The Centrist Project, a national group that hopes to get unaffiliated candidates elected to the Colorado legislature next year, won a race and lost two during its first test-run attempt to influence three local nonpartisan city elections.
The group backed the incumbent mayor of Manitou Springs, Nicole Nicoletta, who lost by 30 percentage points on Tuesday, and also an unsuccessful candidate for Lakewood City Council, Charles Davis, who lost by nine. But the group dodged a full strikeout when Thornton City Councilman Sam Nizam won his re-election with 39 percent of the vote among two other candidates. All three races were nonpartisan and The Centrist Project backed candidates who are registered as unaffiliated voters.
The Centrist Project chooses independent candidates to support as long as they pledge to seek common ground, follow facts where they lead when voting on legislation, are pro-growth while fiscally and environmentally responsible, and socially tolerant. But the group has said the most important factor is candidates 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,” Centrist Project director Nick Troiano told The Colorado Independent in June after the group moved its national headquarters to Denver.
Asked about the project’s record in its first test run at the local level, Troiano brushed off the losses. “We’re going to win some and lose some,” he said. “We’re in it for the long term.”
In Manitou Springs, a typically sleepy local election took on the fraught air of a big-ticket battle when The Centrist Project plowed at least $8,000 behind Nicoletta with a series of slick, glossy mail advertisements and phone calls to voters. It was a kind of professionalized outside effort that residents of the tight-knit mountain town of 5,000 weren’t used to on behalf of local candidates. For comparison on the money front, Nicoletta herself says she spent less than $2,000 on her race. Her opponent, attorney Ken Jaray, reported spending about $6,000 through Oct. 12 when he filed his latest report. The Centrist Project’s spending on behalf of Nicoletta leveled the financial playing field significantly— at the time it made up roughly 50 percent of spending in the entire race— though Nicoletta says she did not coordinate with the group. Also, because of state disclosure requirements for so-called small-donor committees, voters won’t know where the money came from to fund the ads beyond that it was spent by The Centrist Project until after the election when the group reports it in January.
While The Centrist Project played a low-key role in Thornton, The Centrist Project’s election engine worked directly with the candidate, which it did not do in Lakewood and Manitou.
In Lakewood, it ran digital ads. In Manitou Springs it ran a different campaign. When three separate professionally produced Nicoletta advertisements hit mailboxes two weeks before the election around the time ballots dropped, with a “paid-for” designation by The Centrist Project Election Fund and a Denver address, the outside group quickly took center stage in the race.
Both the incoming mayor and the outgoing mayor acknowledged The Centrist Project played an outsized role in the election.
“I think it was very divisive,” says Jaray.
“I was surprised that people were upset as they were,” Nicoletta says about those who reacted negatively to the group’s efforts in Manitou. “I was surprised that they didn’t see any value in the messaging that was put out there by The Centrist Project.”
A week before Election Day, a front-page headline in the local Pikes Peak Bulletin read “Outside funding in mayoral race stirs up controversy.” Inside, a guest columnist’s headline read “Keep outside money out of Manitou!” Another entire page was dedicated to The Centrist Project’s influence, penned by a different guest columnist under the headline “Outside interference in our mayoral election.”
The group’s involvement also bubbled up in a public forum, which led Nicoletta to publish a lengthy letter in The Colorado Springs Independent alt-weekly, which endorsed her, responding to questions about her proximity to The Centrist Project. (The weekly paper also re-published a piece about The Centrist Project’s spending in the race by The Colorado Independent.)
Former Manitou Springs City Councilman John Shada, who voted for Jaray, talked about having a contest for the town’s big Halloween bash on the main drag to see who could best dress up as “the man behind the curtain” getting involved in his town’s local nonpartisan election.
“Small communities don’t like outside meddling,” Shada says. He added, “The Centrist Project needs to watch out when they dip their toe into a small but solid community like Manitou Springs.”
Responding to the reaction of his group’s presence in the race, Troiano, who personally knocked on doors for Nicoletta, says The Centrist Project Election Fund ran a positive campaign on the mayor’s behalf. He says early polling the project conducted found her support lower than what she ended up getting on Election Day, so he thinks the group had a positive impact.
He says there is “nothing to hide” and there is no man behind a curtain.
“We did this in a transparent way, this isn’t a dark money group with a different name operating out of a P.O. box,” Troiano says. “We disclosed who we were. I got calls and emails that I answered from people who had questions.”
That may be, but voters in Manitou Springs still don’t know who paid for the ads and have to take Troiano’s word for it when he promises all the money was raised within Colorado.
In a late October interview with The Colorado Independent Troiano also wouldn’t say what other municipal races his group was getting involved in at the time.
He now says that was because the group was still firming up its support and wasn’t ready to discuss it. The Centrist Project Election Fund, a committee set up in October, only disclosed spending money in the Manitou Springs race. But following the election, Troiano confirmed The Centrist Project also helped candidate Nizam in Thornton with strategy, messaging and connecting him to campaign vendors. The Centrist Project also did some targeted digital advertising in the race, Troiano says, but either because of the timing or the amount of money the group spent, “I don’t think it’s publicly disclosed yet.”
For his part, Nizam credits The Centrist Project for helping him as an indy candidate with the basics of running a campaign against others with institutional party support. “You might think a local election is nonpartisan but it’s far away from being that,” he says, noting labor unions and oil-and-gas interests got involved in the race.
As for the local election in Lakewood, in a pair of interviews shortly before and after the election, Troiano didn’t mention that his group was involved. The Centrist Project efforts in that race were mentioned in one line in a post-election story about Nizam’s win in Thornton in ColoradoPolitics.com. “It was a very, very minor targeted digital spend,” Troiano said of his group’s efforts in Lakewood in a third post-election interview. “We spent a few hundred dollars on digital ads.”
Following The Centrist Project’s 2-1 loss-win record this week, the group is now focused on recruiting unaffiliated candidates and training ones it already has on board to run for seats in the statehouse next year. Their hope is that with a split legislature and slim margin of party control if just a handful of unaffiliated candidates can get elected they could control the balance of power at the statehouse and not be beholden to political parties. And, says Troiano, if The Centrist Project wins just one out of three races at the state level next year, “politics fundamentally changes in Colorado.”
Their future efforts, though, worries Colorado Democratic Party spokesman Eric Walker who knows elections for the state House and Senate can be sometimes won or lost by just a handful of votes. And while The Centrist Project says it has no plans of running someone for governor, Walker hopes they keep it that way. If immigration firebrand Tom Tancredo winds up as the GOP nominee, he worries a Democratic candidate and an unaffiliated one making reasonable proposals could split the vote.
Says Walker: “That’s how we got LePage in Maine, Trump in the White House, and how we could get Tom Tancredo in Colorado.”