Colorado Republicans consider fentanyl a key issue in the 2022 election

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

From gubernatorial hopeful Heidi Ganahl to challenger Attorney General John Kellner, from congressional candidate Erik Aadland to Senator Michael Bennet’s opponent Joe O’Dea, the drug fentanyl has been an ubiquitous talking point during the campaign trail. . During a debate in October, Ganahl shifted from questions about homelessness and harm reduction to sentencing for fentanyl. O’Dea announced a trip to the US border with Mexico after hitting growth in fentanyl overdose rates. Fentanyl-related deaths have increased dramatically in recent years, and Republicans are seeking to put this trend at the feet of Democrats.

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

Republicans are banking that voters — especially in the suburbs — care about the issue, and they say their internal research indicates they do (Democrats doubted that claim). It’s certainly not the entirety of Republican discourse: Cost of living, inflation, housing and other public order issues are the mainstays and the top polls, politicians said. But fentanyl – often misunderstood, both by the public and by politicians – has been on the economic talking point this cycle.

It’s 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. replacing heroin in the drug supply. Its potency in small doses – and its presence in other drugs – makes it particularly dangerous for addicts. In Colorado, the overdose death rate has more than doubled in four years, and fentanyl-related deaths have quadrupled since 2019, state data shows.

Photos of people who died from fentanyl poisoning are displayed on the grass during National Fentanyl Prevention and Awareness Day events at Lincoln Veterans Memorial Park at the Civic Center on August 21, 2022 in Denver. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

“That doesn’t mean it’s not a serious problem,” said Stuart Soroka, a professor at UCLA who focuses on political communication. “But it touches on crime and public safety, as well as border security. … That makes sense (for Republicans).

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

But Colorado also stands out from some other parts of the country: fentanyl arrived here later than on the East Coast, where overdose rates are much higher, and the state is only beginning to tackle a new problem. and emerge. And that fight comes three years after a bipartisan legislature voted to make possession of 4 grams or less of fentanyl and other drugs a criminal offence.

It was this bill that Republicans seized on most intensely. Take Senator Barbara Kirkmeyer, a Republican from Brighton running for Colorado’s new 8th congressional district: Last month she released an ad in late October falsely accusing her opponent, Democratic State Representative Yadira Caraveo and her party of “legalize fentanyl”. She and other Republicans have accused Democrats of “decriminalizing” the substance and letting drug dealers off the hook.

Fentanyl is not – and has not been – legalized in Colorado. The 2019 bill made it a crime to possess 4 grams or less of several substances, including fentanyl, but it was still a crime to have any amount. This bill also did not change the penalties for drug trafficking – it remains a crime. Democrats insist on these nuances, but Republicans see it less as an argument about facts than about semantics. Asked about the ad’s inaccuracy, Kirkmeyer spokesman and consultant Alan Philp said the campaign was “happy” to haggle over the fact that fentanyl was “technically” illegal.

Rep. Colin Larson, a Ken Caryl Republican, said the 2019 bill was “the most glaring example of… the danger of single-party control.” He said that while cities face the brunt of the state’s fentanyl crisis, suburbs are “the battlegrounds” for Republicans, and that’s where Republicans’ fentanyl — and crime wider – is formed.

Governor Jared Polis, left, shakes hands...
Gov. Jared Polis, left, shakes hands with Feliz Sanchez-Garcia, whose sister Karina Rodriguez died of a fentanyl overdose, after Polis signed HB22-1326 on the steps of the Capitol in Denver on Wednesday, May 25 2022. Legislation intended to combat fentanyl, which killed more than 900 people in Colorado last year, has officially become state law. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/Denver Post)

The level — and content — of Republican emphasis on fentanyl has frustrated Democrats. Governor Jared Polis repeatedly verified Ganahl’s claims about the deaths during their proceedings. Ganahl has often claimed that Colorado is the second nation in the nation for fentanyl-related deaths. In reality, and as Polis pointed out, the state’s overdose rate is lower than the national average, and the crisis is not limited to Colorado. But the rate of increase in 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 larger issue to create “dramatic campaign attack ads.”

Ganahl, who has made child welfare a key part of his campaign, placed fentanyl within that framework, though much of his rhetoric hammered Polis and Democrats for legislation and their crime policies.

As for immigration, the experts said most migrants do not carry drugs with them, and that most fentanyl seizures are made at legitimate entry points.

“It is sadly the case in politics that issues that require nuanced and careful solutions in order for the issues to be resolved in the right way are sometimes reduced in the heat of political back and forth to being misinterpreted or oversimplified. ‘excess,’ Rep. Mike Weissman added. , a Democrat from Aurora.

Focusing on fentanyl — and crime and immigration in general — is good for rallying the GOP base, according to Soroka and Seth Masket, a University of Denver political scientist and Denver Post columnist. Republicans know it too, but they argue it has appeal beyond their core constituency. Campaign spokespersons O’Dea and Kirkmeyer said it was an important issue for a wide range of Colorado voters.

On the left, the hand of Carrie Hankins places stickers on a table filled with information about fentanyl overdoses during an event held at the Lakewood Library on August 25, 2022. Jefferson County Public Health hosted the event titled “Fentanyl & Overdose: A Discussion for Jeffco Communities”. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

The significance is unclear: Several Colorado Republicans have listed drugs — or the broader category of crime — as one of the top three issues, based on their own internal polls and research.

Soroka and Masket weren’t so sure, and Democrats say that’s not as high as big economic issues and abortion, one of their top issues this cycle. Another political scientist said he hadn’t seen any public polls to support him as a major issue. A Rasmussen poll found that 91% of Americans thought it was a serious problem, although pollsters did not ask respondents to rank it among other problems.

Still, Soroka said voters’ minds had shifted in the past to focus on crime and immigration. It’s just not yet clear if that will happen this time.

Jessica C. Bell