Cary Kennedy crushed the Colorado caucuses. What that means and what comes next.

Carry Kennedy spoke to a room of about 50 from her precinct. She later picked up 3 delegates at Tuesday's Park Hill Democratic caucus at the Smiley Middle School in Denver. March 6, 2018. Photo by John Herrick

Democrats in Colorado finally got a snapshot— if only through a very small aperture— showing who the most hardcore activists in their party seem to prefer in the big, wide-open race for governor on Wednesday: Cary Kennedy.

But it’s merely the first step in Colorado’s steeplechase early nominating contest that culminates in the June 26 primary, an election in which Democrats have many choices.

Tuesday night, though, Kennedy, the former state treasurer, hauled in 11,583 votes that made up 50 percent of the statewide tally from precinct caucuses in neighborhoods from all four corners of Colorado. Her win gave her an 18 percent lead over second-place finisher Congressman Jared Polis, whom Kennedy beat in his home county of Boulder by about 10 percentage points.

Three other Democrats, former State Sen. Mike Johnston, businessman Noel Ginsburg, and entrepreneur Erik Underwood, also participated in the caucuses. Democratic Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, who is also running for governor, did not.

About 23,000 Democrats showed up to precinct caucuses across the state. That figure makes up about 2 percent of all Democrats statewide. The turnout this year was higher than the midterm caucuses in 2010 and 2014, according to state party chairwoman Morgan Carroll.

Here was the caucus vote breakdown with 96 percent of precincts reporting, according to the Colorado Democratic Party:

Cary Kennedy (50%)

Jared Polis (32.5%)

Mike Johnston (8.8%)

Uncommitted (6.5%)

Noel Ginsburg (1.7%)

Erik Underwood (0.4%)

How important is Kennedy’s caucus win?

For Kennedy, the big win was critical since she’s going all in, banking her candidacy on the risky grassroots caucus-assembly process to get her name on the June primary ballot.

Those who committed to her at the caucuses will be selected as delegates to carry her banner to the April state assembly where another more important straw poll will take place. At the assembly, candidates need to get 30 percentage points from the thousands of Democrats in attendance in order to get on the ballot, unless they have gathered enough signatures to petition directly on.

Related: How does the caucus-assembly and petition process work in Colorado?

Unlike Kennedy, her Democratic rivals Polis, Lynne, former state Sen. Mike Johnston and businessman Noel Ginsburg are gathering the many signatures needed from voters across the state to get their names directly onto the ballot. (Here’s a catch: If a candidate has enough petitions to get on the ballot, but also decides to go through the assembly, that candidate needs to get 10 percent or higher or he or she cannot be on the June ballot.)

Because Kennedy put all her chips in this grassroots process, her 50 percent showing at the caucuses puts in her in a comfortable position. If she had snagged less than 30 percent, the next step in this winding process to the ballot would have put her bid in peril.

Johnston’s campaign, which did not put significant resources into trying to win over caucus-goers and instead focused on gathering petitions around the state, downplayed his third-place caucus-night finish.

“Our path to the ballot has always been through the petition process,” Johnston’s campaign manager Elissa Kim said in a statement. “And in fact, we turned in nearly as many signatures as there were people at caucus last night.”

On Tuesday, both Kennedy and Johnston caucused at the same location— a Denver middle school.

What were some Democratic voters saying at the caucuses?

Andrew Hershberger, a creative director who lives in the Republican-heavy northwest suburbs of Colorado Springs, was illustrative of several Democratic caucus-goers at Eagleview Middle School who were split between Kennedy and Polis.

“It’s kind of like my heart’s with Cary, my head’s with Polis, acknowledging the fact that he’s got a really powerful high-energy campaign,” he said. “I’m torn … I think generally Democrats are pumped that we have so many Democrats to choose from.”

Hershberger, along with seven others, ended up committing to Kennedy. Five in his precinct remained uncommitted, he said, and no one went for Polis or Johnston.

Earlier, a young woman who was one of the handful of uncommitted Democrats in the room and asked not to be identified, explained her thinking to the group.

“As someone who’s undecided and looking at both angles I am concerned Johnston will pull away from the Cary Kennedy camp,” she said. “And if the independents vote in the primaries, which constitutes one-third of the entire state— so basically the independents decide our elections— I’m curious if they’re going to stand behind Jared or if they’re going to stand behind a Johnston or a Kennedy. Because I think fundamentally those are the two categories that we’ll see isolated.”

Related: Unaffiliated? You can vote in this year’s primaries for governor for the first time

The woman said she has a lot of Christian friends who are unaffiliated. They don’t like President Donald Trump, she said, but she worries they might have hang-ups about Polis. “Jared’s kind of a whack-a-doo in some ways, right?” she said, perhaps a nod to his reputation as an out-of-the-box politician.  

But there was another reason one Democratic voter at a caucus in Lakewood told Colorado Public Radio he was voting for Polis. “I feel like we need more representation,” he said. “I just feel like having someone like him in office might balance out that equality that we need. And deal with some of these issues, at, like, an in-your-face level. Because he’s there and you can’t hide when somebody is your governor and gay.”

David Folge, a Colorado Springs millennial, said he voted for Johnston in his precinct caucus— it was his first time caucusing— because he liked the candidate’s idealism when he saw him speak at a local library in which he talked about navigating the changing nature of Colorado in decades to come. 

Dozens of voters in precinct caucuses around the state told reporters they weren’t sure who might have the best shot at winning the governor’s race in the fall. Topics Democrats discussed in caucus groups ranged from green energy to gun control, public schools vs. charter schools, and partisanship, among others. 

Out on the Western Slope, at one precinct caucus in Grand Junction, a group went 50-50 for Polis and Kennedy, citing Polis’s position on banning bump stocks and funding full-day kindergarten and Kennedy’s personality.

“Kennedy’s really approachable and listens and Jared Polis is too much of a career politician,” a second-time caucus-goer told a reporter.

Republicans did not hold a statewide straw poll for their own broad gubernatorial primary. Instead, they spent the evening choosing delegates to represent politicians running for local offices.

But at a Republican caucus at Eagleview High School, El Paso County Republican Party director Cassandra Sebastian told those gathered in a classroom why she is working for the party.

“We’re making sure that Governor Polis doesn’t [happen],” she said. “If you haven’t met Jared Polis yet Google him and your heart will stop for about five minutes, let’s just say that. If you think that Hillary Clinton was scary, Jared Polis is like times 10 of Hillary Clinton … So we have eight nominees for governor, they’re all very good choices and [unless we want] a Governor Polis we have to do a better job this year.”

Now that the caucuses are over what happens next?

With the caucuses behind them, some in the Democratic field for governor will have a chance to battle it out again— and like the caucuses, it looks like it’s shaping up as a showdown between Kennedy and Polis.

Before the state convention, though, comes a series of county assemblies. There, all the delegates who were selected at their precinct caucuses get winnowed down for selection as delegates to the April state assembly.

The Democratic state assembly, held Saturday, April 14 at the First Bank Center in Broomfield, is a gathering of thousands of state delegates who will cast an official vote for candidates for governor. The stakes are much higher here, because if Kennedy does not get 30 percent of the vote, she will be out of the race because, again, she chose not to gather petitions. The stakes are also high for Polis. If he doesn’t get 30 percent of the vote, he can still use his petitions to get on the ballot. But if he doesn’t crack 10 percent, those petitions don’t matter— he can’t be on the ballot.

Also going through the assembly is Erik Underwood— and for him, the process could kill his campaign. In 2016, he ran for the U.S. Senate in Colorado as a Republican, where he got six votes at the state assembly. In the March 6 Democratic caucuses, he picked up only 95 votes out of 23,000 cast. Because he’s putting it all on the line at the assembly, he’ll get bounced from the race if he doesn’t clear 30 percent of support.*

Ginsburg, a first-time candidate, civic leader in Denver and the CEO of Intertech Plastics, initially said he would petition onto the ballot, but switched gears in February, saying he would also go through the caucus-assembly process.

But on the evening of March 6, he only earned 1.7 percent of the vote, or about 400 votes of 23,000 cast. “Obviously we’re disappointed in the results,” he told The Colorado Independent. But, he said, his plan is still to go to next month’s assembly, even though it’s a massive risk.

“We know the rules,” he chuckled while acknowledging the 10 percent do-or-die threshold.

Of course, he could always decide closer to the assembly date not to go through with it.

“I can’t tell you one way or another what our ultimate strategy will be,” he said. “We want to just make very thoughtful decisions.”


*CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the percentage a candidate needs to clear the assembly. 

Photo and video by John Herrick