Can a ‘Centrist Project’ break the power of political parties in Colorado? They’re trying.
‘I would not rule it out at all’
A group of centrist political strategists have moved into Colorado with the aim of installing enough independent lawmakers into power in next year’s elections to deny political parties a majority in the state legislature.
The Centrist Project, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that began by dedicating its resources to the U.S Senate, is now expanding its attention to the state level and recently transported its headquarters to Denver.
With Republicans holding a one-seat majority in the Colorado Senate, and Democrats holding the House by 9, The Centrist Project sees fertile ground here for disruption. If just a handful of unaffiliated candidates gain seats in the legislature, the balance of power could shift to them.
That’s important, says project director Nick Troiano, because once elected, these independent lawmakers “wouldn’t be beholden to a small fraction of the base of their party or to leadership, but would be free to lead and help broker common ground agreements.”
Dartmouth professor and Centrist Project founder Charles Wheelan calls this the “Fulcrum Strategy,” which he laid out in his 2013 book “The Centrist Manifesto.”
In Colorado, the group is looking to target at least five specific House and Senate districts. Staffers have been doing research here since last November’s legislative elections. Working out of a co-working space in downtown Denver, the Centrist Project staff of about a dozen has already reached out to hundreds of potential candidates across the state so far, Troiano told The Colorado Independent. He says the project’s largest donors come from its leadership team, and it accepts individual contributions.
The plan is to recruit, endorse, help fund, and offer campaign support to unaffiliated candidates, and then run them as a slate. While centrist efforts have popped up nationally before— think Unity08 or No Labels— 2018 will be the first time a national group makes a concerted effort to draft unaffiliated candidates into the Colorado legislature. Those candidates, Troiano says, will agree to seek common ground, follow the facts where they lead when voting on legislation, be pro-growth while fiscally and environmentally responsible, and socially tolerant.
Most importantly, though, they must be viable.
“Unlike sort of fringe third parties, we’re not here to make a lot of noise and just make sure someone gets on the ballot— we’re here to win elections,” Troiano says. “So we’re very specific about the kind of person and the kind of district that is able to win. Because this whole movement doesn’t go forward unless people believe in it and that it can produce actual elected officials.”
Colorado, whose electorate is nearly evenly split among Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters, has never seen an unaffiliated legislative candidate run and win, even though the state’s largest voting population chooses not to identify with a political party. As with most things in politics, the ability to raise money— especially without the support of major party machinery— often plays a role.
In last year’s legislative elections, Al White, a Republican from rural Colorado, dropped his party affiliation to run against a sitting GOP state senator named Randy Baumgardner. White was no local gadfly or crank, either. He previously won races for the Colorado House and Senate. He never saw himself as someone to cowtow to leadership and he bucked his party when he felt doing so would benefit his district.
“The concept of being able to serve independent of party influence or partisan influence was really attractive to me,” he says about it now.
But while bolting from his party to run as an independent certainly drew attention it didn’t draw dollars. Not even from some of his Republican friends.
“What I found was the guys that had given me literally thousands of dollars in the past in campaigns wouldn’t even return a call for a few hundred bucks,” White says about his aborted indy run. It became clear quickly he wouldn’t gain financial traction in the donor world and he didn’t want to self-fund his effort. So he dropped out.
White says he hasn’t heard from anyone at The Centrist Project yet, but he approves of what they’re trying to do.
“I think it’s time for something along those lines and I think Colorado is really perfect for it,” he told The Independent.
For such a strategy to to work here, though, it would likely have to be well-funded and smartly focused, says David Flaherty, CEO of Magellan Strategies, whose public affairs and polling firm has researched the state’s unaffiliated voters.
“Depending on their resources, I believe it’s completely possible,” he says of The Centrist Project effort.
Flaherty pointed to a survey his firm conducted in April showing 63 percent of voters in Colorado do not believe the Republican Party understands them, and 60 percent say the same about the Democratic Party.
“What is constant and has been there for years in our surveys among likely general election voters is the fact that, without question, the will is there for a middle way,” Flaherty told The Independent. “I would not rule it out at all.”
One of the reasons The Centrist Project chose Colorado as its testing ground is because research shows it has the most polarized legislature in the nation.
But University of Denver political scientist Seth Masket points out in his own research that hyperpolarization in state legislatures doesn’t always mean gridlock like it might at the national level. In Colorado, in particular, a narrative that emerged immediately after the latest legislative session, which ended in May, was one of bipartisanship, compromise and productivity— at least in comparison with the most previous sessions. One major reason was fresh leadership blood in both chambers.
Still, at the close of the session, Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper floated the idea of dragging lawmakers back to Denver because of big-ticket issues that went unaddressed, specifically the state’s tangled transportation woes and the fate of Colorado’s energy office.
Troiano points to that as one reason to angle for a more moderating influence at the Statehouse
Masket, however, offered a contrarian take.
If the Fulcrum Strategy takes hold in Denver, it would empower new independents with quite a bit of leverage to negotiate with the other parties, he says. But it also could create quite a bit of chaos.
“If no one knows which party is in charge at any given time— if you have one member who is essentially in a position to cut deals with one of the parties over whom they’re going to vote for for the chamber leadership— it makes it a lot harder to predict how the chamber is going to behave, it makes it harder to work through compromises with the other chamber,” Masket says. “I think there’s just as much possibility that it creates a less functional legislature.”
Regardless, the perennial bellwether of Colorado will at least provide yet another test tube for the nation in 2018 with how this effort’s fortunes play out.
“The mission of The Centrist Project is to be a catalyst for bringing both sides back together to address the really large and long-term challenges facing our communities, our state, and our country,” Trioano says. “We see Colorado as having both a need and an opportunity to prove that’s possible.”
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