Parties prep for caucuses

The first step in the nominating process

By Ernest Luning
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

There probably won’t be as many voters attending precinct caucuses next month as there were two years ago — when 120,000 Democrats and 70,000 Republicans swamped neighborhood schools, church basements and living rooms statewide — but party officials are nonetheless girding for a good turnout the night of March 16 when grassroots activists gather to begin the nominating process for the November ballot.

Hotly contested primaries in both parties for the U.S. Senate nomination — as well as a slew of Republican contests for statewide and congressional seats, and Democratic races for legislative offices — promise to drive attendance and make for lively discussion at caucuses as grassroots activists seek to corral delegates for the state assemblies, where the August primary ballot will be determined.

Registered voters who have been affiliated Democratic or Republican since Jan. 19 can attend and vote at precinct caucuses. In addition to selecting delegates headed toward nominating conventions, partisans will also pick a pair of committee people at each precinct and send resolutions on up to the state party for consideration.

State Republican Chairman Dick Wadhams said he doubts caucuses will see the record turnout precinct captains saw in 2008 but still expects higher than average attendance.

“With the enthusiasm Republicans have for the 2010 election year — and add to that the influx of new attendees from the Tea Party and 9/12 groups, and the fact we have competitive nomination contests for governor and Senate — I think there’ll be a lot of interest,” Wadhams said.

Both parties plan to poll the U.S. Senate race at caucuses and report results in time for the nightly news. Republicans also plan to poll the governor’s primary between former U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis and Evergreen businessman Dan Maes. (Former unsuccessful Littleton City Council candidate Yoon Joo Mager announced last week to almost no fanfare she’s also seeking the GOP nod for governor.)

Democrat John Hickenlooper, a two-term mayor of Denver, is unopposed for his party’s nomination for governor. Hickenlooper got in the race a month ago after Gov. Bill Ritter, also a Democrat, surprised the political world by announcing he wouldn’t seek re-election to a second term.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, who was appointed to the seat last January, is facing a primary challenge from former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff. At least five Republicans are campaigning for the chance run for Bennet’s seat: former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton, Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, former state Sen. Tom Wiens, Denver businessman Cleve Tidwell, and patent attorney Steve Barton.

The caucus polls will be the first real test of strength among party stalwarts for campaigns that have been under way since last summer.

Democrats will use the results of the Senate preference poll — with caucus goers able to choose between Bennet, Romanoff and “uncommitted” — to apportion delegates chosen to attend county assemblies and, for those who make the cut, on to the state assembly.

Republicans, on the other hand, plan to report results of their straw poll for both statewide races, but won’t use the polls to pick delegates. Instead, the nonbinding votes will help neighbors decide who best represents them — whether it’s a Maes precinct or a McInnis precinct, or perhaps it’s Tidwell territory.

At both state party headquarters, party officials will be gathering reports from every county and posting the results, so, although it’s only the first step in a months-long process leading to candidate nominations, sometime on caucus night, three campaigns — either Romanoff or Bennet on the Democratic side, and the top finishers in the GOP Senate and governor races — will be able to declare a preliminary victory.

“We hope to have everything done by 10 p.m.,” Wadhams said. “The counties did an excellent job in 2008 collecting votes for president,” he said. “We got our results in much earlier than the Democrats did.”

It’s true, in 2008 Democrats didn’t report some county results until the next morning — flummoxed by a wholly unanticipated record turnout, as much as four times the size of the previous high caucus attendance — but officials anticipate the party will post statewide results by 9:30 p.m. this year, according to Jennie Peek-Dunstone, the party’s executive director.

“As soon as the preference poll is taken, that information will be relayed to county offices,” said Denver Democratic Rules Committee Chairman Frank Sullivan. “My guess is early on in the evening the county offices will have some idea of the size of the vote, and the number of delegates that will go to Bennet or Romanoff or uncommitted.”

Sullivan and Peek-Dunstone agree it’s unlikely many uncommitted delegates will emerge from the Democratic caucuses, excepting counties such as Adams and Pueblo, which traditionally send an entirely uncommitted slate of delegates on to the state assembly.

“Most people taking the time to attend the caucuses will be committed one way or the other,” Peek-Dunstone predicted.

Here’s how Democrats will pick delegates, using the Senate preference poll: Caucuses will commence with an informal straw poll, basically a show of hands, indicating support for Bennet, Romanoff or uncommitted. Then caucus participants argue, debate and cajole one another, trying to sway votes to their candidate’s camp.

After a while, when preferences appear to be set, precinct captains take a final, recorded preference poll. This determines how many delegates either candidate gets from the caucus, based on a formula set by the national party that considers each precinct’s population and Democratic performance — in other words, precincts where Democrats receive higher than average support can select more than the usual number of delegates. To win any delegates, a candidate must receive the support of at least 15 percent of individual caucus attendees.

Republicans choose delegates a bit differently. Caucus goers first cast secret ballots in the preference poll for the two top statewide races. Unlike at the Democratic caucuses, there won’t be a show of hands, though campaign paraphernalia might reveal who’s supporting whom.

“We’ve told the counties to have people just write down who their preferences are,” Wadhams said. “We don’t prepare a ballot, since candidates could announce or withdraw before caucuses. It’s the easiest, fairest way to do it.”

After tallying the preference polls, Republican precinct captains will report results up the ladder, and then caucus attendees elect delegates.

Once chosen at the precinct level, delegates move on to county assemblies, where the winnowing continues. Democratic delegates are chosen according to their preference in the Senate primary but aren’t pledged to a candidate and can shift their support until the final vote at the state assembly. Republican delegates are up for grabs until the state assembly. (Delegates are also named at county assemblies to various state house district, state senate district and congressional assemblies, where candidates win official nomination for those offices.)

Both parties have set their state assemblies for May 22 — Republicans at the Budweiser Events Center in Loveland, and Democrats at the 1stBank Center, which used to be called the Odeum Colorado and, before that, the Broomfield Event Center.

In order to make the primary ballot, a candidate will have to win the votes of at least 30 percent of the state assembly delegates, which total 3,559 at the Republican confab, 4,034 at the Democratic one. If a candidate falls below that threshold, but still has at least 10 percent of the vote, he or she can petition onto the ballot. (If it comes to that, a candidate would have to collect 10,500 valid signatures, 1,500 from each of the state’s seven congressional district, to win a place on the August primary ballot.)

Republicans also have a three-way race for state treasurer between Walker Stapleton, J.J. Ament and Ali Hasan, as well as nomination contests in the 3rd, 4th and 7th congressional districts. Delegates to the state and congressional district assemblies will determine who makes the primary ballot in those contests using the same threshold of 30 percent support.

Check state party Web sites to find where caucuses are scheduled: www.cologop.org for Republican sites and www.coloradodems.org for Democratic locations.

“I’m hoping it’s going to be well attended and I look forward to an enjoyable evening to discuss the issues with my neighbors,” Sullivan said. He rejects critics who want Colorado to replace caucuses with an open primary to nominate candidates. “I’m a big fan of caucuses,” he said. “It’s in caucus states the little guy can have his voice heard.”

It’s probably one of the few questions that find the longtime Democratic organizer and Wadhams in solid agreement.

“I’m a big defender and supporter of caucuses,” Wadhams said. “There are many who feel it’s an antiquated system — I think it’s more important and more relevant today because it’s a truly grassroots process that gives the most active citizens a direct hand in who is put on the primary election ballot.

“I think it’s a great process,” he continued. “It is truly open to anyone who chooses to affiliate with a political party and show up.”

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com