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).
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.