The big shuffle: After the election, Colorado political parties are reorganizing


Following an election, a few things typically happen for political parties: Joy for one, sorrow for another, and self-reflection for all.

In Colorado, party leadership will reorganize in the spring and summer. Reshuffling in the Democratic, Republican, Green and Libertarian parties is already taking shape. And the state could even find itself with a brand new political party. 

This week, Democratic Party Chairman Rick Palacio sent out an email saying he will not run for another term after helming the state party for three terms. “At times we’ve struggled with tides that worked against us but our hard work has also paid off,” he said.

“It’s been six years and I’m ready for a new challenge,” he told The Colorado Independent. His predecessor, Pat Waak, also served three terms.

Since Palacio’s announcement, Aurora Sen. Morgan Carroll, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress against Mike Coffman, said she plans run for the party’s top post.

“Democrats have always been on the side of people— to ensure good wages, retirement security, and defense of our civil liberties,” Carroll wrote in a statement. She blasted Republicans Donald Trump, Congressman Paul Ryan and Senate leader Mitch McConnell as having a “fringe agenda that rewards only the wealthiest people and corporations and creates economic insecurity for everyone else.”

David Sabados, 34, who chairs the Colorado Young Democrats and lives in Denver, will run for first vice chair of the party. He previously ran for party chair two years ago. The first vice chair position is set up to assist the party chair and provide leadership for organizational activities, and also serves as a member of the Democratic National Committee.

“We cannot ignore the divisions in our party when they can in fact be a strength,” Sabados said in his emailed announcement to supporters Wednesday, noting how Sanders won the Colorado caucuses by a wide margin even though Clinton became the national nominee.

“To those who put their hearts and soul into Senator Sanders’ campaign— activists who are fresh or experienced, young or old— I want you to know: I hear you,” he wrote. “I understand your frustrations.”

Party chairs handle the nuts-and-bolts work of recruiting candidates and making sure they are prepared to campaign for office, run the state’s caucuses or primaries, and help drive their party’s message, says Palacio, who adds that fundraising is a top priority and takes up much of the job.

On the other side of the aisle, Republican Party Chairman Steve House is contemplating a run for governor. He could also earn a spot in the Republican National Committee, or stay on as state party chair. But Republican George Athanasopolous, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress against Democrat Ed Perlmutter, says he will run to lead the state GOP regardless. His platform is “Make Colorado Red Again” focused on 2020. An early supporter of Trump, Athanasopolous indicated on a radio program this week that he felt the state party, which has suffered infighting over the years, is balkanized.

“We need all hands on deck,” he said.

The Nov. 8 election provided cover for both parties to claim selective victory— or defeat.

Hillary Clinton won Colorado, and Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet captured re-election. But congressional Republican incumbents stomped their well-funded Democratic opposition and the GOP held its majority in the state Senate. Democrats won a seat on the state board of education, turning that board blue, but Republicans won a statewide regents seat, keeping that board in Republican control.

During the primary season, progressive supporters of Bernie Sanders warred with establishment backers of Clinton. Sanders won the caucuses by nearly 20 points. A #NeverTrump movement flared up in Colorado, which fueled Republican activists to award all the state’s available delegates to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. The party later rallied behind Trump with little drama after the national convention.

Colorado’s third parties might also see changes.

There will be a vote in the summer to retain or elect new co-chairs of the Colorado Green Party. One of them is currently serving on an interim basis because a former co-chair stepped down before the Nov. 8 election.

Last week, Arn Menconi, who ran as the Green Party’s nominee for U.S. Senate this year and got 1.5 percent of the vote, ran for that interim co-chair position— and lost.

He said he left the Democratic Party because the Greens were supposed to stand up for progressive ideals. He says he’ll remain a Green and try to get the party more focused on activism, such as supporting demonstrators at Standing Rock in North Dakota who are fighting an oil pipeline.

The Green Party’s nominee for president, Jill Stein, earned 1.38 percent of the vote on Election Day, though she campaigned in the state, held rallies along the Front Range and garnered media coverage. 

Before the election, some Green Party members debated whether or not to support a universal healthcare ballot measure.

“Because we’re decentralized, there’s no marching orders from the top on these kinds of things and local parties are free to endorse or not endorse,” says co-chair Andrea Merida.

As for the state’s Libertarian Party, members were happy with their presidential nominee Gary Johnson’s showing in Colorado, the state where the national party was formed 1971, says party spokeswoman Caryn Ann Harlos. Johnson, who campaigned in Colorado twice, earned 5.18 percent of the vote here on Election Day, one of his best showings in the nation.

Johnson’s percentage also covered the spread between Clinton and Trump, which Libertarians here see as proof they cut into both parties.

In the run-up to the election, membership in the Colorado Libertarian Party swelled by about 25 percent, Harlos says. The party now has more than 1 percent of registered voters statewide, which allowed its U.S. Senate nominee, Lily Tang Williams, to participate in a much-publicized first debate in August. Williams earned 3.62 percent of the vote on Election Day.

Harlos says her party likely won’t have much drama during its own re-organization at a convention in March when a majority of its leadership positions are up for grabs. The party has gone through three chairs in two years, but that was because chairs chose to step down to run for office or take jobs on campaigns.

But there will be some pressure for the limited-government party moving forward.

“The pressure is now on us: How do we retain these new members?” Harlos said. “It’s a problem, but it’s a good problem we have.”

Also on the horizon: A potentially new third party for Colorado.

The Unity Party, technically called a “qualified political organization,” needs just 24 more members to become an official political party in the state, says its leader, Bill Hammons of Boulder. 

The organization was formed in 2004 to promote term limits and a balanced budget amendment. For the Unity Party to become a qualified political organization, its members must have gone through certain steps to register as an actual political organization with bylaws whose members meet at least once a year and select candidates who will petition to get on the ballot. Once the party has 1,000 members it can become a minor party. 

“Judging from past voter affiliation trends, it’s clear we’ll pass the 1,000-voter minor party threshold well before 2018,” Hammons says.


*CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the Green Party’s re-organizational timeline. There is also currently only one interim co-chair of that party, not two. 

Photo by Poker Photos for Creative Commons on Flickr.