Even as one of Colorado’s liveliest election seasons in memory begins to heat up in the key battleground state, Democratic precinct caucuses on March 6 promise to be mostly quiet occasions this year.
Democrats don’t have a single contested race at the top of the ticket, and there won’t even be the usual statewide buzz over caucuses on Tuesday, since Republicans moved theirs ahead by a month in order to weigh in more prominently in the GOP presidential race. On top of that, nearly every precinct in the state has been redrawn this year to reflect once-a-decade reapportionment, so it’ll be a chore making sure even the Democrats who want to caucus make it to the right location.
Still, it’s a legal requirement that major parties in Colorado hold the biennial neighborhood meetings, and, even without major contests, there are a raft of local primaries brewing and plenty of party business to conduct. And the Obama campaign is urging supporters to caucus in order to spark participation in a state that could help determine whether the president wins a second term.
In addition to naming precinct leaders and recruiting election judges, Democrats will be electing delegates to a series of higher assemblies and conventions (in a presidential year, the party also holds conventions at each step leading to the presidential nomination), and those delegates will have a say in nominating candidates for everything from county commissioners to the president.
Democratic officials acknowledge it’s an uphill battle to turn out caucus-goers this year.
During a training session for Jefferson County precinct leaders this week in Wheat Ridge, Jeffco Democratic chair Chris Kennedy said calls to party loyalists are sometimes met with a skeptical response.
“‘You’re having a caucus? I thought the Republicans already did theirs, and that’s the only one that matters,’” he’s heard some Democrats are saying.
State party spokesman Matt Inzeo conceded that last month’s high-profile Republican caucuses did mange to divert the spotlight from the Democrats’ more convivial gatherings.
“We haven’t seen the type of attention paid to this that we have in previous years,” he said, admitting that a dearth of publicity “could have an effect, in terms of the raw numbers.” But he added that the party anticipates that hard-core Democrats will show up.
“When it comes to the folks who volunteer for us and help make the party run at the local level, we know they’re going to be there,” Inzeo said. “We don’t have to worry about the folks in a particular community, in a particular county, working at cross purposes — we’re already working together.”
To help Democrats determine their redrawn precincts and find where to caucus, Inzeo pointed to an online precinct locator on the main page of the party’s website at www.coloradodems.org.
The absence of any statewide primaries should make for caucuses with “a very different flavor,” Inzeo suggested.
“The big thing we have is a very different tone to these caucuses than in a very long time,” he said. “There’s always been some element of contest to these in the past. This is the rare year where, even at the very beginning of this process, we can say Democrats are unified. We know what our goals are, who we’re going to be fighting alongside. Fundamentally, we have our ballot set and we’re ready to go.”
For the first time in memory — the last time there wasn’t a Democratic primary for president, senator or governor was 1994, when Gov. Roy Romer sought a third term — Colorado Democrats don’t have to chose any high-profile races this year. In fact, the only statewide candidates on the ballot will be for president and CU Regent at-large, and the Democratic incumbents are running unopposed in both races.
Without any marquee primary contests, Democrats likely won’t see the crowds that thronged to take sides in the 2010 Senate primary between U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff or the even bigger crowds that swamped caucus sites four years ago, when then-U.S. Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton turned out record numbers of supporters. (Some 120,000 Democrats caucuses in 2008, and around 22,000 showed up in 2010.)
But even without top races up for grabs, Democrats will still get the chance to register their preferences and won’t be merely rubber-stamping the presumptive nominees. After caucuses get under way, each one will conduct a straw poll — usually a show of hands — for president between Barack Obama and “uncommitted,” and then take a more formal poll to determine how many delegates are allotted to either choice. (Using a standard formula, each precinct assigns delegates to represent any candidate — or an uncommitted bloc — polling more than 15 percent support.)
Kennedy said he doesn’t anticipate many Democrats are going to withhold support for Obama but acknowledged that it’s a possibility.
“There’s some folks that have expressed some frustration with Obama, that’s for sure, but whether they show up to caucus at all is a question,” he said.
“I think there are going to be some people at some precincts that do this as an opportunity to cast a protest vote,” he added. “I don’t know how often that’s going to happen, but it’s a good thing to be prepared for — that’s why we’re doing the math sheet,” he told the Jeffco Democrats after detailing how to calculate delegate thresholds for the presidential poll.
After those delegates are elected — every precinct in Jefferson County sends four delegates and four alternates on to the county convention — caucuses then pick delegates to the corresponding assembly, which nominates state and local candidates. Since county assemblies and conventions occur at the same meeting, precincts will be able to agree to send the same set of delegates to both, though there are procedures in place to elect distinct slates.
In most precincts, Democrats will then conduct a similar poll to determine support for the only other statewide race on the ballot this year, although that candidate, like Obama, is running unopposed. Again, the choice will be between the announced candidate, CU Regent Stephen Ludwig, seeking a second term as one of the board’s two at-large members, or “uncommitted.”
However, in a handful of counties, party officials have opted to poll a locally contested primary, and in those cases, the local race will determine delegate allocation to county assemblies. (Arapahoe County party officers had considered using the 6th Congressional District primary to determine delegates out of precincts within that district’s boundaries but dropped those plans when physician Perry Haney withdrew his primary bid, leaving state Rep. Joe Miklosi, D-Denver, as the lone candidate.)
Precinct caucuses are also the first step for party activists hoping to win election as delegates to the Democratic National Convention, set for Sept. 3-5 in Charlotte, N.C.
“Going to convention as a delegate is a really big deal — Coloradans got to see that first-hand a few years ago,” Inzeo said, noting that interest appears to be high after the 2008 DNC was held in Denver. He added that a number of potential candidates have already gotten in touch with state party officials to figure out how to proceed.
Colorado will send 86 delegates and six alternates to the DNC. Democrats pick 47 delegates at congressional district conventions, held during the first half of April, and another 16 at the state convention on April 14 in Pueblo. (Colorado’s six alternates are also elected at the state meeting.) An additional nine delegate slots selected at the state convention are filled by elected officials and party leaders, while 14 more delegates — the state’s super-delegates — are automatic picks, including congressional Democrats and members of the Democratic National Committee from Colorado.
Kennedy said competition for DNC delegate spots, plus a heated primary in one Jeffco house district — Brian Carroll and Brittany Pettersen both want the party’s nod to run against Republican Amy Attwood for an open HD 28 seat — could boost turnout in the county.
“I’m not saying it’s going to be like 2008,” he said. “And it may not even be what it was in 2010 when we had the Romanoff-Bennet primary driving turnout. But the fact that we’ve got Jeffco Dems working to get people out, and the fact that we’ve got the Obama people working to get people out, bodes well. The reason this is important is, it’s a lot more than showing up for one night’s event. This is the beginning step of activism between now and the election.”
State Rep. Sue Schafer, D-Wheat Ridge, told the precinct leaders to recruit caucus-goers with enthusiasm, because even if the evening doesn’t feature a top-tier showdown, it’s a great way to meet like-minded neighbors.
“I had no idea there were so many Democrats in my precinct until eight years ago when I had my precinct caucus,” she said. “I met the most fabulous people.”