An early look at the 2018 Democratic primary for governor in Colorado

Two are in. Multiple would-be candidates say they’re looking.

An early look at the 2018 Democratic primary for governor in Colorado

NOTE: This story, originally posted on Nov. 11, has been updated to reflect the changing field.

In Colorado it’s never too early to start thinking about the next big race. Here in a state that went for Clinton, Democrats are looking at 2018, when Colorado will elect a new governor.

Already, names are floating around in Democratic circles. Some have confirmed they’re looking at it, and two have made announcements. The potential candidates come from all wings of the Democratic Party and include establishment types, young-gun rising stars and a Sanders revolutionary. Trial balloons are off the ground. 

Conversations with state Democrats hint at how the chess board might look in Colorado on the road to 2018, what to look out for, and how a new primary system might affect the race.

Ugh, why are we talking about a 2018 race already?

The main reason is because Clinton lost and Trump will be president.

That reality means a few things. The most glaring is that Ken Salazar, who would have had a role in a Clinton administration, is not likely to go to Washington. Now, prominent Democrats expect the man who is one of the best-known politicians in the state to consider a run for governor.

“For years people have said Salazar is ‘Mr. Colorado.’ We’ll see if he jumps in,” says Terrence Carroll, a lawyer and the former Democratic House Speaker in Colorado.

That’s the view from the establishment side. But consider this: Clinton’s loss — though she won Colorado — means those to the left of Clinton who helped fuel a win for Bernie Sanders in Colorado’s March 1 caucuses will be looking for a louder voice in Democratic politics here.

Because of this, “It’s going to be a crowded field on the Dems side,” said JoyAnn Ruscha, a Democratic consultant who supported Sanders at the Colorado caucuses and has been fielding calls from potential gubernatorial candidates.

In August, Clinton had tapped Ken Salazar, a former attorney general and U.S. Senator here whom President Barack Obama appointed as secretary of the Department of Interior, to lead her transition team should she win the White House. Among the takeaways from her choice were the howls from the environmental left because of Salazar’s pro-fracking stance.

OK, well, is anyone openly talking about running yet?

Yep. One potential candidate says he is in the exploratory phase, another says he’s considering a run, yet another says he’s looking at a potential bid, and at least two have already announced.

Entrepreneur and Intertech Plastics CEO Noel Ginsburg says on his company’s webpage that he’s “running for governor because I want to bring my business and civic leadership to Colorado as a whole.” As a state, “we need fresh ideas that will allow us to increase access to good jobs for good pay,” he said. “Everyone needs to be lifted up by economic growth. That involves our education system, skills development, and the creation of new pathways and choices for people to enter the middle class and beyond.”

Campaign spokeswoman Erin Silver said in a statement Ginsburg made his announcement so early because Colorado law makes it easier to hold events and fundraise after filing.

Democratic Sen. Mike Johnston of Denver, an entrepreneur and former Obama education advisor who was once named one of Time magazine’s “40 Under 40 Political Leaders,” planned to announce his entry into the race on Jan. 17 followed by a two-day tour of Colorado.

In an interview with The Colorado Independent in November, Johnston said he sees himself as someone who has built bi-partisan coalitions in the legislature to get things done, and someone able to build coalitions among all sides of the Democratic Party. The next candidate for governor in the primary will have to appeal to unaffiliated voters who might be able to participate in the primary for the first time, he said.

“I think the party is going to need someone who is going to inspire enthusiasm from a broad coalition of Coloradans, which would include suburban and Western Slope voters as well as Latinos and African-Americans and true liberals and pragmatists,” he said. “You’re going to need someone who can really build a broad coalition and bring that coalition together into a real movement for action.”

Meanwhile, Democratic Rep. Joe Salazar, a civil rights attorney in Thornton who is known as one of the most progressive lawmakers in the state and was one of the earliest and staunchest supporters of Bernie Sanders, said people have approached him about running since he won his own re-election bid for his House seat on Nov. 8.

“If that’s what the people want me to do I would highly consider it,” he told The Colorado Independent in the days after the election.

Joe Salazar imagines plenty of establishment candidates will run for governor in the 2018 Democratic primary. “They will be challenged fiercely,” he says. “That’s not the direction the state of Colorado needs to be going anymore.” The party, he says, has become so corporatized that its members are leaving it.

While there have been a handful of Democrats who publicly switched to the Green Party before the General Election, the Democratic Party in Colorado registered thousands of voters during the campaign season, cracking one million voters in the state, not only outpacing Republicans here for the first time in 30 years, but surpassing them by 10,000 voters.

Nearly two months later, Salazar says he is no rush to make a decision and is focused on the legislative session. But he did say he will be traveling across Colorado listening to voters about their concerns so he can bring legislation to address them.

State Sen. Mike Merrifield, a progressive Democrat from El Paso County and another early supporter of Sanders, said he is also exploring a run. He declined to talk about it when contacted this week. He earlier told the alt-weekly in Colorado Springs that he didn’t want to talk about it because the Secretary of State’s office “had told him that any further comment to media about a potential run could trigger the need for an official filing.”

Electra Johnson, a former candidate for the El Paso County Commission who is running for chair of the county Democratic Party, said she would support Merrifield if he ran.

“I think he’s taking the party back to where it needs to be, which is more of the people’s party,” she said. “Instead of trying to move everybody to the right I think we should move to the left.” She added that Meriffield, who supports unions, is good on the environment, and as a former teacher knows about education, would bring representation to southern Colorado.

Merrifield in early February said he was still considering a run, but told The Colorado Independent he would not do it if Congressman Ed Perlmutter gets in the race.

Any other big names floating around?

Sure. In conversations with Democrats in Colorado, two other names other than Ken Salazar consistently emerged. 

They are are former State Treasurer Cary Kennedy, who recently stepped down as Denver’s CFO and deputy mayor, and Congressman Ed Perlmutter of Golden who just won re-election. Ken Salazar did not return voice messages. Kennedy declined to discuss the race. A Perlmutter spokesperson said “all options are on the table.”

Why so coy? Is there any rule about not talking about running before you file paperwork?

Turns out there is.

“Once you’ve said you’re running, then you have to file,” says Lynn Bartels, spokeswoman for Colorado Secretary of State’s Office.

The actual language is a little looser:

A person becomes a candidate for election (1) if the person has publicly announced an intention to seek election to public office or retention of a judicial office; and (2) thereafter has received a contribution or made an expenditure in support of the candidacy. (Colo. Const. Art. XXVIII, Sec. 2(2)). A candidate affidavit must be filed within ten days of becoming a candidate. (1-45-110, C.R.S.)

But what is an announcement of an “intention” to run? And is it triggered if someone announces and then takes money, or just announces an intention? What if they announce an intention but then never run?

According to Bartels, state guidelines say a public announcement includes, but is not limited to, “making a statement a reasonable person would expect to become public signifying an interest in a public office by means of a speech, advertisement, or other communication reported to or appearing in public media or any place accessible to the public. It also includes a stated intention to explore the possibility of seeking an office and/or the registration of a candidate committee with our office.”

The law requires an announcement and raising or spending of money to trigger the requirement to file, she says, but the Secretary of State’s office often advises candidates to file within 10 days of an announcement.

Perhaps this is why Ginsburg already filed paperwork along with two of other Democrats who are less well known. They are Adam Garrity and Moses Humes. A number for Garrity listed in his official campaign paperwork did not work. A man who answered a phone number listed in campaign paperwork for Humes said he was not Humes and did not know why reporters had been calling him.

What might the Democratic primary look like in two years?

The power dynamics could break down along lines similar to what we saw during the Democratic caucuses in March.

Clinton had the support of the Democratic Party elite in Colorado, from the entire Democratic congressional delegation to the governor and dozens of Democratic lawmakers.

Sanders captivated the party’s grassroots and the thousands of voters who switched their party registration from unaffiliated to Democrat so they could caucus for him. In the lead up to the caucuses, only three Democratic lawmakers stood on the steps of the state Capitol to declare their allegiance to Sanders.

Sanders ended up crushing Clinton by 19 points on caucus night. But some Democrats caution about overestimating the power of the caucuses in Colorado, which represent a sliver of Democratic voters statewide. Hickenlooper himself said as much in the aftermath of Sanders’ victory here. He said those caucus-goers represented a “very, very slim percentage of Democrats … a very slim number of people.”

The history of Democrats coming out of the caucuses for governor and losing the primary is also long, says Rick Ridder, a top Democratic strategist. Research he saw in May of last year, he says, showed that if there had been a been a primary in Colorado, Clinton likely would have won it.

So caucuses might not be reflective of the political environment in Colorado. 

But an open question remains: To what extent does a Trump administration galvanize political activism within the wings of the Democratic Party or among leftist unaffiliated or unregistered potential voters? Some on the left who are looking for solace in a Trump win have turned to the recent writings of the philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who argued a Trump presidency would “start a process out of which an authentic Left would emerge.”

So one aspect to look out for will be whether there might be someone in Colorado’s leftist movement outside the mainstream who might emerge and electrify that constituency.

With Trump in the White House, Democratic voters are going to be looking for governors who will stand up to him in the states.

Meanwhile, Sanders did not leave his primary race broke and his political group Our Revolution is reportedly keeping an eye on Colorado. There could be some money and resources there for a potential candidate.

How will the new primary system we just passed affect the 2018 governor’s race?

No one knows! But if the new system is in place by 2018, it will certainly have a big effect.

Because voters approved ballot measure Prop 108 on Nov. 8, Colorado’s next governor’s race will be the first year unaffiliated voters will be allowed to have a say in whom the Democratic Party nominates for governor.

Democrats will still caucus for their candidates at precincts around the state — and unaffiliated voters cannot participate in those — but once candidates land on the primary ballot, either by coming out of caucuses or petitioning on, unaffiliated voters could be allowed to vote.

The caveat here is that there still must be legislative work done to enable the new law, and there also could be a lawsuit challenging it from going to into effect. Another caveat: The Democratic Party will have the option in October 2017 to hold a vote by its leadership to see if they want to select all of their primary candidates by the caucus-assembly process. That would take a vote of three fourths of the party’s executive committee, and would mean they would essentially opt out of Prop 108.

But if Prop 108 does what voters intended, it will mean that in the 2018 governor’s race, mailed ballots will be sent to unaffiliated voters with the names of Democratic and Republican primary candidates. Voters can chose one party or the other to participate in.

One aim of Prop 108 was to water down the voting power of the activist base in each party by broadening the electorate to include more voters in the mix in party primaries. Proponents of the measure saw it as a way to lessen the chances of Colorado nominating extreme candidates on either side.

“This is not your grandfather’s Democratic or Republican primary,” says Curtis Hubbard, a partner at OnSite Public Affairs and the lead consultant to the Let Colorado Vote Campaign. “And candidates are going to have to realize that it will be open to a million-plus unaffiliated voters and they’ll have to figure out ways to communicate and engage that group.”


*Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified which chamber Mike Johnston represents in the Legislature, and also stated Noel Ginsburg had worked for the Clinton Foundation. A spokeswoman clarified he was a member of the Clinton Foundation’s US Youth Action Network.

Photo by Amanda Hinault, Creative Commons, Flickr 

Like this story? Steal it! Feel free to republish it in part or in full, just please give credit to The Colorado Independent and add a link to the original.

Got a tip? Story pitch? Send us an e-mail. Follow The Colorado Independent on Twitter.

About the Author

Corey Hutchins

is a journalist in Colorado, and Columbia Journalism Review's Rocky Mountain correspondent for the United States Project.


  1. Mark on said:

    Let us be clear. Colorado is a purple state. Independents hold the keys to the kingdom. Joe Salazar and Michael Johnston if nominated will lose. They are both to far to the left. Carey Kennedy is unlikely to win. Having worked for Michael Hancock she will be dismissed as to Denver centric. Ed Permutter, while moderate, has not faced a strong challenger in a long time, and independents and moderates are unlikely to vote for him if a moderate Republican emerges. That leaves Ken Salazar. well respected throughout the state. He has access to the political powers that be a.k.a. Steve Farber and Norm Brownstein. He is the best chance for Democrats to win.

Leave a Response

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>