Colorado Sen. Kevin Priola of Henderson announced Monday morning that he has changed his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat.
Considered a more moderate Republican in the statehouse, Priola said he believed the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol would make the GOP distance itself from Donald Trump and “the political environment he created.” But it did not, and he wrote that he watched “brave and honorable Republicans” who did get threatened and ridiculed.
In an interview, Priola said what Trump has done sets a dangerous precedent, so after a lot of thought, he changed his affiliation Sunday night.
He wrote in a letter that he could no longer support a party that accepted “a violent attempt to overturn a free and fair election and continues to peddle claims that the 2020 election was stolen” and one where his GOP colleagues “would rather deny the existence of human-caused climate change than take action.”
Priola’s decision makes a difference for state Republicans who needed three additional seats to win the majority in the Colorado Senate — now they need four, making it a much heavier lift in the November election.
Senate Minority Leader John Cooke of Greeley dismissed Priola’s complaints about the party’s response to both the Jan. 6 insurrection and climate change.
“I think he’s confused on who he’s representing because our concern is the state Senate,” Cooke said. “Our concern is the high crime here in Colorado, making Colorado affordable, school choice,” Cooke said. “Nobody in the state Senate that I know of condones what happened on Jan. 6, nor do we condone what happened to our state capitol a year earlier.”
And Cooke said while he doesn’t deny climate change is real and that humans may have a “little bit” of an effect, “we’ve had climate change ever since the earth was formed. … I don’t think his excuse holds any water.”
Sen. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican and minority whip, declined to comment on Priola’s moral qualms against the Republican response to Jan. 6, but said, “I have just finished a primary myself … and really the only thing people want to talk about on the doorstep is the fact they can’t afford life in Colorado.”
The Adams County senator from a swing district has previously been at odds with his party over legislation he’s sponsored related to the climate and bills he’s supported in the past with Democrats, including on their transportation revenue plan. He has often supported efforts as the lone Republican and even faced threats of recall. At the end of this year’s session, he and other Republican senators fought on the Senate floor as GOP members were talking about killing his bill creating a producer responsibility program for recycling, HB22-1355.
While drafting that bill, Priola said he talked to industry representatives, experts and senators in both parties about the legislation, which ultimately passed into law, but his Republican colleagues did not want to consider it.
“To me, it was poor form to kind of mock me on the floor on something I and others had worked on for 9 months” and had been completely transparent about, he said.
“I’ve felt increasingly marginalized (by the GOP) over the years,” Priola said. “I’ve always tried to run legislation that appeals to both sides. You can do that. .. (The recycling bill) was just another example to me of how my ideas and my experience aren’t necessarily valued.”
Priola will be entering his third year of his second four-year Senate term. He previously served four years in the House. The senator’s decision to switch parties has been met with praise by Democrats, including from the Colorado Democratic Party, and scorn from Republicans.
“Over the past four years, Senate Democrats have taken bold, meaningful action to curb emissions, prepare for climate-related disasters — including wildfires — and invest in renewable energy. And despite consistent fierce opposition from his Republican colleagues, Senator Priola has been a tremendously valuable partner of ours almost every step of the way,” Democratic Senate President Steve Fenberg said in a written statement.
Fenberg noted that Priola has been outspoken about election conspiracy theories and sponsored legislation with the Senate president on election security and integrity.
“At the same time, the Colorado Republican Party was largely silent about the election crimes (indicted Mesa County Clerk) Tina Peters had been accused of and not a single one of his Republican colleagues, in either Chamber, supported SB22-153,” Fenberg said.
Noting that Republicans are fighting to get control of the Senate chamber in an election year, and “even if there will continue to be issues that I disagree with the Democratic Party on, there is too much at stake right now for Republicans to be in charge,” Priola wrote in his letter.
“Coloradans cannot afford for their leaders to give credence to election conspiracies and climate denialism. Simply put, we need Democrats in charge because our planet and our democracy depend on it,” he said.
However, Cooke believes that Priola’s decision won’t change anything for Republicans in the 2022 elections. Fenberg conveyed that same sense of confidence that Democrats will remain in the majority.
The political strategy “has always been and allows us to count around Sen. Priola,” Lundeen, who is leading the effort to flip the Senate, said. Republicans are targeting five seats they view as competitive.
“As for Senator Priola, his new district will likely not be happy with this announcement and may explore their options for new representation,” Cooke said in a written statement.
After redistricting, Cooke will be in Priola’s district, and he told The Denver Post he would more than likely support any efforts to recall Priola because “it’s a Republican district, and I’m a Republican, and I want a Republican representing me in my hometown.” He said he’s had several calls today indicating people were thinking about it.
Priola wrote in his letter that he became a Republican in 1990 “after the ascent of Ronald Reagan,” writing that Reagan “spent his presidency looking out for American interests, not cozying up to Russia. He was for free trade and not raising taxes on Americans through tariffs. He also worked across the aisle on immigrant issues.”
While Priola said he hasn’t changed much in 30 years, he can’t say the same of his former party. In addition to issues of climate change and democracy, Priola told The Denver Post that he thinks the Republican Party doesn’t pay enough attention to issues affecting communities of color.
His Republican colleagues did not take kindly to his commentary.
House Rep. Colin Larson, a Littleton Republican, who said he has defended Priola in the past and considered him a friend until “three hours ago” did not mince words when discussing the change.
“He’s going to be single-handedly responsible for the partisanship and divisiveness that’s to come if the Senate remains in Democratic hands,” Larson said.
On primary election night, Larson had celebrated the victories of more moderate Republicans over those who denied the 2020 presidential election results as a return to the party’s fundamentals. He said he would have understood Priola’s decision more — though still not agreed with it — if the election deniers had won nominations for the Colorado secretary of state and U.S. Senate seats. Instead, the move may prove vital to Democrats keeping full control of state government as more moderate Republicans look ascendant in the party.
In a written statement, Colorado GOP Chairwoman Kristi Burton Brown did not appear surprised by the announcement, writing that Priola “finally made the move to the party he’s consistently voted with” and said he would “regret his decision when he is in the minority come January 2023.”
Fenberg told The Denver Post that he’s been in discussions with Priola since the 2020 election and said the senator is making decisions based on his principles and the “two existential threats” to democracy and the climate.
“At the end of the day, I think it’s a shame because I wish there were more moderate Republicans to be able to work together on issues with,” Fenberg said. “I think the sad part is that he doesn’t feel like he has a home in his party and sort of felt like he had to make this decision.”
Fenberg added that the Democratic Party doesn’t have a “litmus test” and Priola may not vote with the caucus on every issue, but the Senate Democratic caucus will still be “staunchly pro-choice” and a “party that stands up for workers and a party that wants to protect communities from gun violence.”
Once the “honeymoon period wears off,” Priola joked, he anticipates Democrats will be frustrated with him for how he votes on certain issues — for example, he refers to himself as “pro-life,” with abortion a key issue for Democrats in 2022 — and his Republican colleagues may appreciate him again for his votes on issues they support.
Reporter Nick Coltrain contributed to this story.