Littwin: Is it bigger news that Kennedy won the Dem caucus poll or that Polis lost?

Carry Kennedy and her husband, Saurabh, spoke to Democrats ahead of precinct meetings at Tuesday's Park Hill caucus at the Smiley Middle School in Denver. March 6, 2018. Photo by John Herrick

The preference poll from the Democratic caucuses is in, and the takeaways are pretty obvious. It was a great night for Cary Kennedy, a disappointing night for Jared Polis and a terrible night for everyone else.

And then there’s the most obvious takeaway: It’s March, and history tells us that early caucus results are just that: Early caucus results.

So before we call the still-far-off June primary a Kennedy-Polis showdown, we should note there were only 23,000 Democrats who caucused. There are more than a million active Democratic voters in Colorado, not to mention all those now-eligible unaffiliated voters. What I mean is, you can do the math. And if you can’t, you probably shouldn’t be allowed to vote (h/t Tom Tancredo).

And yet.

We finally have numbers, and I won’t say the results are shocking, but they are a surprise. If the caucuses are supposedly overloaded with those from the party’s activist wing, how did pragmatic, non-ideological, less-than-dynamic Cary Kennedy get half their vote? This should be fertile Polis territory.

It says a lot about the state of Democratic politics in Colorado that, despite Bernie Sanders’ crushing caucus victory in 2016, there’s not a single Bernie supporter in the field. But Polis, even if he did back Hillary Clinton, is a progressive with some strong, unconventional, anti-establishment cred. Just ask any Republican hopeful who plans to run against Polis by branding him as a Boulder lefty.

But now the question is this: Do the actual lefties see him in the same way? I wasn’t sold on that before the caucuses, and I’m a little less sure now. Polis even lost the vote in Boulder.

As we know, Polis lost some credibility with environmentalists when, after being the principal supporter of several anti-fracking initiatives, he dropped them in a compromise with John Hickenlooper — a compromise that didn’t work out so well for his side. I’m not sure that it’s altogether fair to blame him, but it’s politics, so who expects fairness. And now there is the issue of guns — an issue Sanders faced, too — in which Polis has been seen as particularly wobbly on assault weapons. Now that the gun-safety heat is on, he’s co-sponsoring a bill to ban them.

You’d expect — well, I should say I expected — Polis to score big with the base and then use that, along with his huge, self-funding money advantage, to expand his support from there. That’s why he was the favorite going into the caucuses. And, yes, that’s why he remains the clear favorite.

And yet. Again.

This is also supposed to be most wide-open Democratic primary race for governor in decades. One veteran told me it’s the most wide open since Dick Lamm won in the kick-‘em-all-out, Watergate-season election of 1974.

The more contenders who stay alive and credible until the June primary, the better it seems for someone like Polis, who (again, presumably) brings with him the strongest base, meaning if the rest of the field each gets a piece of the rest of the vote, he wins.

So, what happened Tuesday night?

Cary Kennedy gets 50 percent of the vote to Polis’ 33 percent, with single digits for everyone else. The conventional wisdom has been that one candidate needs to emerge from the Cary Kennedy-Mike Johnston-Donna Lynne pack in order for any of them to successfully challenge Polis. And if one did emerge from the pack, we could assume that the Democratic establishment, which doesn’t love Polis, would unite behind that person.

Well, Johnston got 9 percent. He has already collected 22,000 signatures to get himself on the ballot — nearly twice the number needed — and maybe didn’t apply himself to the caucus procedure in the way that Kennedy did. But 9 percent is still 9 percent, and the momentum that seemed to be swinging Johnston’s way just hit a big wall.

Meanwhile, Donna Lynne got 0 percent. That’s because the lieutenant governor didn’t compete in the caucuses. But she didn’t compete, we’d guess, because she’s not competitive, and it’s harder now than ever, with Kennedy’s big vote, to see how she can become competitive.

Heading into the caucuses, Kennedy had more at stake than anyone. All the other major candidates are going the petition route. To get onto the ballot, Kennedy needs to get 30 percent of the vote at the state convention. Even with her non-binding 50 percent in the caucus preference poll, there’s no guarantee she can hit the 30-percent standard. But it’s fair to say she exceeded all expectations, almost certainly including her own. I’m pretty sure potential donors will take notice.

When Kennedy won the state treasurer’s job in 2006, she appeared to be one of the state Democrats’ rising stars. That’s about the same time that Andrew Romanoff was considered a rising star. Stuff happens. After one term, Kennedy lost to Walker Stapleton, now the front-runner for the GOP nomination for governor, and losing has a way of messing with your luster.

For Polis, it’s not a matter of luster, but one of momentum. If you’re the early, overwhelming favorite and you lose the first time they count votes, that matters. It matters less in Polis’ case because he doesn’t rely on donors. He’s his own donor.

But people like to vote for winners. And Polis, who already faced the burden of persuading Democrats he was the strongest candidate in November, now has to also persuade them that he’s the strongest candidate in June. And what the caucus vote did, more than anything else, was to present Cary Kennedy as a viable alternative.

Photo of Cary Kennedy at March 6 Democratic caucus by John Herrick.


  1. Perhaps, it has not dawned on you that the left wing of the Democratic Party had given up and withdrawn from the party. Some, like me, formally left the party and are registered as unaffiliated or with the third party. Others simply don’t believe that participation in the party is worth the time anymore.

  2. James, I’m sure that is true that some of the left have abandoned the Democrats. But I haven’t seen numbers to suggest any kind of wholesale departure. The polls seem to show increased Democratic enthusiasm about November election.

  3. I think one of the truly surprising outcomes was how poorly Mike Johnston did. I know he wasn’t putting effort into the caucus process, but I live in his old senate district, and he didn’t get a single vote in my precinct. In fact, Cary won all the votes. She is well-liked by people who follow politics. She won in suburban counties such as Arapahoe and Jeff co; she won in more rural counties like Alamosa and Mesa, and she won in Denver and El Paso. She beat Polis in Boulder. I know that winning at the convention and winning the primary are different (think Romanoff v. Bennet), but Cary has shown she has support across the state.

  4. The next phase is contacting and swaying the delegates to county convention. The preference vote guides, but is not certain, as delegates are not bound to a campaign. In my precinct, one of the three able and willing to go to the county convention (and elected by acclamation to one of the 3 delegate slots)spoke up for Ginsberg and voted for him in the preference poll.

    I’m sure both Kennedy and Polis have organizational representatives with experience appealing to delegates — I think it would be interesting to talk with some of the delegates to see how they are being approached by the various candidates in the next few weeks.

  5. I caucused in Denver for Mike Johnston and was very surprised at the hostility shown towards him by Cary Kennedy’s supporters. Their information was way off base (they accused him of taking money from the NRA and PACs ) and delivered in a nasty tone. The Polis supporters were lukewarm to the point of falling asleep. I think Kennedy sees Johnston as more of an opponent than Polis. My first caucus and probably my last … these were hardcore knife-fighting political junkies.

  6. Yeah. Andrew Romanoff won big in the caususes. Then what.
    My impression was that most people were voting based on name familiarity more than actual knowledge of candidates’ experience or positions. (I.e.: I’m for Polis because he’s anti-fracking”…?!??!)
    Most of my precinct didn’t even know who Mike Johnston was.

  7. In the caucus for the last presidential race, voters were still entering the building when the vote was counted and closed.
    This year, only two candidates had name recognition. The party website gave little helpful information. As a result, I didn’t go. How do you chose the best candidate from a field of unknowns? What good is it to caucus if you get in the door after the vote?

  8. At our precinct, Kennedy won all 3 delegates. The person who spoke FOR Johnston (who was our state senator) was all aglow about what he did with SB191. Alas, that’s why many folks who care about education are not inclined towards Johnston.

  9. as Eileen says – Johnston’s position on education suggests he is really a Republican aligned with DeVos and others of that ilk. There were several teachers in my caucus precinct, all of whom were strongly opposed to Johnston. Noel Ginsburg is very appealing on education but not sure he has any chance in the race. I spoke for Kennedy..

  10. Johnston aligned with DeVos? Far from it.
    1. Mike established innovative mechanisms to expand the funding for early childhood education across the state which ensure that taxpayers only pay for successful programs.
    2. He sponsored the READ Act which provided $20 million to school districts for additional literacy support programs including full-day kindergarten. Since that legislation, the percentage of K-3 students on track to become proficient readers increased from 60% to 74%.
    3. Mike fought for resources our schools needs through the Student Success Act, which allowed for the largest single investment in K-12 in state history and provided a financial transparency system so every parent and teacher could know exactly how their tax dollars are spent.
    4. After 13 years of failed attempts, Mike led the charge to pass the ASSET bill – Colorado’s DREAM act – to allow undocumented kids access to in-state tuition.

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