Democratic challenger pulls ahead of incumbent Republican in critical State Board of Education race

Democratic challenger Rebecca McClellan pulled ahead of incumbent Republican Debora Scheffel on Friday evening as ballots continued to be counted in a pivotal race that will determine partisan control of the State Board of Education.

By Eric GorskiChalkbeat

Democratic challenger Rebecca McClellan pulled ahead of incumbent Republican Debora Scheffel on Friday evening as ballots continued to be counted in a pivotal race that will determine partisan control of the State Board of Education.

McClellan gained the edge after the final ballots were counted on Friday in Arapahoe County. She holds a 959-vote lead with 355,009 votes tallied in the race, according to the latest returns from the Colorado Secretary of State.

The candidates are vying for the seat representing the political tossup 6th Congressional District, which includes parts of Arapahoe and Adams counties, and a small portion of Douglas County.

The race will come down to the final ballots to be counted in Adams County, and ballots flagged for irregularities in Douglas County. An Adams County spokeswoman said outstanding ballots there were not counted on Friday because of the Veterans Day holiday. She said the next returns would be released early next week.

As of now, the vote is not close enough to force an automatic recount under state law. For a recount to happen, the difference between the candidates must be less than or equal to one-half of 1 percent of the winner’s total vote count.

Scheffel led by a slim margin in early returns but McClellan had been gaining in more recent counts before taking the lead.

It is unclear how many votes remain uncounted in Adams and Douglas counties. Not all ballots there include the State Board of Education race because some voters in those counties live in other congressional districts. For example, voters in Adams County could live in either the 4th, 6th or 7th congressional districts.

About 3,000 ballots in Douglas County have not been counted. The ballots have been set aside because of irregularities and won’t be included in the county’s total until after Wednesday, said Merlin Klotz, Douglas County’s clerk. That’s because voters have eight days to address those irregularities for their ballots to be counted.

Klotz said earlier this week he doubted those ballots could sway the race because of how few Douglas County voters live in the 6th district. But depending on where the race stands after the Adams County votes are tabulated, that might not be the case.

It wasn’t immediately clear on Friday whether a similar situation exists with ballots cast in Adams and Arapahoe counties.

In the conservative stronghold of Douglas County, 45 percent of voters are registered as Republicans, 20 percent are registered as Democrats and 34 percent are either unaffiliated or registered with another party.

Adams County leans more Democratic. About 36 percent of voters are registered Democrats, 26 percent are registered Republicans and about 38 percent of voters are unaffiliated or registered with another party.

The closeness of the State Board of Education contest stands in stark contrast to the outcome of the race pitting incumbent U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, a Republican, and Democratic challenger Morgan Carroll, a state legislator — with the very same electorate. Coffman easily prevailed, winning 51 percent of votes counted to Carroll’s nearly 43 percent.

McClellan is winning considerably more votes in her race than Carroll is in hers — more than 19,000 more votes, according to most recent returns.

Money is one likely factor in the closer race for the State Board of Education seat representing the district. McClellan’s campaign brought in more money than Scheffel’s in the primary and general election, but McClellan also had opposition in the Democratic primary.

McClellan also benefited from campaign cash from outside groups. A political committee connected to the nonprofit Democrats for Education Reform spent more than $150,000 from Aug. 1 through the end of October to support McClellan’s bid.  Such groups may raise and spend an unlimited amount of money but cannot coordinate with candidates.

The outcome of the Scheffel-McClellan contest will determine partisan control of the State Board of Education at a critical time, as Colorado joins the rest of the country in seeing through the nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act. A shift to Democratic control would be significant; the board has been in Republican hands for years.

Latest vote totals

McClellan (D): 177,984 — 50.14 percent

Scheffel (R): 177,025 — 49.86 percent

Difference between votes cast: 959

One-half of 1 percent of highest votes cast (figure needed to trigger recount): 890

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.