By Anthony Bowe
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
Third party candidates in Colorado are galvanized by grassroots efforts permeating the country this election season.
A large number of so-called alternative candidates have joined a mix of Republicans trying to unseat Democrats by capitalizing on the pulsing tea party movement and a growing number of unaffiliated voters.
The Libertarian Party, for instance, trumpets eleven candidates in Colorado for U.S. senate, congress and governor. The Unity Party of America follows with four candidates, the Green Party has two, and the American Constitution Party has one in the state. Half a dozen independent candidates are also running in 2010.
The Libertarian Party emerged from its state convention on March 20 with the most candidates it has ever fielded in federal races, according to state party chair David Williams Jr. The party will hold primaries in three races — marking the first time Colorado Libertarians will require multiple primaries.
“That’s just indicative of the people’s mood and displeasure with the two party system,” Williams said. “We’ll use the opportunity to educate as many people as possible about the alternative to the two party duopoly that more and more represents big government.
“I think we’ll do historically well in this upcoming election,” he said.
Libertarian primaries will be held in the U.S. senate race between Maclyn Stringer and John Finger, in the gubernatorial race between Jaimes Brown and Dan “Kilo” Sallis, and in the CD 1 race between Clint Jones and Jeffrey Schitter. Five candidates are running unopposed: Curtis Harris in CD 2, Gregory Gilman in CD 3, Jerell Klaver in CD 5, Rob McNealy in CD 6 and Buck Bailey in CD 7.
State primaries will be held Aug. 10.
Unity Party to field three candidates
The Unity Party, established in 2004 as a centrist organization advocating system-wide tax cuts, a balanced budget, and carbon-free energy sources, also inches toward historical achievements. Following 2008 when state and national party chairman Bill Hammons became the first member to get on the ballot, the Unity Party will hold its first national convention in Boulder April 17. Unity membership covers 26 states.
“We’re going to keep moving forth with one foot in front of the other,” said Hammons, who is running again in Colorado CD 2 where he earned 0.6 percent of the vote in 2008.
The party will also field three first-time candidates this year: Mike Nelson, an oil field engineer for congress in CD 4; Ray Roman, an engineering student and substitute teacher for U.S. senate; and Levi Hancock, an oil drilling manager, for governor.
But as the party expands, major roadblocks complicate its viability.
Eight months before Election Day, Hammons said Nelson, Roman and Hancock probably won’t be allowed to appear on the ballot as Unity members because they haven’t been affiliated with the party long enough. Candidates must be affiliated with the Unity Party for at least one year as of the July preceding the election.
Since the Unity Party is only recognized as a Qualified Political Organization, it’s relegated to the same election rules governing independent and unaffiliated candidates.
“They will still be able to appear as write-in candidates, but obviously we’d prefer to have them appear next to the word ‘Unity,’ like I did myself in ‘08,” Hammons said in an email to The Statesman.
In Colorado, parties are allowed to create their own eligibility dates for candidates. Republicans, for instance, only require a candidate be registered 30 days before the earliest county assembly.
The Unity Party is closely monitoring a lawsuit filed by La Plata County Commissioner Joelle Riddle that could make Unity candidates eligible for the ballot before Election Day.
Riddle, who is seeking reelection this year, is claiming in federal court that the state’s candidate eligibility laws unfairly favor political parties. Riddle registered unaffiliated after leaving the Democratic Party last August, but changed her status one month too late to appear on the ballot. Rep. Kathleen Curry, U-Gunnison, who served as speaker pro-tem before leaving the Democrats last year, has joined the suit.
The Riddle suit could be resolved by May, Hammons said.
In the meantime the party is pushing to reach Minor Political Party status, which would allow it to nominate its members for the ballot. To reach that status, like other third parties, Unity must register at least 1,000 people as party members — 800 more than what it has now.
There’s also another way to reach minor party designation for later elections, but it would require Unity members appearing on this year’s ballot to make a strong performance.
“If either of the statewide candidates, Levi or Ray, garners 5 percent of the vote for his office as a Unity Party candidate, we’ll achieve minor party status,” Hammons said. “That would definitely be doable, given the publicity we would gain from our candidates getting onto the ballot this year after all. But again, it’s all up to the Riddle lawsuit at this point.”
Nominating conventions scheduled
The Green Party of Colorado has a member vying for U.S. senate, Bob Kinsey, and another running for congress in CD 1, Gary Swing. Its nominating convention will be held May 1 at the Rialto Theater in Florence.
The American Constitution Party lists Benjamin Goss as a gubernatorial candidate. The party’s convention will take place May 15 at Regis University.
Independents running for office include Jake Segrest for congress in CD 1, and governor candidates Peter Carr, Jason Clark, Rich Hand, Michael Forrester and Kathleen Cunningham.
The best performance among third parties in 2008 came from Libertarian candidate Martin Buchanan in CD 1 with 4.1 percent of the vote. Since then, the Libertarians have netted over 4,000 registered voters and feel momentum building.
“More people see a little bit of success and that success grows and just gets bigger and bigger,” Williams said. “I think the mood of the people is ripe for that snow ball to continue to grow.”
Libertarians may have a friend in the tea party movement. The accumulating public distrust in the Democrats and Republicans in congress have led people to seek a different option this year, several candidates said.
“I honestly believe it’s going to take a Libertarian, an Independent, someone like me, to go to Washington without the arm of the big party that comes around your neck when you get there, puts you in the strangle hold, gives you a noogie on your head, and says, ‘boy it was a really good run and that was a great campaign, but now that your in DC if you want out of the basement, this is the way you have to operate,’” said Stringer, Libertarian candidate for U.S. senate.
While some see the tea party movement as a tool to steer the Republican Party further right, Libertarians see it as an opportunity to gain conservative votes.
“Some Republican candidates and the Republican Party are trying to claim the tea party movement as its own, but it’s not really something you can claim like that,” said Curtis Harris, Libertarian candidate running against incumbent Democrat Rep. Jared Polis in CD 2. “The tea party and 9/12 groups seem to understand the Libertarian message, but it’s the traditional Republicans that don’t always like it.”
The odds are stacked against Harris as he attempts to take out incumbent Polis. To circumvent the gap in a liberal district that includes Boulder, Harris’ strategy is to appeal to independents — representing 37 percent of voters in CD 2 — tea partiers, and Republicans.
“History shows Republicans can’t be elected in this district,” Harris said. “Republicans, on economic issues, they’re not going to have an issue with me. As long as they can relax on the social issues, then they can join me and the independents and we can actually have a shot at beating Jared Polis.”
Third party candidates stress reform
Third party candidates have found an easy target in congress in the desperate hunt for supporters. Libertarians and Unity candidates are bent on reforming congress by adding term limits and stripping power from special interests. With public support for congress regularly falling below 20 percent and controversial initiatives like health care gaining passage, the message is resonating.
“I’m running because I’m tired of what the Democrats and Republicans are doing. The deficit spending is out of control,” said Nelson, Unity Party candidate in CD 4. “Congress is not doing what we elect them to do and almost everyone I talk to agrees with that.”
Nelson is earning support based on his plan to add term limits in congress and forbid former lawmakers from taking the revolving door into lobbying, he said.
Harris’ campaign is based on similar principles. His campaign logo shows the U.S. Capitol struck out with a red line and underneath it reads “Harris Against Congress.” While the logo and slogan are meant to prickle the hairs of political correctness, Harris said he has a plan to transform congress into something Americans can believe in.
“Reform-minded Republicans will be elected across the country this year. If I’m elected I would develop a coalition with those folks and help the young Republicans resist being sucked into the Republican power structure in Washington and actually work for real change for the group,” he said.
Stringer points to Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet as an example of what’s wrong with Washington politics. Stringer attended a forum last fall as an audience member and asked Bennet if he reads all the bills he receives before voting on them.
“He had the gall to say, ‘we don’t have time,’” Stringer said. “That’s the only job they have — to read legislation and pass it. If they don’t have time to read bills, what are they doing there?”
While third party candidates say they’re in it to win it, big money campaigns led by Democrats and Republicans usually trounce smaller groups.
Rep. John Salazar, Democrat in CD 3, and Rep. Betsy Markey, Democrat in CD 4, have already netted near $1 million or more in their campaign coffers. Others such as Polis, Rep. Diana DeGette, Democrat in CD 1, and Rep. Mike Coffman, Republican in CD 6, have raised several times more money than their third party opponents.
Rob McNealy, Libertarian candidate in CD 6, is not daunted. Hailed by his party as having the best chance at making a competitive effort in a race this year, McNealy has raised nearly $15,000 nationwide — more than any other third party candidate in the state.
“I have a great campaign with smart people having fun and donating their time,” McNealy said. “I’ve received checks from all over the country after appearing on over 60 radio shows. People tell me, ‘I wish more politicians sounded like you.”
McNealy’s advantage is his marketing prowess. He owns his own media marketing business and is also getting free help from friends in the same professions.
“I know a lot about marketing, branding, sales, entrepreneurship, business development — and all these skills transfer directly over to politics,” he said.
McNealy is trying to unseat Coffman, who won his seat in 2008 against Democrat Hank Eng by 20 percent in a conservative district that includes parts of Arapahoe, Jefferson, Elbert, Douglas and Park counties. McNealy’s victory strategy centers on unaffiliated voters in the district, which represents nearly 40 percent of voters.
“In a three-way race, you only need about 35 percent of the vote to win. I’m just targeting the unaffiliated voters in my district and not even targeting Republicans or Democrats,” he said.
Some candidates don’t have the luxury of taking time off work to operate a full-fledged election campaign.
“Daily, I bet I get two or three hours in to the congressional race and it depends on my work schedule,” said Nelson, in CD 4.
Nelson works 35 to 45 hours per week as a drilling specialist in oil fields across the Front Range. He’s relying on word of mouth to spread campaign messages advocating for a balanced budget, tighter regulations for congress, secure borders and state sovereignty.
“As a third party candidate right now, the odds are against me. I know that,” he said. “But I do want to bring out some awareness and make the Democrats, Republicans, and Libertarians, realize that there’s people that do not agree with their policies and want change and not the change we’re currently getting.”
Nelson said he was coaxed into running by his 15-year-old daughter, Brigitte.
“I was yelling at the TV — I was watching Fox News or CNN, one of them — I started yelling at it and she looks at me and goes, ‘dad, why don’t you run for congress?’”
Like a handful of third party candidates looking to create change in the political system, Nelson made the commitment.
“I can no longer yell and complain at the TV if I don’t try and make a difference,” he said.