DENVER - With Colorado's Legislature firmly under their control, Democrats are poised to dictate the state's economic agenda and to pass civil unions after two years of divided government.
Democrats defeated Republicans in several key state races Tuesday to retake the House and retain the Senate, victories that set up potential firsts in Colorado history: Openly gay lawmakers leading each legislative chamber.
It would be an emphatic turn for a state that banned same-sex marriage in 2006 and was once dubbed a "hate state" for a 1992 voter-approved constitutional amendment barring cities from passing anti-discrimination laws to protect gay people.
Democrats appeared likely to have at least a 35-30 majority in the House and at least a 19-16 advantage in the Senate, a chamber they've controlled since 2004.
The Democrats' gains were bolstered by new legislative maps drawn by their party last year that forced Republicans to defend more seats. They also got boosts from supporters of civil unions who were angered that Republicans blocked legislation that would've given gay couples rights legislation similar to marriage.
House Republicans, who had a 33-32 advantage since 2010, defeated the legislation in May with a filibuster just before session ended and again during special session in a GOP-led committee.
Democratic state Rep. Mark Ferrandino, a gay lawmaker, said his party would rule differently than House Republicans.
"We're not going to take it as a mandate to just run it like a dictatorship like we saw at the end of the last session," Ferrandino promised.
The parties in both chambers planned leadership elections Thursday, and Ferrandino could be elected House speaker. Sen. Pat Steadman, a gay lawmaker who co-sponsored civil unions, has been mentioned as a possible candidate for Senate president. However, Senate Democratic Leader John Morse also has long been considered for that title.
Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who supports civil unions and had called the special session, said the way the legislation was defeated "certainly had an influence" on voters.
"When I was going around the state over the last few months, I did hear it mentioned in some of the more unlikely places - the Eastern Plains, small mountain towns," he said.
The defeat of the bill energized civil union supporters. They formed a group that targeted three vulnerable House Republicans with attack mailers. Republican Rep. Cindy Acree in Aurora and Republican Rep. Robert Ramirez in Jefferson County were among those targeted and they had lost their seats. The third lawmaker, Republican Rep. J. Paul Brown, was also losing.
Democrats were also winning many of the key races in the Denver suburbs, and they knocked off incumbent Republican Rep. Mark Barker in El Paso County.
Republican House Speaker Frank McNulty said President Barack Obama's ground game in Colorado helped sway legislative races. He emphasized "how effective the Obama machine is about turning people out to vote."
"I am impressed," he said.
On Twitter Wednesday morning, McNulty thanked his party's candidates and wished the Democrats good luck. "The challenges CO faces are ours together," said one tweet.
With control of both chambers, Democrats are assured to pass civil unions. Democrats also are likely to pass legislation allowing illegal immigrant students to attend college at lower tuition rates than out-of-state students.
Democrats will also have more power over the state budget and will be able to push economic development ideas that Republicans blocked in the past, such as granting bidding preferences for local companies applying for state contracts.