DENVER—It was widely assumed that Senate Democrats would move toward the center after last month’s stunning recall defeats, but apparently someone forgot to tell the Senate Democrats.
The caucus elected unanimously two staunch liberals to lead the body in Wednesday’s vote, choosing state Sen. Morgan Carroll (D-Aurora) as Senate President and state Sen. Rollie Heath (D-Boulder) to take Carroll’s place as Senate Majority Leader.
“They’re two of the most liberal members of the legislature, which is not surprising, because I think the Democratic caucus is a very liberal caucus,” said Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli. “Clearly you’re going to get more of the same if the leadership is any indication.”
The new leadership was needed to fill the void created by the successful recall of Senate President John Morse (D-Colorado Springs) in the Sept. 10 special election. State Sen. Angela Giron (D-Pueblo) also lost her seat in the recall.
“We have a strong, talented and diverse caucus which helps us better serve the people of the State of Colorado,” said Carroll in a statement after the vote. “I look forward to working with anyone and everyone interested in tackling the greatest needs of our state.”
Still, the vote was greeted by eye-rolling from conservatives. “Morgan Carroll just got elected as the new Senate President. Say hello to more extremism and overreach,” said Jonathan Lockwood, Compass Colorado communications director, in a Twitter message.
Colorado Republican Party chair Ryan Call said the vote indicates that “Senate Democrats did not learn anything from last month’s recall elections.”
“Instead of putting forth a leadership team that has a record of working with Republicans and representing the people of Colorado, they elected two of their most radical and partisan members,” said Call in a statement.
Analysts say the caucus vote also comes as an ill omen for Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who took a beating in the polls after signing off on much of the 2013 legislature’s aggressive agenda on energy, gun control and education.
“This says bad news for the governor in my view,” said Ciruli. “This sends a signal that, ‘We intend on being what we were.’ It means he needs to be more aggressive in defending his position.”
Even with liberal legislators in charge, however, Senate Democrats may be forced to moderate their agenda in the 2014 legislative session.
“On the surface, the Senate Democratic caucus maintained its leftward tilt,” said Republican strategist Dick Wadhams. “Having said that, the new Senate President’s ability to move legislation is going to be limited.”
The recalls trimmed the Democrats’ majority to 18-17, meaning that the caucus will need every Democratic vote to approve legislation, including those of more centrist Democrats like state Sens. Mary Hodge (D-Brighton), Cheri Jahn (D-Wheat Ridge) and Lois Tochtrop (D-Thornton).
“I do think one of the top two positions should have a more moderate voice,” Hodge told the Denver Post.
Democrats were barely able to muster a majority to pass some of their more controversial bills in the last session, when they held a 20-15 edge. For example, Senate Bill 252, the rural-energy mandate, squeaked by with an 18-17 vote.
Another factor is that Carroll has made no secret of her desire to seek higher office, up to and including governor, which may give her incentive to avoid pursuing an openly left-wing agenda.
“Morgan Carroll has statewide political ambitions—she sees herself as the future governor,” said Wadhams. “How that plays, I don’t know. She may decide to shore up her support on the left, or she may now see herself in a position to moderate her image for a statewide run.”
A trial lawyer, Carroll has a reputation as a consumer advocate who’s less than sympathetic to the concerns of business. Heath, meanwhile, is best known as the sponsor of Proposition 103, the proposed $3 billion tax increase that was overwhelmingly defeated in 2011.
“To do both Carroll and Heath—to not put in a Mary Hodge type to help moderate the caucus—is very deliberate and a choice that says they’re going to be on the path that they were on in the last session,” said Ciruli.