive issues will result in Colorado’s electorate further gravitating toward candidates who share their own lived experiences.
“If we have candidates that represent what people are concerned about, that can definitely propel voter turnout,” she said. “It’s important when someone who looks like you says, ‘You matter, the issues affecting you should be represented and that your lives as citizens matter.’”
The hands-on work with election data illuminated the nuances undergirding our democratic process, Romero said.
“That gives you an appreciation for the nuances of having a diverse legislature that includes different perspectives,” he said. “We live in a two-party reality, but that doesn’t mean there’s only two ideologies at play.”