Colorado Republicans see fentanyl as key topic in 2022 elections

Across debates and races, campaign ads and events, one topic has been dominant for Colorado Republicans this year: fentanyl.

From gubernatorial hopeful Heidi Ganahl to attorney general challenger John Kellner, Congressional candidate Erik Aadland to Sen. Michael Bennet opponent Joe O’Dea, the drug fentanyl has been an ever-present talking point of the campaign trail. At a debate in October, Ganahl pivoted from questions about homelessness and harm reduction to fentanyl penalties. O’Dea announced a trip to the U.S. border with Mexico after knocking the growth in fentanyl overdose rates. Fentanyl deaths have increased dramatically in recent years, and Republicans seek to lay that trend at the feet of Democrats.

Democrats have criticized Republicans’ fentanyl focus as cynical and too often inaccurate. But the GOP’s strategy on fentanyl makes sense, experts and operatives on both sides said. The crisis fits neatly into longstanding Republican campaign issues, from law-and-order concerns to border security and immigration to youth safety. And there’s a legislative action they can point to: a 2019 Colorado bill pushed by Democrats that lowered the criminal penalties for possessing — though, not dealing — fentanyl and other substances.

Republicans are banking on voters — particularly in the suburbs — caring about the issue, and they say their internal research indicates they do (Democrats were dubious of that claim). It’s certainly not the entirety of the Republican pitch: cost of living, inflation, housing and other law-and-order issues are mainstays and poll higher, politicos said. But fentanyl — often poorly understood, by the public and politicians alike — has flowed alongside economic talking points this cycle.

It is an undeniable crisis: A stronger, cheaper and easier-to-produce opioid than heroin or legitimate pills, the synthetic opioid has led to record overdose rates in Colorado and across the country in recent years as it replaced heroin in the drug supply. Its potency in small doses — and its presence in other drugs — makes it uniquely dangerous for drug users. In Colorado, the overdose death rate has more than doubled in four years, and deaths tied to fentanyl have quadrupled since 2019, according to state data.

“It’s not to say it’s a not serious problem,” said Stuart Soroka, a professor at UCLA who focuses on political communication. “But it hits on crime and public safety, and also on border security. … It makes sense (for Republicans).”

On the one hand, Soroka and other experts said, fentanyl is a topic for Republicans across the country this cycle. Combining drugs and border security as a political issue isn’t new, either: Soroka said that goes back to the 1980s and beyond, with heroin, marijuana and cocaine. Other prominent and problematic drugs, like methamphetamine, are “old news,” Soroka said, and people have a tendency toward the new.

But Colorado is also distinct from some other parts of the country: Fentanyl has arrived here later than the East Coast, where overdose rates are far higher, and the state is only now beginning to grapple with a new and emerging problem. And that grappling comes three years after a bipartisan legislature voted to make possession of 4 grams or less of fentanyl, and other drugs, a misdemeanor.

It’s that bill that Republicans have seized upon most acutely. Take Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, a Brighton Republican running for Colorado’s new 8th Congressional District: Last month, she released an ad in late October falsely accusing her opponent, Democratic state Rep. Yadira Caraveo and her party of “legalizing fentanyl.” She and other Republicans have accused Democrats of “decriminalizing” the substance and of letting drug dealers off the hook.

Fentanyl isn’t — and hasn’t been — legalized in Colorado. The 2019 bill made it a misdemeanor to possess 4 grams or less of several substances, including fentanyl, but it remained a crime to have any amount of it. That bill also did not change penalties for dealing drugs — that remains a felony. Democrats stress these nuances but Republicans see it as less an argument over facts than semantics. Asked about the ad’s inaccuracy, Kirkmeyer spokesman and consultant Alan Philp said the campaign was “glad” to haggle over fentanyl being “technically” illegal.

Rep. Colin Larson, a Ken Caryl Republican, said the 2019 bill was “the most glaring example of … the danger of one-party control.” He said that though cities were facing the brunt of the fentanyl crisis in the state, suburbs were “the battlegrounds” for Republicans, and that’s where Republicans’ fentanyl — and broader crime focus — is trained.

The level — and content — of the Republican focus on fentanyl has frustrated Democrats. Gov. Jared Polis has repeatedly fact-checked Ganahl’s claims about deaths during their debates. Ganahl has often claimed Colorado is second in the country for fentanyl deaths. In reality, and as Polis has points out, the state’s overdose rate is behind the national average, and the crisis isn’t isolated to Colorado. But the rate of increase for synthetic overdoses is indeed the second highest in the nation, according to federal data.

Morgan Carroll, the chairwoman of the Colorado Democratic Party, accused Republicans of cynically lying about the broader issue to make for “dramatic campaign attack ads.”

Ganahl, who has made the well-being of children a key part of her campaign, has placed fentanyl within that frame, though much of her rhetoric has hammered Polis and the Democrats for legislation and their crime policies.

As for immigration, experts have said the bulk of migrants don’t transport drugs with them, and that most fentanyl seizures are made at legitimate points of entry.

“It is unfortunately the case in politics that issues that need nuanced and careful solutions so that problems are solved in the right way are sometimes reduced in the heat of political back-and-forth to being mischaracterized or oversimplified,” added Rep. Mike Weissman, an Aurora Democrat.

Focus on fentanyl — and crime and immigration generally — is good to rally the GOP base, according to Soroka and Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver and a Denver Post columnist. Republicans know that, too, but they contend it has appeal beyond their core constituency. Spokesmen for the O’Dea and Kirkmeyer campaigns said it was an important issue for a wide demographic of Colorado voters.

How significant isn’t clear: Several Colorado Republicans said drugs — or the broader category of crime — was a top-three issue, based on their own internal polling and research.

Soroka and Masket weren’t so sure, and Democrats say it doesn’t rate as highly as the broad economic issues and abortion, one of their core issues this cycle. Another political scientist said he hadn’t seen any public polling to support it as a major issue. A Rasmussen poll found that 91% of Americans thought it was a serious problem, though pollsters didn’t ask respondents to rank it alongside other issues.

Still, Soroka said voters’ minds have been changed in the past by focusing on crime and immigration. It’s just not clear yet if it’ll happen this time.

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