Colorado’s GOP will allow unaffiliated voters to help pick their nominees in the 2018 primaries

On Saturday, Sept. 23, a majority of the Colorado Republican Party’s central committee voted to stay within the bounds of a new law that opens the party’s ballot to voters who are not GOP members. The vote was 67 percent to 33 percent— 175 to 87, says party spokesman Daniel Cole. 

The law creating this new landscape is Prop 108, a statewide ballot measure passed by voters in the 2016 fall elections. And now, for the first time, Colorado’s roughly 1.2 million unaffiliated voters will be allowed to pick a party primary in which they can vote, giving them a chance to help choose who the major political parties nominate for governor and other offices.

In swing-state Colorado, where voter registration is almost evenly balanced among Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters, backers of the measure, including wealthy Denver CEO Kent Thiry who runs the kidney dialysis company DaVita, hoped the new law would bring a moderating force to party primaries and tamp down extremism on both sides.

If politicians didn’t have to pander to the extremes of their parties to win primaries, Thiry reasoned, perhaps they would govern better. Once an unaffiliated voter, Thiry joined the Republican Party and considered running for governor in 2018, but ultimately decided against it.

His Prop 108 initiative passed by about 170,000 votes last November and will be law for the upcoming 2018 elections. Before Prop 108, any unaffiliated voter who wanted to vote in a party primary would have had to temporarily become a member, and then change back to unaffiliated. Now they can remain unaffiliated all the way through, though the primary they choose will become a public record.

But there’s a caveat to the new law.

Prop 108 also provided an escape hatch for parties that don’t want unaffiliated voters getting involved in their early nominating contests. So parties can “opt out” of Prop 108— but only if 75 percent of their central committee votes to do so.

That’s the vote Colorado’s Republican Party took up on Sept. 23. The state GOP’s chairman, Jeff Hays of El Paso County, was strongly against doing that and saw the chances of it happening as extremely low. But, he says, some members within the party were angling for an opt out, and having a discussion about it was worthwhile.

“I’m not a dictator, I’m the party chairman,” Hays told The Colorado Independent. “Part of my job is to facilitate conversations.”

The new law allowing more than 1 million new voters into each party’s primary is expected to impact to the 2018 governor’s race, which is shaping up to become one of the most expensive and closely-watched governor’s races in the country because of its wide-open nature and the big field of star-studded personalities on both sides.

On Saturday, members of the Colorado Republican Party central committee gathered at Englewood High School and voted. In order to opt out, 75 percent of the committee must have be on board. That’s not 75 percent of the people who show up, says party spokesman Daniel Cole, but 75 percent of the whole group— a clear supermajority.

The vote to opt out failed by 67 percent to 33 percent, Cole said Sunday. Another vote to sue over the Prop 108 measure also similarly failed, he said.

Colorado’s Democratic Party chairwoman, Morgan Carroll, says she sees no will within her party to opt out, and so the party won’t even be voting on it.  

Opting out wouldn’t just affect the governor’s race, which includes a sprawling field on both sides. Doing so would have meant the party opts out of all primaries— from the race for governor to congressional seats, and all the way down to legislative races.

Here’s something to think about: Had the Republican Party opted out last year—this is hypothetical— and chosen its congressional nominee by assembly instead of a primary, current GOP Congressman Doug Lamborn who represents the Colorado Springs area would not be in office. That’s because a 32-year-old woman named Calandra Vargas who gave an impassioned speech at Lamborn’s congressional assembly, ended up earning a majority of the votes from delegates at that assembly, even though Lamborn went on to win the primary. So if there had been no primary, there would be no Congressman Lamborn. There would be a Congresswoman Vargas.

A caveat to that hypothetical is that congressional assemblies now are pretty obscure events. But if there were no primary and assemblies were the only avenue to nominate candidates, they wouldn’t be.

What were the arguments for opting out?

Well, doing so would save taxpayer money since county clerks wouldn’t have to mail two ballots out to more than a million voters. No one seems to be actually making that argument so far.

One real argument for opting out was that non-party members just shouldn’t be able to participate in a primary primary in Colorado. So says George Athanasopoulos who ran unsuccessfully for Congress against Democrat Ed Perlmutter of Arvada in 2016, and he also ran for chair of the Colorado Republican Party— a race he lost to Jeff Hays of El Paso County.

Athanasopoulos ran for chair on a platform that if elected he would angle to opt out of Prop 108 or file a lawsuit against it. Hays won— perhaps a referendum on that idea.  

“When I was running for chairman I was making an ideological argument,” Athanasopoulos said before the Sept. 23 vote about Prop 108. “Which was I don’t feel that non-Republicans should get a say on who the Republican Party nominates to carry our standard.”

Coloradans aren’t excited to join political parties, he said, pointing out that unaffiliated voters make up the largest number of registered voters in the state. “That is bad,” he said. “That is not a good thing for the political parties.”

Athanasopoulos was also pushing for something else: Changing the system entirely so any Republican who wants to participate in the assembly process can. Right now, only delegates elected by their peers can cast ballots in a party assembly.

“If we can fill Mile High Stadium with energized Republicans let’s do it,” he said. How could President Donald Trump turn down the chance to speak to nearly 100,000 registered Colorado Republicans, Athanasopoulos wonders. How would any GOP candidate for governor?

But that would mean quite a change to the current system.

Ben Nicholas of the Adams County GOP and another central committee member, had launched a petition drive and a campaign among the state GOP’s central committee for the party to opt out. He would have need 75 percent of the committee’s roughly 500 members.

He sees himself as a representative of the party’s activist base.

“I don’t even know if I’m grass roots,” he said. “I may be below that … just down in the dirt.”

Nichols wasn’t sure what he would walk into in Englewood on Sept. 23, but expected the vote to be closer that what establishment Republicans at the senior level expected.

“There is only one way to save our party and that is to stand and fight this hostile takeover of Mr. Thiry’s tyranny,” part of his petition reads. “Courting the unaffiliated voters should be left to our candidates who win the closed primaries, not the party.”

In an interview with The Independent before the vote, Nicholas said, “I just think it’s going to be the death knell of the Republican Party,” if the GOP doesn’t opt out.

He said during his petition drive he was surprised to learn how many Republicans didn’t even know the party had the option to opt out. His concern is that letting unaffiliated voters cast ballots in the GOP primary will dilute the power of registered Republicans in choosing their nominee, likely adding a moderating influence.

“I don’t think we’re going to end up with a staunch conservative individual that the party would normally select,” he said. “You’re going to get something different than that.”  

Nicholas said he thinks it was his petition drive that spurred the party’s executive committee to ask the larger central committee to decide whether to opt out next month.

What were the arguments against opting out?

Party chairman Hays said since the Democrats won’t opt out the GOP doing so would look like a smack in the face to unaffiliated voters.

“So I think it would be political suicide,” Hays said. And, he said, it would give Democrats ammunition to use against Republicans with independent voters.

Hays doesn’t see unaffiliated voters being allowed to participate in the GOP primary as an existential threat to his party, but rather an opportunity to reach out to them about Republican values and to acquaint them with GOP candidates and ideas. “I think there are a lot of unaffiliated voters, particularly in Colorado, that lean our way anyway,” he says.

Hays, it should be noted, opposed Prop 108. But he says he understands a lot of Republicans must have voted for it since it passed.

In the past month, the very conservative editorial board of The Gazette newspaper in heavily Republican Colorado Springs strongly opposed canceling the GOP primary.

Here’s part of that editorial.

Unaffiliated voters know little about the GOP’s intra-party process. They will only hear how the “central committee” stopped them, or almost stopped them, from voting in a primary. “Central committee” is best known as the ruling body of a communist dictatorship. The central committee’s dictatorial role is to disenfranchise the governed, for the benefit of connected elites within the governing class. That’s how the GOP’s “central committee” will appear, and rightly so.

Meanwhile, Dick Wadhams, a Colorado GOP consulting chieftain, penned a column in The Denver Post arguing against opting out of the primary. “Let there be no mistake about it: If the primary is canceled and nominations are left to a few thousand activists while millions of Republicans and unaffiliated voters are essentially shut out of the process, Republicans will pay politically,” he said.

In a recent email blast from the Colorado GOP, Republican Congressman Ken Buck said he wasn’t quick to come to a conclusion.

“Even though I’ve struggled with this issue, I think it’s best for the Party to move forward and consent to the will of Coloradans,” Buck said. “To disregard the voters would potentially hurt our statewide candidates in the upcoming election and would embody the back-room dealing our party stands against.”

What is the Democratic Party doing?

“We have no intention of opting out of 108,” party chair Morgan Carroll told The Independent. “We are moving forward with the will of the voters and will welcome all unaffiliateds to participate in our primary who want to.”

Unlike the Republicans, the Democrats aren’t going to have a vote to decide it. Carroll says there has been zero interest within her party to do so, and no one requested the central committee even take a vote.

“You have to understand that for us canceling elections is a radical move. And canceling an election would disenfranchise participation of a lot of Democrats as well as unaffiliateds,” she says. “No one in the Democratic Party has any interest in doing it.”

Both party leaders say their decisions show a stark difference in how they operate. Hays, the Republican chair, says considering the question of opting out shows a willingness to debate issues within his own party. “The Democrats aren’t even going to talk about it,” he says.

Carroll says Democrats believe in people participating in elections. For the Republicans, she says, “disenfranchising voters is an option.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misspelled the current GOP chairman’s name. 

Photo by Ludovic Bertron for Creative Commons in Flickr.