Colorado voters are primed for the governor’s race of a generation.
With more than a dozen Democratic and Republican hopefuls crisscrossing the state and jockeying for position in the first wide-open gubernatorial election in as long as many can remember, there’s still no clear front-runner in either party in sight.
As they battle among one another to replace term-limited Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper their first challenge is to make the June primary ballot, and doing so is a byzantine bloodsport that involves strategy and risk. The process started in earnest this week as Jan. 16 was the day candidates could begin gathering petitions to try and get on the ballot.
In Colorado, candidates for governor have multiple paths to the ballot, and each harbors potential pitfalls. A candidate can try and break through the risky gauntlet of the grassroots caucus-and-assembly process, or bypass it completely with a costly effort to go directly to the ballot via voter petitions. (They can also try to do both, but that’s even riskier, and we’ll get to why later.)
Whatever they choose— and candidates in this field have already chosen their routes— voters who are registered as Democrats and Republicans will get their first shot at the precinct caucuses on March 6 to shape the general election to come.
Voters participating in the caucuses will learn more about some of the nine Democrats and nine Republicans who are running for governor. They will then choose the delegates who eventually will vote for the candidate they believe should represent their party in the big governor’s race in November.
Only registered party members can participate; the deadline to register as a member of a major party was Jan. 8.
Thanks to new laws voters passed in 2016, those who are unaffiliated with a major political party can participate in the party primaries, but not the caucuses. Unaffiliated voters are, however, invited to observe the process, which could take place in thousands of living rooms, gymnasiums, barns and ballrooms in neighborhoods from the small towns of the Eastern Plains, up and down the bustling Front Range, and out on the Western Slope.
Ready to get involved? Here’s what you need to know.
Remind me again, what’s a caucus and how does it work?
You might typically hear more about the Colorado caucuses in the lead up to a presidential election. In 2016, more Democrats flooded the Colorado caucuses than ever before, largely in excitement for Bernie Sanders.
But these small neighborhood gatherings take place in the midterms, too. This March, the Democratic Party is expecting an unprecedented turnout for a non-presidential year, says party spokesman Eric Walker. “Democrats are fired up,” he says, “and I think you’re going to see that reflected in the enthusiasm for our caucuses.”
Republicans, on the other hand, are expecting typical turnout in a non-presidential year, says party spokesman Daniel Cole— about 6 to 7 percent of registered Republicans statewide.
Technically called precinct caucuses, these local events throw down in a building in your neighborhood. It can be a community center, a school, a church, or even someone’s home. There, registered Democrats and Republicans respectively spend an evening trying to persuade their neighbors to select them as delegates to county and state assemblies that take place weeks later. Those delegate hopefuls might try to win support by saying they will carry the banner for a particular candidate at the state assembly. But they are merely the first in a series of steps for candidates trying to get on the primary ballot. At the caucuses, party members select delegates to go to the county assemblies, and at the county assemblies they select delegates to go to the Big Show— the state assembly.
Already, some candidates for governor are urging their supporters to “commit to caucus” for them. Those candidates want as many of their supporters as they can to get selected as delegates to the party’s state assembly, which is held in April and can be a defining moment for a candidate for office.
All this sounds quaint and community-oriented, like a big neighborhood discussion where hearts and minds are changed through debate and discussion. Right?
The point is persuasion: You’re going to hear a lot from people trying to get you to pull for their candidate, and you’re going to want to be able to talk them into why they should send a delegate on behalf of the candidate you support. You might be there for a few hours. In presidential years, some folks mark off a corner of the room for a candidate and try to lure neighbors over. “There’s definitely movement … it’s on the margins,” says Jim Matson, a former Democratic precinct captain in Colorado Springs who has participated in the process. “People can advocate, and if they can sell it, they can bring others to them.”
It’s familiar friends-and-neighbors politics and some might not be above saying “we have cookies,” to bring others over to their corner, Matson says. “It’s very retail, very personable, and kind of quirky.”
Caucuses are important, even in non-presidential years, because the number of party members who participate in the caucuses make up just a sliver of registered partisans statewide so those who participate have an outsized influence on who winds up on the primary ballot, says Cole, the state GOP spokesman. “Therefore,” he says, “there’s even more incentive to participate if you want your voice to be heard.”
So what is the state assembly and how does it help determine the gubernatorial nominee?
In a presidential year, parties call this high-stakes gathering of state delegates a state convention. In non-presidential years, they call it a state assembly.
Each major party has one, and this is where all the delegates selected from those March caucuses and county assemblies meet all at once in one place and eventually cast their ballots for candidates for office.
The assembly is a way for a candidate to show he or she has a groundswell of support from the grassroots base of the party; the thousands of delegates who show up often make up the party’s most hardcore loyal members. But the risk is that a candidate can get knocked out of a race for good here by failing to win enough support.
Both the Democrats and Republicans are holding their assemblies this year on the same day— Saturday, April 14. The Democratic state assembly will be at First Bank Center in Broomfield; the Republicans are still hammering out the location details for their assembly.
At these grassroots meatgrinders, candidates for governor who choose to participate will battle it for the support of all the delegates who attend. It’s like a circus for political junkies with booths for campaigns and organizations in the halls and a raucous floor where delegates wave banners and hear candidates speak from a stage. Each candidate for governor who chooses to participate in the assembly will get to give a speech, and candidates and their representatives will spend the day buttonholing delegates and trying to win the votes of the thousands of party poobahs who made their way from those neighborhood precinct caucuses, through the county assemblies, and on to the state assembly.
In the end, the delegates will all vote. And then the showdown.
Candidates need 30 percent of the vote to stay alive at the assembly, so that means only three of them can even possibly emerge in the most balanced scenario, but likely it will be just one or two. The candidate who wins the assembly gets rewarded for it in another way, too— he or she earns what is called “top line” status on the June primary ballot mailed to voters, meaning having their name printed atop all other candidates.
Do the candidates for governor have to go through the caucus-assembly process?
No. And not all of them will.
Candidates for governor who wish to skip the assembly and “petition on” to the ballot will need to gather 1,500 signatures from each of Colorado’s seven congressional districts. It can be costly for campaigns that hire companies to help gather petitions for them, especially in a year with so many candidates running. A registered voter who signs a petition for one candidate cannot do the same for another.
Candidates can start collecting petitions on Jan. 16, and they have to turn them in by March 20, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.
This year, more scrutiny will be on the process than in years past because of a petition-fraud scandal that erupted last year in the sprawling Republican U.S. Senate primary in which a signature collector for a candidate pled guilty to forgery. Now, the secretary of state’s office will be cross-checking names of those who sign petitions against a state database to try and ensure no similar shenanigans. That means campaigns must be super-diligent, and most competent campaigns try to gather many more signatures than necessary in case some are struck by the secretary of state.
Why would a candidate petition on instead of going through the state assembly?
Going through the state assembly can be risky for a campaign that has the money to run a statewide petition-gathering drive. It can also provide a masterstroke for a candidate who doesn’t.
Here’s why: If a candidate does not get 30 percent of the vote among delegates at the assembly, and the candidate hasn’t gathered and turned in the petitions necessary get directly on the ballot, that candidate gets bounced from the race entirely. So candidates who put all their chips on the assembly can see their whole campaign obliterated by April.
On the other hand, a candidate who has gathered and turned in enough petitions to get directly on the ballot, but also wants to go through the assembly, can do so, but that candidate better be confident of his or her ability to get more than 10 percent of the vote. Because if such a candidate doesn’t crack 10 percent at the assembly, that candidate’s name cannot appear on the primary ballot even if they gathered enough petitions.
Some hardcore Democrats and Republicans might get irked by candidates who choose not to go through the assembly, viewing such a move as a sign of potential weakness or skepticism with the base. Candidates petitioning on the ballot, however, can frame their move as bringing more Coloradans into the process than just the die-hards who go to the caucuses and assembly.
Campaigns with the resources to pay an army of workers to gather petitions along with a grassroots volunteer effort— and who begin the petition process fast and early and flood the zone— also might be able to blunt the ability of campaigns with fewer resources to do the same. The number of Democrats in each congressional district willing to sign a petition to get a candidate on the ballot is finite after all, and if one campaign locks up enough of them early it could make it harder for others to find voters willing to sign.
So which candidates for governor are doing what this year?
On the Democratic side, former State Treasurer Cary Kennedy says she plans to go through the caucuses and state assembly. “This is really an extension of what Cary has been doing during this campaign: meeting one-on-one with Coloradans, in our neighborhoods and living rooms, listening to our concerns and making the case for her vision for Colorado,” said her campaign manager Aaron Bly in a statement.
Democratic tech entrepreneur Erik Underwood is also going the caucus-assembly route. Underwood is familiar to the process having gone through it in 2016 when he ran for the U.S. Senate— as a Republican— and earned six votes among a large field. (That year, a little-known county commissioner from El Paso named Darryl Glenn stunned political observers when he got 70 percent of the vote, knocking out six of his rivals.)
Democrats taking the other route are businessman Noel Ginsburg and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne. Both are trying to petition directly onto the ballot for similar reasons. Lynne said her decision reflects her “commitment to inclusiveness” since she’ll have to earn buy-in from all across the state in gathering signatures to promote her candidacy. As for Ginsburg, “petitioning on to the ballot ensures that a signature from the Eastern Plains or the Western Slope is equal to one from the San Luis Valley or Front Range,” he told The Colorado Independent. “We want to give every Democrat the opportunity to express support for my candidacy.”
Former State Sen. Mike Johnston is working with the Secretary of State’s office on the petition process, but the campaign says it is “keeping all options open” and “will continue to evaluate which strategy best allows the campaign to maximize their grassroots support across Colorado, while at the same time securing a place on the primary ballot.”
The campaign of Boulder Democratic Congressman Jared Polis said he will “participate in the 2018 Democratic Caucuses and collect petition signatures to qualify for the primary ballot in the Colorado governor’s race.” Asked if that meant he would go to the assembly and appear on the ballot there for a vote, his campaign said yes.
On the Republican side, State Treasurer Walker Stapleton was coy when asked what he planned to do in early November, saying whatever he decides he guarantees he’ll be on the ballot. Stapleton did, however, notify the Secretary of State’s Office that he intends to gather petitions, and he was approved to do so on Jan. 5, according to a list of candidates who made similar requests. Retired investment banker Doug Robinson said on Jan. 2 he was considering both options and would make a decision soon. On Jan. 8, the Secretary of State’s Office approved his ability to gather petitions. Attorney General Cynthia Coffman’s campaign announced on Jan. 17 she would petition onto the ballot. “The petitioning process will allow me to balance my time between the campaign trail and serving the people of Colorado in my current role as the state’s attorney general,” Coffman said in a statement. “I look forward to continuing my travel around the state and engaging with voters from urban, rural and suburban Colorado.”
Entrepreneur and onetime lawmaker Victor Mitchell is preparing to gather petitions. The campaign says it gives him “the best chance to meet the most grassroots voters all across the state” and to “touch many Republicans that won’t participate in the caucus process.”
On the flipside, former Parker mayor Greg Lopez will go through the assembly. “It’s like running the Triple Crown,” he says. “The first race is to get onto the ballot by convincing 30 percent of the delegates to give me the opportunity to become the Republican nominee by putting me onto the primary ballot— allow me to prove that I am electable, that my message can resonate.”
Steve Barlock, also running for governor, was one of the few delegates for Donald Trump at the 2016 Republican state convention. “So I know how hard it is,” he says, adding that he will go through the assembly process, hoping to gain support from newcomers who might have been inspired by Trump’s candidacy. Lately, when someone has offered to donate to his campaign, Barlock says, he’s told them to save it and instead caucus for him and use the money to pay the fee to attend the assembly if they become a delegate. Also, he said about his decision to go through the assembly, “It seems to me that the higher powers have locked up the petitioning companies.”
Larimer County Commissioner Lew Gaiter, who is running a low-key campaign for governor, says he, too, will try to appeal to the party’s grassroots base by going through the assembly in hopes of catching fire.
Also going through the state assembly is former Congressman Tom Tancredo. Speaking on a Dec. 23 talk radio show, he said he felt it would cost too much money to gather enough signatures statewide to petition on. He also said he believed a recent rules change meant candidates must gather petitions in all 35 Senate districts in order to get on the ballot. But that’s not correct. Voters did pass a law in 2016 in support of a campaign called Raise the Bar that made it more difficult to gather signatures to get statewide constitutional questions on the ballot, and that new law requires signatures be gathered in all 35 Senate districts, but it doesn’t apply to candidates trying to get their names on the ballot.
In an interview with The Colorado Independent, Tancredo said he still plans to go through the state assembly because he needs to establish grassroots support for his campaign. “My entire thing has got to be grassroots,” he said. “If we can’t make that work I can’t make any election work.”
But can a candidate for governor actually win anything in March 6 caucuses?
Not really. But there will be a record of support in at least one party.*
Unlike in presidential years (but not in 2016) when the Republican Party has held straw polls at the caucuses and tallied up the numbers statewide to see which candidate has the most support, the Republicans won’t be doing so this year for the governor’s race, says Cole, the state GOP spokesman. Some individual precinct caucuses might hold their own informal straw polls about the governor’s race just to gauge interest in candidates, but the party won’t be tallying those numbers up statewide.
On the other hand, the Democrats will be holding a preference poll for candidates in the governor’s race during the caucuses on March 6, says party spokesman Walker. The party will then release the numbers when they have complete information from each county. That means at some point following the caucuses we’ll be able to gauge which candidate racked up the most support in those far-flung neighborhood meetings all across the state.
OK, I’m an unaffiliated voter right now and I’m interested in the governor’s race but I missed the deadline to register with a party. Can I just go to a caucus and watch?
Yes. As stated above, you would have to change your party registration to Democrat or Republican by Jan. 8 if you want to participate.
If you missed the deadline to register by party, that doesn’t mean you can’t still go to a caucus location and observe. They’ll likely let you in, but you won’t be able to involve yourself in the discussions. In the Colorado Springs area, one woman who runs a caucus location is known for making observers keep their shoulders on a chalkboard. If you move your shoulders off the board you’re asked to leave.
Other locations might not be that strict.
This whole precinct caucus process in Colorado … is it good or bad?
That depends on whom you ask.
“Some critics say the party precinct caucus is a poor way to begin the party nominating process in Colorado,” write Colorado College political science professors Tom Cronin and Bob Loevy in their 2012 book Politics and & Policy in Colorado: Governing a Purple State. “Every registered member of a political party can attend his or her party precinct caucus, yet relatively few bother. In some cases, there can be lively discussion and competition between candidates for delegate to the county convention at precinct caucuses, but that is a rare occurrence.”
More from the book:
In many of the precincts, probably a majority, the same party stalwarts dutifully attend the precinct caucus, vote themselves and their friends a trip to the county convention, and adjourn, often without ever discussing which of the various candidates might make the better nominee for office.
“Those who like the current precinct caucus system point out that it places power right where it belongs, and that is in the hands of faithful party members who are sufficiently committed to the party to take the time to attend precinct caucuses, county conventions, and periodically, state conventions,” the authors write.
One unaffiliated voter who will be going to the caucuses to monitor them this year is John Wren, a community activist who came to the defense of the system when periodic efforts to abolish it have flared.
He says he wants more newcomers to Colorado or those new to politics to get involved at this grassroots level because caucuses can sometimes be throttled by entrenched party loyalists who have run them for years and can put their thumbs on the scale.
“The caucus system is meant to magnify the voice of the grassroots not stifle it,” he says.
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated both parties wouldn’t have a preference poll for governor at the caucuses. The Republicans won’t, but the Democrats will.
Photo by Paul for Creative Commons on Flickr.