By Ernest Luning
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
The Democratic Senate primary contest emerged from nearly three weeks of county assemblies with former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff claiming victory among the party’s most committed activists. His opponent, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, maintained the support he showed at precinct caucuses a month ago — enough to make the primary ballot if it holds through the state assembly — and turned his sights toward the August primary, announcing a staggering fundraising total for the first three months of the year.
“Our grassroots campaign is gaining momentum every day,” Romanoff said after 21 counties held assemblies April 10, accounting for nearly half the delegates selected for the state nominating convention next month.
The Romanoff campaign posted gains compared to caucus results in nearly every county that held assemblies last week, including in Denver, Jefferson, Arapahoe, Douglas and Pueblo. In two counties, El Paso and Boulder, support flipped from Bennet to Romanoff. Seven smaller counties — including Rio Grande County in southwestern Colorado, which was one of the state’s last assemblies on Wednesday — threw their support entirely to Romanoff.
All well and good, the Bennet campaign said, but both candidates are going to make the ballot and the primary election — expected to draw as many as 300,000 Democratic voters — is a different ballgame.
“In just a few short months, Michael has built a grassroots operation from scratch,” Bennet campaign spokesman Trevor Kincaid said after the county assemblies concluded. “As Michael continues to travel around the state talking to Coloradans about solving problems and not getting wrapped up in the same old, tired politics, he continues to grow that network of support. We are thrilled with the enthusiasm we saw throughout the state and are looking forward to building on our broad support as we work toward the General Election in November.”
With an eye toward the fall election — expected to cost each candidate as much as $15 million in one of the country’s top targeted Senate contests — the Bennet campaign announced Tuesday it had raised more than $1.4 million in the first quarter, which closed at the end of March. That’s on top of the $4,748,673 Bennet reported raising in 2009, swamping the $629,908 Romanoff raised last year. Reports were due to the Federal Election Commission April 15. At press time, the Romanoff campaign hadn’t yet released its first quarter totals.
Bennet, appointed to the job last January to replace Ken Salazar when he took over at the Department of Interior, drew a challenge from Romanoff last September.
In county after county, Romanoff claimed more support after the assemblies than he had on precinct caucus night March 16, when the party polled Democrats at the neighborhood meetings to begin the delegate selection process. When all the numbers were totaled after caucuses, Romanoff led Bennet statewide with 49.91 percent of the vote to 41.85 percent. Uncommitted votes accounted for 8.16 percent. But by the time all the delegates had been chosen for the state assembly, Romanoff led with just over 57 percent support to Bennet’s 42 percent, with under 1 percent uncommitted.
Either candidate needs the votes of 30 percent of the delegates to the state assembly May 22 in Broomfield, with the top vote-getter winning top line on the August 10 primary ballot. Delegates aren’t bound to a candidate and can vote however they like at the state assembly. (This was demonstrated in 2004 when delegate leader then-Attorney General Ken Salazar took second-place to Mike Miles in the primary contest for the seat Bennet now holds. Salazar went on to trounce Miles in the primary and defeat Republican Pete Coors in the general election.)
By the looks of things, Romanoff won the backing of the uncommitted Democrats while Bennet held steady, but it’s more complicated than that. A combination of threshold requirements at each level plus simple attendance — not all delegates for both candidates showed up at all the assemblies — spelled the difference between the initial preference poll and the candidates’ strength heading into the state assembly.
Here’s a closer look at how the Jefferson County numbers changed from the March 16 precinct caucus through the April 10 county assembly at the Mile Hi Church in Lakewood:
On caucus night, 2,731 Jefferson County Democrats attended precinct meetings and participated in the Senate preference poll. Romanoff won the vote 54.19 percent to 41.60 percent for Bennet with 4.21 percent uncommitted. That means 1,480 supporters voted for Romanoff, 1,136 voted for Bennet, and 115 didn’t state a preference. At each of the county’s 324 precincts, supporters within each group met to select delegates to the county assembly.
Because each candidate (or uncommitted) had to have at least 15 percent support at any individual caucus to win a delegate on to the county assembly, the numbers and percentages started to change. For instance, if one candidate had 70 percent support at a caucus allotted three delegates to the county assembly, and the other candidate and uncommitted each had an even 15 percent, the rules say each would get a single delegate and alternate, diluting the first candidate’s lead. But as things worked out over hundreds of precincts, the delegate allotment comported fairly closely to the results of the preference poll.
Delegates at each level — county assembly up through all the other jurisdictions that nominate candidates, culminating at the state assembly — aren’t pledged to a candidate and can change their votes after being designated.
Out of a total 1,172 delegates and alternates headed to the Jefferson County assembly, Romanoff claimed 637, or 54.34 percent. Bennet had 43.25 percent. Only 35 assembly delegates and alternates — or 0.29 percent — were sent up to the county assembly uncommitted.
By the time the Jeffco assembly rolled around, only 830 of those 1,172 delegates and alternates showed up. Delegates accounted for 587 of the total, posting a better turnout than the 243 alternates (who had less incentive to attend, since they weren’t sure they’d get to vote). At check-in, delegate support had shifted to Romanoff. Counting delegates and alternates, Romanoff claimed 484 votes, or 58 percent and some change, to Bennet’s 342 votes. Four delegates remained uncommitted.
Then, in a complicated procedure that took more than two hours, party officials went about the task of seating alternates in place of delegates who didn’t show. The plan was to replace an absent Romanoff delegate, for instance, with a Romanoff alternate from the same precinct. If that wasn’t possible, a Romanoff alternate from the same house district was next in line. Finally, after much jostling and number-crunching, assembly coordinator Karen Masood passed the list of seated alternates up to county chair Ann Knollman, who alerted house district bosses which alternates made the cut.
Then, based on apportioning by house district, Democrats picked delegates — and alternates — for the state assembly, where Romanoff and Bennet will again vie for support. The final breakdown from Jefferson County was 291 state delegates for Romanoff, or 59.26 percent, and 200 delegates for Bennet, or 40.73 percent. Two county delegates remained uncommitted to the end — not enough to merit even a single delegate based on threshold requirements — including at least one elected official who has pledged neutrality.
In six weeks, the process begins all over again at the state assembly in Broomfield on May 22. If both Romanoff and Bennet pass the 30 percent threshold there, then both will wind up on the primary ballot. If either receives between 10 and 30 percent support, the rules allow the candidate to petition onto the ballot. Falling below 10 percent would bar a candidate from even petition on.
Statewide candidates from either major party need 10,500 valid signatures, including 1,500 from each of the state’s seven congressional districts. Only Democrats can sign nominating petitions for Democrats, and likewise for Republicans.
On that side of the aisle, both former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton and former state Sen. Tom Wiens have said they’re bypassing the Republican state assembly and are circulating petitions to make the primary ballot. Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, who tied with Norton at 37 percent support on caucus night, is pursuing the nomination through the assembly process.
Bennet also said last week he’ll be gathering petition signatures but plans to continue seeking the nomination through the state assembly. Unlike state GOP rules, Democratic Party procedures allow candidates to circulate nominating petitions while at the same time seeking the nomination through the state assembly.