As political winds change, it appears La Plata County, which traditionally has bounced between voting Democrat and Republican, might be taking a turn for the deep blue.
With unaffiliated voters for years making up the majority of registered voters in La Plata County, elections have swayed between the political parties, earning the county a true “purple” label for the Southwest Colorado enclave.
In 2000, for instance, voters chose the Bush-Cheney ticket by about 2,000 votes over Gore-Lieberman. Just eight years later, however, the pendulum swung to the left when nearly 60 percent of voters in the county elected Obama-Biden.
But recent election data indicate Democrats and unaffiliated voters in the county voting Democrat could outnumber Republicans for the long haul.
“You’re not going to win in this county anymore as a Republican,” said Travis Oliger, chairman of the La Plata County Republicans. “I would be amazed if we have any candidates going forward. It’s like flushing money down the toilet ... because they’re going to lose.”
In the November midterm election, for example, in every contested race on the ballot – local, state and federal – not a single Republican won the majority vote in La Plata County.
“We have a strong independent streak,” said Paul DeBell, assistant professor of political science at Fort Lewis College. “But more and more, we’re seeing these purple places go away.”
Just before the November election, La Plata County had 11,113 registered Democrats and 10,402 registered Republicans. But the majority of voters were unaffiliated, which accounted for 13,242 voters.
It has long been considered in the county that these unaffiliated votes are essential to win an election. And this time, they went Democrat.
“I think it was the quality of the candidates,” said Jean Walter, chairwoman of the La Plata County Democratic Party.
Walter also surmised that political turmoil from the Republican Party and the Trump administration on the national level may have trickled down and influenced voters’ decisions in La Plata County.
“We saw some precincts that have been reliably red in the past turn blue this time,” she said. “And I think it’s in part because people are tired of the negativity emanating from the top down.”
A recent study conducted by Magellan Strategies of post-election unaffiliated voters in Colorado said there was “no question that Donald Trump had a negative impact on Republican candidates, with 34 percent of unaffiliated voters saying they were less likely to vote for a Republican candidate because of his influence.”
Oliger with the local Republican Party also said national politics likely played a role in La Plata County’s election, leading more people to vote by party line rather than take the time to research and learn about individual candidates.
But more than the current political climate, Oliger said the midterm election is further proof that changing demographics is turning La Plata County into a consistently blue stronghold.
“It just happened slowly,” said Oliger, a La Plata County native. “Now, I don’t see us winning an election around here for a long, long time.”
For the most part, Republican voters live outside La Plata County’s largest municipality, Durango, in the rural areas of the county.
Durango, by contrast, is a relatively densely populated city, with about 18,500 residents of the county’s total 55,500 population, according to 2017 data, and they mostly vote Democratic.
Oliger and the local Republican Party have long maintained that voters in Durango, who can weigh in on county issues, swayed votes in their direction, leaving county residents in the lurch.
This year, for instance, Democrat challenger Clyde Church ousted incumbent Republican La Plata County Commissioner Brad Blake to take control of the county’s District 1 seat.
Church won by just 23 votes in an election that allows the entire county to cast ballots in county commission races, regardless of which district they live in. Had voters in only District 1 – the rural, western part of the county – been able to vote, Blake would have won by 714 votes.
(In Durango precincts, Church received 6,536 votes and Blake received 3,426.)
As a result, Church’s election marks the first time since the 1940s that one party will hold the three-person board (which at that time was held by Republicans).
At risk here, Oliger said, is that Republican voters in the rural parts of the county will continue to be marginalized and have a feeling of not being represented. This, in turn, materializes in other ways.
“People in the county can’t stand people in the city,” he said. “So they don’t shop here, they don’t spend their money here, they go elsewhere, they really do.”
He said rural residents would rather travel farther to shop in Farmington than go into town.
“They don’t feel part of this community,” Oliger said. “And I sense that pretty heavily from just about everybody that I talk to. And it’s terrible. It really is.”
Oliger also blamed The Durango Herald for creating a divide in the community.
“We absolutely hate you guys,” he said. “We’re totally destroyed in the newspaper. You draw cartoons. We’re racists. We’re bigots. We’re sexist. No one wants anything to do with us at all.”
FLC’s DeBell said the feeling of polarization is not unique to Southwest Colorado. He said since at least the 1990s, red parts of the rural U.S. entrench further into the Republican Party as more urban areas vote Democratic.
“People in the middle of the country feel like California and New York dictate all the politics and rural areas are left behind,” he said. “That’s a dichotomy we see here locally between Durango and La Plata County.”
But Walter rebuffed criticisms that Democratic candidates won’t represent the entire county. The fear is overblown, she said.
Just this past midterm, Walter said, La Plata County Commissioners Gwen Lachelt and Julie Westendorff, both Democrats, chose not to support Proposition 112, a bill led by environmental groups that would have placed strict regulations on new oil and gas drilling in the state.
“The people we have elected,” she said, “are 100 percent going to get the job done that’s in the best interest of the people of La Plata County.”
Walter said this was illustrated in the win by Sheriff Sean Smith, a Democrat, who was opposed by a Republican and an unaffiliated candidate.
Smith won by nearly 6,000 votes, beating Republican challenger Charles Hamby, who campaigned for almost two years and spent $42,000, by far the most of any local candidate in any race, as well as unaffiliated candidate Dean Mize.
Smith also fared far better in a number of precincts that voted Republican for other local candidates and took more of the vote in red precincts.
“Sean Smith isn’t a great sheriff because he’s a Democrat,” Walter said. “He’s a great sheriff because of his willingness to listen and get the job done.”
In the meantime, Oliger said the future is uncertain for Republicans in La Plata County.
“We lost, and that’s how it goes,” he said. “There just aren’t enough of us.”