Next Tuesday, neighbors will meet at schools, gymnasiums, libraries, fire stations and other public spaces throughout Colorado where they’ll choose delegates to represent both major parties and provide a handful of gubernatorial hopefuls a sense of whether anyone really wants to support their candidacy.
In a way, the caucuses are the start of a road that could earn candidates like Republican gubernatorial hopefuls Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, Stephen Barlock, Lew Gaiter and Greg Lopez, and Democrat Cary Kennedy a spot on their respective primary ballots. It’s their best shot to secure a place among candidates who’ve raised more money — and to separate themselves from the pack.
The Secretary of State’s most recent primary election candidate list includes 20 people vying for the governor’s office. Right now, it’s an even split, though it hardly represents an even playing field: Both major parties are represented by 10 candidates on a list with 34 gubernatorial candidates “active” overall, including third-party candidates like Green Party, American Constitution, Unity Party and unaffiliated candidates.
Former Colorado Republican party chairman and current political consultant Dick Wadhams said candidates trying to get their name on the ballot through the caucus process — as opposed to submitting thousands of petitions — often have not raised enough money to successfully petition, leaving them with the caucus process as their only viable option.
The caucuses’ primary goal is to elect delegates and alternates to represent a precinct on the county level, but their results can start providing some insight into who voters are most interested in possibly nominating as the party’s candidates. You can find your local Republican caucus here and your local Democratic caucus here.
The caucus process is one of two ways that Democratic and Republican gubernatorial candidates can ensure their names appear on the primary ballot. It’s also the most cost-effective way — petitioning is more expensive.
To successfully petition for the primary, each candidate must collect 1,500 signatures from registered voters from their party in each of the state’s seven districts. The 10,500 signatures must be submitted by March 20.
“If you fall short in one district, you’re not on the ballot,” Wadhams said. “So it’s a very high bar and it’s a very expensive process, too.”
He said there are three Republican candidates taking the petitioning route — and staying out of the caucus fray: Victor Mitchell, Colorado Treasurer Walker Stapleton and Doug Robinson.
On the Democratic side, Noel Ginsburg, former State Senator Mike Johnston and U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, have all publicly announced they are either considering or following both the petitioning process and participating in caucus. Johnston last week became the first candidate to submit signatures. Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, a Democrat, appears on the Secretary of State’s online list of petitioning candidates with forms approved.
Independent political analyst Eric Sondermann said Kennedy appears to be the only candidate among Democratic frontrunners pursuing a caucus-only route.
“That’s likely to pay off her given that she’s the only one pursuing that process,” Sondermann said.
If it’s so much cheaper, why wouldn’t you use the caucus process?
For candidates like Polis, participating in both methods provides a failsafe. But it’s not foolproof.
A candidate who successfully submits enough petitioning signatures but fails to earn at least 10 percent of votes in the state assembly is automatically eliminated from primary contention, according to Secretary of State communications director Lynn Bartels. A candidate could still run as a write-in, Bartels added.
Sondermann said that in this case, it’s a minimal risk.
“The risk is very low,” Sondermann said. “Even in a worst-case scenario, Polis (can earn) 10 percent.”
The caucus process also poses some possible challenges for candidates, which are the primary reasons Mitchell, Stapleton and Robinson are favoring the petitioning process, Wadhams said. Voters attending caucuses tend to lean farther the from political center.
“These are your hardcore activists, these aren’t your run-of-the-mill (voters),” Wadhams said.
Delegates chosen to represent their precinct will vote at county conventions that must take place by March 31. Those delegates select representatives for the state assembly, which takes place April 14. The assembly in April will include votes for state office including governor, attorney general and treasurer.
So the assembly in April is a key date for candidates who focused on earning the party’s primary nomination through the caucus process. A candidate must earn at least 30 percent of the votes at the state assembly to appear on the primary election ballot. Wadhams said this means that three candidates could theoretically earn enough votes to appear on the ballot, but that’s highly unlikely. Two candidates earning enough votes is the most likely outcome.
Coffman — who originally sought ballot access through petitions but recently abandoned that strategy — is the most likely candidate to secure a primary ballot appearance through the state assembly, Wadhams said, in part because she’s a statewide elected official. Coffman’s office confirmed in an email that she’s pursing ballot access through the assembly process.
There’s always a chance for an upset. Wadhams said that it’s possible another candidate delivers a stirring speech, for example, shifting support.
“Anything can happen at the state assembly,” Wadhams said in an email.
Why are so many people running for governor?
The crowded gubernatorial race is reflective of a national trend, University of Denver professor Seth Masket said. Masket is also director at DU’s Center on American Politics.
“This is happening all over the country. We’re seeing a record number of people running for office,” Masket said.
The trend is especially true for Democrats, who Masket said appear motivated by “national events,” (or Trump, for short).
“(It’s) got them energized, animated,” Masket said. “Democrats are seeing the fruits of that, in that you get a lot of people interested. Simultaneously to that, I think that the kind of messages of party leaders aren’t being taken as seriously as they used to.”
Having so many candidates could be beneficial to Polis, since multiple candidates can help create more division and provide him with a better path toward winning, Masket said.
In Colorado, there haven’t been any major candidate shake-ups in the gubernatorial race apart from Republican and former Congressman Tom Tancredo’s decision to drop out of the race in January. Democratic hopeful Mike Johnston made a splash last week when he became the first candidate to submit nomination petitions, according to Colorado Politics. Johnston followed up the feat with a 30-second video ad calling out gun lobbyists and calling for the ban of military-style firearms, just two weeks after the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
Here’s who’s still running, according to the Secretary of State’s website.
Renee Evette Blanchard
Moses Carmen Humes
Michael Erwin Schroeder
Erik Monroe Underwood
Erich Daniel Braun
Jim Lennart Rundberg