Census delays leave Colorado candidates waiting, worrying about what 2022’s district lines are

Delays at the U.S. Census Bureau threaten to upend Colorado’s redistricting process, leaving state and federal candidates guessing whether they will live in the district they seek to represent and prospective candidates in the dark as they weigh moves that could make or break careers.

“You have to prepare for the issues and focus on that district and you’re not going to know where the district is until December?” Republican strategist and former congressional campaign manager Tyler Sandberg said of the dilemma. “They’re going to lose all of 2021.”

The redistricting process, which happens once a decade, is messy even without Census delays. Incumbent legislators, who are friends and colleagues, are forced to run against each other. Some candidates quickly pack up and move, because Colorado’s constitution requires a candidate to live in a state legislative district for one year before the election. At stake is nothing less than party control of the Colorado General Assembly and Congress.

This year, the chaos is amplified because the data that dictates the new maps won’t arrive until as late as Sept. 30 — a delay of six months. Under the state constitution, Colorado’s redistricting commissions must draw maps by mid-September, an impossibility without the data. Further muddling matters is the expectation that Colorado will gain a congressional district, which is sure to significantly reshape the existing seven.

“There could be a really quick turnaround between the time when we get the final maps and when some of these elections actually happen,” said Micha Rosenoer, executive director of Emerge Colorado, which works to elect Democratic women in the state.

Jessika Shipley, staff director for the state’s new redistricting commissions, said her office is “just trying to gather as much information as we can right now to see what happens when we don’t get that data until September 30 instead of now, when we usually would have it.”

“They don’t break, they don’t bend, these constitutional deadlines,” Shipley added. “They just don’t. So, it’s an impossibility and we have to find a way around them. The only way I know around constitutional deadlines is to have the Supreme Court rule on it and say there is no possibility of getting this done within these deadlines.”

“The big question”

The high-stakes game of electoral politics — which will determine what policies can become law federally and in the state legislature — is not on pause, though. In Colorado’s closely watched 3rd Congressional District, seven Democrats have signed up to take on Rep. Lauren Boebert without knowing whether they’ll live within new district lines next year. One leading candidate, state Sen. Kerry Donovan, lives outside the current district.

“The big question is, how much will the Colorado 3rd (District) change?” said Justin Gollob, professor of political science at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction. “The biggest changes are expected to occur in the southeast section of the district, which could be a spoiler for some challengers. However, a lot of focus will be on Eagle County, where even minor changes may alter the composition of the race.”

The 3rd District currently includes Pueblo, an unusual Front Range appendage for what is otherwise a district of Western Slope and mountainous towns. It includes half of Eagle County — the more Republican western half — but could move east to include the more liberal Vail.

“I don’t know that Pueblo belongs in the same district with the West Slope in general, and the fact that we haven’t even had a nominated candidate from the Ark Valley in nearly a decade speaks to our lack of representation,” said Bri Buentello, a former Democratic state representative from Pueblo who is waiting to see what district lines will look like before running.

“There’s just no sense in joining a crowded primary field, not knowing whether or not Pueblo will be in CD 3, 4, or even 5,” Buentello added, referring to congressional districts.

Colorado has seven congressional districts and is expected to gain an eighth due to population gains during the last decade. Those gains have primarily been along the Front Range from Larimer County south to Colorado Springs, including every part of the Denver metro area, state statistics show.

“I think a lot of incumbent candidates at the state legislature think that CD8 is going to fall on top of their house,” Rosenoer said. “It is something we’re keeping an eye on. We have 18 women at the state legislature already, so we’re thinking of who of our county level and state legislative electeds could slot into a new congressional district, depending on where it falls.”

And existing congressional districts could change considerably, forcing once-comfortable incumbents with hardline left-wing or right-wing voting records into competitive swing districts they are ill-suited to win. In 2011, then-Republican Rep. Mike Coffman went from representing a conservative 6th District to one centered in the multicultural and Democratic city of Aurora.

“Coffman always said it made him a better congressman,” said Sandberg, his former campaign manager. “Being drawn into that district was a benefit to him and a benefit to the people he represented because he had to work harder, he had to listen to a broader array of voices. So, it’s ultimately good for democracy, but it was definitely hard” on the campaign.

Coffman’s successor, Democratic Rep. Jason Crow, knows the reverse could happen, that he could be in a far more Republican district next year.

“We know (Republicans) are waiting in the shadows to see how Colorado redraws the new congressional maps,” Crow’s campaign told supporters in a fundraising email Feb. 17.

Reps. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, and Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs, haven’t faced serious challengers in many years but could be forced into a competitive re-election fight.

“Congresswoman DeGette’s plenty busy with focusing on what’s happening in Congress,” campaign manager Jennie Peek-Dunstone told the Post. “We’ll see what the commission decides. There’s not a real substantive difference if it’s (delayed) a few months.”

“A lot of tension”

Redistricting could strain legislative campaigns even more than congressional campaigns, due to residency requirements. Candidates seeking a job at the statehouse must live in the district they want to represent for one year before the November 2022 election — a problem if maps are not finalized until December or beyond.

Emerge Colorado, which began planning for redistricting in 2018, has trained and organized 70 possible legislative candidates, focusing on counties where it expects district lines to change most drastically: Arapahoe, Adams, Jefferson, Douglas and El Paso.

“Democrats in particular stand to gain some opportunities in places where we’ve had a hard time picking up seats, like CD3, but we could also lose some seats that we fought really hard to win over the past few years and cycles, like in Jefferson County,” Rosenoer said. “If parts of Jefferson County get combined with Douglas County, it could set Democrats back a couple of years.”

Rosenoer and Sandberg have similar advice to prospective candidates: Start reaching out to groups that transcend district lines — such as business associations, labor unions and communities of color — and be ready, in Sandberg’s words, “to not sleep and to work your tail off.”

The state’s two redistricting commissions — one will redraw legislative lines, the other congressional — will formally convene later this month. They will elect chairs and vice chairs, learn about their roles and duties and schedule future meetings. Then, without Census data, no one knows what they can or will do.

“Colorado is in a bit of a difficult situation with their constitutional deadlines,” said Sandra Chen, a legal advisor at the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, which tracks redistricting processes.

The legislature can’t change the constitution, Shipley said, so the commissions are working with the Secretary of State’s Office on the matter. One option for getting the case in front of the state’s highest court is for the commissions to be sued after missing their deadlines, Shipley said.

In the meantime, incumbents, challengers and prospective candidates are watching and waiting.

“It will be interesting to see a lot of very ambitious people hustle very hard in a short period of time,” Sandberg said with a laugh. “It will create a lot of tension, I imagine.”

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