Many of the top races in Denver’s municipal election were tight as officials continued to count ballots into Tuesday night, while several races — including the mayor’s race — appeared to be headed for runoffs in June.
Unofficial results showed that voters were shying away from Denver’s most liberal factions while outright rejecting a proposal that would have allowed a developer to build on a massive plot of land in Park Hill.
As of 11:30 p.m., the Denver Elections Division reported that 110,000 ballots had been counted, with about 65,000 ballots remaining to be counted, spokesman Ryan Jeffers said in an email late Tuesday night. That means results could still change in some tight races.
Overall, the estimated turnout is about 33% of all registered voters, or 38% of active voters (designated based on their voter history). The 33% figure would trail overall turnout in the 2019 municipal election but would exceed turnout in 2015 and back in 2011, the last time Denver had an open mayor’s race.
Municipal elections tend to have far lower turnout than statewide elections. Politicos and even some of the candidates expected low turnout because of the large field of mayoral candidates, voter hesitation when faced with an all-but-certain runoff election and even the timing of the election itself.
Despite it all, big money has flowed into the races that will set the city’s course for years to come.
Here are other takeaways from Tuesday’s election.
Mayor, other races will need runoffs
The city is poised for a mayoral runoff on June 6, which would hold the possibility that Denver could elect its first woman mayor. As of 11:30 p.m., Mike Johnston and Kelly Brough — seen as among the moderate candidates in the 16-person field — were the two leading contenders with 24.73% and 22.25% of the vote, respectively.
Runoffs — required when no candidate wins a majority of the vote — appear likely in four City Council races, too, including two with first-term incumbents. In District 9, Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca had received 42.6% of the vote as of 11:30 p.m. and was trailing challenger Darrell Watson by about 3 percentage points. In District 10, Councilman Chris Hinds, at 38.3%, led a five-way race and was followed by Noah Kaplan at 25.9%.
The crowded race for the council’s two at-large seats also is close, with less than two points separating the top four candidates. But there will be no runoff, since the top two vote-getters in the at-large race win seats even if they don’t win a majority of the vote.
City Council incumbents Amanda Sandoval, Kevin Flynn, Jamie Torres, Amanda Sawyer, Paul Kashmann and Stacie Gilmore all were headed for reelection, with half running unopposed and the others on track to win a majority of the vote.
Denver’s progressive wing did not fare so well
Progressive groups mobilized to support candidates for mayor and City Council, hoping to gain a larger foothold in city decision-making and policy. So far, the results range from uncertain to disappointing — starting with progressive-backed candidate Lisa Calderón’s currently trailing third-place standing in the mayor’s race
In council races, the progressive-backed Torres ran unopposed for reelection. But another standard-bearer, CdeBaca — whose far-left ideology earned her national attention and helped her serve as a regular thorn in the side of outgoing Mayor Michael Hancock — faced the uncertainty of a likely runoff. Three other council district candidates backed by both the Colorado Working Families Party and the Denver Democratic Socialists of America appeared headed for defeat.
But the groups’ hopes were still alive in District 8, where Shontel Lewis, a former RTD board director, looked likely to qualify for that crowded race’s runoff. And in the at-large council race, state Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, backed by the Working Families Party, led the tightly packed scrum of four candidates vying to win the two citywide seats. Sarah Parady, also still in contention, was backed by both progressive groups. The at-large results could become clearer Wednesday.
The Fair Election Fund’s role in the end
People who had hoped Denver’s taxpayer-backed Fair Election Fund program would decrease the impact that fundraising and outside spending would have on election results may have been disappointed with early returns in the mayor’s race.
Johnston and Brough — the front-runners poised to meet in the runoff on June 6 — both opted into the Fair Elections Fund program. In fact, they collected the most money of any two candidates who participated. Johnston drew down $613,539 in matching funds, reflecting donations of $50 or less from 1,478 Denver voters. Brough collected $750,000, the upper limit of funds available to mayoral candidates. She got qualifying donations from 1,736 Denver voters.
But both Brough and Johnston were also bolstered by major outside spending through independent expenditure committees. The committee backing Johnston, a former state senator and Democratic candidate for governor and the U.S. Senate, spent upward of $2.2 million supporting him ahead of Election Day. As for Brough, the longtime head of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and a former chief of staff to then-Mayor John Hickenlooper, her committee spent $984,000 to boost her chances of winning.
That outside money — and the TV ad time, mailers and other exposure it buys — appears to have made a difference on a ballot featuring so many choices. Calderón, in third place as of Tuesday night, benefitted from just $24,704 in independent expenditure committee support.
Back to the drawing board for those hoping to redevelop Park Hill Golf Course
Voters of ballot Question 2O on the redevelopment of the Park Hill golf course rejected the measure Tuesday night. That means halting plans for future development by Westside Investment Partners and The Holleran Group. The 155-acre property is subject to a city-owned easement, which Yes on 2O campaign spokesman Bill Rigler said is unambiguous: It will have to close to the public and return to a privately-owned, regulation-length 18-hole golf course.
Rigler said it’s unclear if Westside plans to reopen the golf course, but “it’s the only allowable use.”
The No on 2O campaign, however, asserts that the city can modify the easement and make it a park. “The golf course is a use restriction, not a purpose restriction,” said Harry Doby, treasurer of the campaign.
He believes it doesn’t make business sense for a developer to keep the land for an 18-hole regulation golf course and this ballot failure will pave the way for the city or a conservation nonprofit to buy the land and designate it as a park and open space.
Regardless of its long-term future fate, City Council member Robin Kniech noted that the agreement for the land mandates a rezoning back to open space with restrictions within 90 days of the ballot measure’s failure.
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