Why this US Senate race is unusual for Colorado

Steve Slater


Colorado’s professional left calls it the clown car. State Democrats blast out a news release denoting the latest announced candidate as “lucky number 13.”

We’re talking about the crowded, rollicking, diverse Republican primary where a dozen or so candidates are all hoping to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet in the fall.

But they’re doing it a little differently this year by Colorado’s own standards.

In the Centennial State, there are three ways to get on the ballot if you want to run for U.S. Senate. One is to get your supporters elected as delegates through the precinct caucuses and up through the county conventions. Then delegates battle out a bloodsport at the state assembly where their preferred candidates need 30 percent of the vote to stay alive. That means only three of them can possibly emerge, but likely it’ll be just one or two. 

Colorado also allows candidates to bypass these grassroots meat grinders, though, by gathering enough signature petitions to put them directly on the ballot. That way they don’t have to subject themselves to the whims of the party’s most dedicated activists. A third option is to try both, but that’s risky. If a candidate doesn’t crack 10 percent at the state assembly, it won’t matter how many signatures they have in their back pocket. He or she won’t be allowed on the ballot. 

Right now there are about a dozen candidates in the U.S. Senate race. This large herd will eventually thin out — somewhat. The field looks likely to split into two directions for a chance at the nomination, with one group going through the caucus-assembly process and the other vying for a direct shot on the ballot.

That’s pretty intense, and unusual in this state,” says Ryan Lynch, the director of the Colorado Republican Party. “This could be a very unique U.S. Senate primary for Republicans in Colorado.”

So far, the candidates officially petitioning on the ballot are wealthy Colorado Springs businessman Robert Blaha, former NFL quarterback Jack Graham, ex-State Rep. Jon Keyser, Aurora City Councilman Ryan Frazier, and Jefferson County Commissioner Don Rosier.

So many candidates choosing the signature route in a U.S. Senate primary is something unprecedented in contemporary Colorado politics.

And here’s where things get really interesting. There are rules for the signature collecting process in Colorado. Those who sign them must be registered Republicans for at least 29 days prior, and they must live in the congressional district where they signed. 

Signature gathering is also expensive, with candidates expecting to pay around $40,000 to have folks fanned across the state trying to gather enough petitions in time for the April deadline. 

There are a handful of political consulting firms that do this kind of work in Colorado, though there might be more from out of state this year. A presidential election cycle and the potential for plenty of ballot initiatives could keep these kinds of workers busy.

But no matter how many signature collectors are working for these five U.S. Senate candidates, they will still be running up against simple math — and time.

The candidates going the petition route have to collect at least 1,500 signatures from registered Republicans in each of Colorado’s seven congressional districts. And once someone signs a petition for one candidate his or her signature cannot count for another.

In at least two districts, candidates will have their work cut out for them. 

Congressional District 1 and Congressional District 2 encompass the greater Denver and Boulder areas respectively, which are hardcore Democratic strongholds. 

So starting now, five candidates will have to crisscross those two districts, each trying to find 1,500 registered Republicans apiece who will agree to sign their petition for candidacy.

Consider it the primary within the primary. And the campaigns better get moving quickly.

Those are historically the challenging districts,” says Republican strategist Josh Penry, a consultant who runs a signature-gathering business and has been approached by several campaigns though he says he hasn’t signed with one yet.

Because there are few dense pockets of conservatism in those districts — asking people to sign outside a Whole Foods in Denver might be fun to watch — signature collectors will rely on registration and campaign data to target specific voters where they live.

You go door to door with an iPad with a list of registered Republicans,” says Patrick Davis, a longtime GOP consultant who was political director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee and is now running Blaha’s Super PAC. “You knock on doors at night and get them to sign the petition.”

Some Republican activists in Colorado might look askance at the block of petition candidates as if they’re snubbing grassroots conservatives in the caucus-assembly system, but big names in conservative circles have played the outside game in recent years including Tom Tancredo, Mike Coffman and Bob Beauprez.

“For those who want to make the argument that this is somehow a reflection of a candidate who doesn’t have conservative support, I would point to those very recent examples who have gotten on the primary election ballot and won their primary ballot by seeking ballot access by petition,” says Denver lawyer Ryan Call, who was the past chairman of the state GOP. “Not only is that a perfectly legitimate and acceptable method to get on the primary ballot under our party rules and state law, it has often proven a path to success for conservative candidates in Colorado in the past.”

Another feature of having such a stampede of petitioning pachyderms means that by the June primary there will likely still be plenty of names on the ballot. Colorado doesn’t do runoff elections for U.S. Senate, so whoever wins will only need a mere plurality of votes. With the votes splintered among half a dozen or so candidates, someone could potentially win with relatively low support— like around 15 percent. 

Says Call: “With such a crowded field you may end up getting a situation with a very small percentage ultimately picking the nominee.” 

Oh yeah, and about that clown car reference from the left. It’s a pop at the large field, which Democrats expect will bloody up the candidates in a “divisive and damaging primary,” as stated in a recent news release.

The state GOP’s Lynch counters that the large field merely shows his party doesn’t have anointed candidates.

Michael Bennet is so vulnerable that this many people are willing to stand up for the opportunity to take him on,” he says. 


Photo credit: Steve Slater via Flickr