The 2020 general election in La Plata County had the highest voter turnout in recent memory – 76% of combined active and inactive voters – and results suggest La Plata County might be turning into a Democratic stronghold.
Yet, others see an opportunity for unaffiliated candidates to emerge.
Democrats built on strong showings in the past two elections. For the second consecutive election, no Republican candidate in a contested local, state or federal election won a majority of votes countywide.
The gains for Democrats are stark when compared with the previous presidential election. In the two presidential and Senate races, which received the most votes in 2016 and 2020, Democratic wins became much more convincing. In 2016, the Clinton/Kaine ticket won the county by a margin of 9 percentage points, or 2,938 votes. In 2020, the Biden/Harris ticket doubled the margin of victory, winning by 18 percentage points, or 6,315 votes.
In the 2020 Senate race, former Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper built on incumbent Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet’s 10-point win in 2016, defeating Republican incumbent Sen. Cory Gardner by 15 percentage points.
Recent races seem to suggest an affiliation with the Democratic Party gives candidates a bump. That becomes more evident when looking at fairly benign races like the one for District 3 State Board of Education, which featured less-known candidates. Such races act as a barometer for measuring the political climate.
In 2016, incumbent Joyce Rankin, a Republican seeking election to the State Board of Education, won La Plata County by 3 percentage points. However, in 2020, with Rankin running for re-election, Democratic challenger Mayling Simpson won La Plata County by 11 points. Rankin went on to win her election statewide, but lost big in La Plata County.
After the 2018 midterms, Travis Oliger, chairman of the La Plata County Republican Party, predicted La Plata County would become more difficult for Republicans. In 2018, he said, “You’re not going to win in this county anymore as a Republican. 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.”
True to his prediction, the Republican Party did not run a candidate in either county commission race this year.
Changing demographicsFormer Commissioner Brad Blake, who lost his bid for re-election in 2018 to Democrat Clyde Church by just 23 votes, said he was asked to run in a number of county and state races this year. However, he chose not to run, saying he did not see an easy path forward for Republicans in La Plata County.
Republicans are struggling in La Plata County, Blake said, because of the county’s changing demographics. He said a lot of new, liberal people are moving into the county.
La Plata County Clerk and Recorder Tiffany Parker agreed with Blake’s assessment. Based on her work overseeing motor vehicles and the clerk’s office, she said a lot of people are moving into the county, predominantly from highly populated areas.
“There’s a lot of property changing hands,” Parker said.
Jim Harper, a vice chairman of the La Plata County Republican Party, echoed that sentiment.
“In recent years, you’ve seen an influx of folks, families, individuals moving into La Plata County changing the dynamic – that is true,” he said.
However, he said this new reality does not mean the Republican Party does not have a future in the county.
“But the core values, who we are as a city, as a county, stay the same. ... The La Plata County Republican Party is strong,” Harper said.
Blake said he doesn’t know how Republicans will earn representation locally unless the voting process for county commissioner is changed to allow only those within a candidate’s district to vote in the race, “which in my opinion, is the way we should be voting.”
By state law, the county has three county commissioners who are elected at large, or by the whole county. The law says a county has to have a population of more than 70,000 residents to consider changing the way commissioners are elected. If a county has a population of more than 70,000 people, it has the option, decided through a countywide vote, to move to five county commissioners, three elected only by the voters in their district and two elected at large.
A new system seems far off: The U.S. Census Bureau estimated La Plata County had a population of 56,221 in 2019. However, if commissioners were elected by district, unaffiliated candidate Charly Minkler would have defeated Democrat Matt Salka in the District 3 county commissioner race. The District 2 race, in which Democrat Marsha Porter-Norton defeated unaffiliated candidate Jack Turner, would have remained unchanged.
Harper said he’s not giving up on county commissioner races. He said the local party has even started vetting candidates for future races.
“There are a lot of individuals who are eager to step up and participate in the process,” Harper said. “We foresee future success.”
Despite his concern for the party, Blake said he doesn’t see how the party can change and remain true to its conservative values.
“What do you really change? Do you change who you are? I don’t think so,” Blake said. “Do you change to just agree with all Democrats? You might as well become a Democrat, then.”
Still, Blake emphasized that it was important to have all sides represented in local government. He said he likes many of the commissioners he worked with and who have recently been elected, but that doesn’t solve the problem.
“I don’t think they’re gonna do anything terrible to the county, but they definitely have different values in some areas, and it’s discouraging,” Blake said.
Blake said local government works best when there isn’t one-party rule.
“You really need people to be represented from all sides, especially at the county level,” he said. “... When you have one side running things, they don’t necessarily listen to or represent people with opposing values or opposing ideas.”
‘If you don’t run, you can’t win’
Carol Cure, chairwoman of the La Plata County Democrats, said the notion of Republicans being dead in the water in La Plata County, as suggested two years ago by the party’s chairman, is a little premature and misguided.
“The Republicans chose simply not to run any candidates in the county commissioner races. ... I don’t see it as the death of the Republican Party in La Plata County at all,” Cure said. “I don’t know why they made some of the decisions that they made as a party. ... If you don’t run a candidate, you can’t win.”
The Democrats have been winning, Cure said, simply because they have better candidates and are better organized.
“Frankly, we really worked our butts off,” Cure said.
Among other efforts, she referenced the work by the local Democratic Party to register voters, make more than 8,000 calls and send more than 16,000 text messages to voters. Cure said the work paid off with a voter turnout of 92% among active registered Democrats in the county.
Despite what recent trends might suggest, Cure does not believe party affiliation plays a large part in how people vote.
“I think most people vote for the person as opposed to always voting in a partisan manner for one party or another,” Cure said.
She also did not give much consideration to Blake’s worry about lack of representation.
“I don’t have any doubt at all that both of the new county commissioners, who happen to be Democrats, will do a terrific job of representing all of their constituents, no matter what party they are. ... I really don’t think that anything is lost just simply by the fact that they happen to be Democrats,” Cure said.
Overall, Cure attributed Republican losses to the candidates.
“I’m sure if they had a candidate that was as good as the candidates we ran, they would have every bit of a chance to win the election as the Democrats did,” Cure said.
Harper’s optimism seems to suggest a similar thought process. He does not believe a political divide precludes Republican wins.
“I believe we all desire the same thing,” Harper said. “We all want clean water, clean air, streets without potholes in them, we want great parks full of healthy families. We want the same things, we’re just taking two different vehicles to get there.”
The rise of the independentsAs the Republicans look toward future elections in what appears to be an increasingly Democrat-leaning county, there has been a recent rise in unaffiliated candidates and voters in the county.
During the past four years in La Plata County, Republicans have lost 141 active voters, Democrats have gained 336, and the number of unaffiliated voters rose by 4,776.
The rise in unaffiliated voters was evident in the two races this year for county commissioner. The Republicans did not run a candidate in either race, but Jack Turner and Charly Minkler ran as unaffiliated candidates in the District 2 and District 3 races, respectively.
Minkler lost by a little more than 10 percentage points, while Turner’s race was the closest in the county: Porter-Norton defeated him by 166 votes.
Parker, the county clerk, also announced this summer she was dropping her affiliation with the Republican Party and would run as an unaffiliated candidate when she’s up for re-election in 2022.
She was partly motivated to make the move by the 2016 and 2018 elections. She watched candidates, such as incumbent Secretary of State Wayne Williams, a Republican, who she said was incredibly qualified, lose their seats simply because of their party affiliation. Parker said she wants to be judged on her job performance, not by the letter that appears next to her name on the ballot.
In an email to The Durango Herald, Turner said Parker’s decision to drop her party affiliation was an inspiration.
As a majority of registered voters in La Plata County are unaffiliated, Turner wrote he sees a great opportunity for change in the county.
“I hope and believe that independent, unaffiliated candidates are the future for local elections. Democrat and Republican leadership have created a toxic divide in our country, and it trickles right down to the local level,” Turner wrote.
Minkler also sees a divide, and said his only regret was, “I think I could have helped heal the urban/rural divide in the county.”