Caucuses a coming

'March madness'

By Ernest Luning
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Attending a precinct caucus this year?

Show up early, bring a calculator — oh, and get a haircut.

That’s some of the advice campaigns and political groups are giving Colorado voters at caucus training classes held around the state as the biennial grassroots meetings approach. The stakes are high this year, with divisive primaries in both parties for U.S. senator and GOP races for governor and state treasurer. Democrats and Republicans by the tens of thousands will convene in 3,211 precincts across the state to start the ball rolling at 7 p.m. sharp the night of March 16.

Douglas County Republican activist Crista Huff instructs a group of conservative voters at a caucus training class Tuesday night at the Lafayette Public Library.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“But get there early, by 6:30, even 6:15, because they could close the door,” an organizer told a group of teachers and nurses supporting former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff’s Democratic primary bid for the U.S. Senate. Deputy state field director Sheila Canfield-Jones spent about an hour instructing backers on the finer points of caucus rules and strategy Tuesday afternoon at Romanoff’s southeast Denver campaign headquarters.

It’s a recommendation echoed at other caucus training sessions this week, including one pitched to Jefferson County supporters of the Democrat Romanoff is challenging, Sen. Michael Bennet. And across the aisle — way across the aisle — the same instruction applied at a class conducted in Boulder County by a raft of conservative groups hoping to shake up the Republican Party establishment by turning out Tea Party and 9/12 group supporters.

The Bennet campaign wants its “caucus night teams” in place by 6 p.m. Included in each operation is a designated decorator, greeters and a caucus “mathematician” tasked with double-checking the complicated formulas to determine how many delegates either candidate gets at each caucus.

“Bring a calculator,” said regional field director Katherine Everett at a Bennet training class Monday night at a union hall in Lakewood. “Just in case there’s any funny business. Because you never know,” she said with a laugh, “these are Democrats.”

“Get there early, by 6 p.m.,” said Douglas County Republican Crista Huff at a training session Tuesday night at the Lafayette Public Library. The class was sponsored by the District 2 Conservatives and promoted by the Northern Colorado Tea Party and other grassroots conservative groups.

“Put a flier on every chair,” Huff said, “and greet people as they come in.” Huff schooled about a dozen activists — all Republicans — on her detailed strategy to get picked as delegates so they can have a hand shaping the GOP platform and choosing candidates.

“This marketing flier is going to get you elected,” she assured the group. The flier — hers was bright pink and won her a seat at the Republican National Convention two years ago — is just one of the marketing tools Huff urged on conservatives as sure-fire ways to stand out from the pack and win votes from fellow Republicans. Other tips include getting a fresh haircut, visiting the dentist for a teeth cleaning, if needed, and “dress as nicely as you can stand it.” She also told the class to make sure to jump up first when potential delegates address the caucus and then to speak briefly, say your name twice, and refer to the flier rather than recite all the details.

“All of this adds up to the aura of you being an electable person,” said Huff, who has conducted caucus training sessions around the state since the beginning of the year.

Every two years, Republicans and Democrats start the nomination process neighborhood by neighborhood — in a routine some call antiquated and others say exhibits democracy at its best — meeting at schools and in living rooms across Colorado to pick delegates headed to both parties’ state assemblies on May 22. (Republicans will meet in Loveland and Democrats in Broomfield.)

Parties conduct other business at caucuses, including electing two precinct committee people at each, passing the hat for donations, signing up election judges, and voting on resolutions for the state party to consider including in the party platform.

Both major parties set attendance records at precinct caucuses in the 2008 presidential year, when roughly120,000 Democrats turned out to hand a victory to Barack Obama and about 70,000 Republicans tilting to Mitt Romney. Average attendance over the years has been closer to 15,000 for each party, though four years ago only about half that number of Democrats made it to caucus when none of the major races were contested.

Regional field director Katherine Everett of the Bennet for Colorado campaign conducts a caucus training class Monday night at the Sheet Metal Workers hall in Lakewood.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Two years ago, the unknown factor on caucus night was how many newly involved Democrats backing Obama would show up, and they did not disappoint. This year, an energized conservative movement — heralded by a year’s worth of Tea Party rallies and cultivated by extensive online networking — could swamp party stalwarts at Republican caucuses, organizers predict. If that happens, expect GOP frontrunners Scott McInnis and Jane Norton to wake up the morning after caucuses looking over their shoulders, because it’s their challengers who are exciting interest among the insurgent crowd.

Caucus turnout is notoriously hard to predict. Even committed partisans might stay home if the weather turns foul or there’s a particularly key episode of American Idol on that night, and it’s always dangerous predicting whether newcomers will actually spend an entire evening on the endeavor.

“March 16 is traditionally the week we get a lot of snow,” Canfield-Jones told the Romanoff supporters, “and a lot of people have spring break.”

That’s why campaigns have been registering interest — making lists and taking names — for months now, in hopes of turning out as many supporters as possible to caucus.

Because of the requirement Democratic candidates only need 15 percent support at the caucus to earn a delegate, both Senate candidates’ organizers impressed upon their volunteers the importance of boosting turnout.

“I want to win Jefferson County,” Everett told Bennet volunteers. “Because it’s still split and could go either way, getting five people there could make all the difference” at each individual caucus.

Neither the Bennet campaign nor the Romanoff campaign would hazard a firm prediction for caucus turnout, but spokesmen for both campaigns pegged the likely number between 15,000 and 30,000 Democrats statewide.

“We recently received back from the printer a letter from Andrew, a copy of which is to be handed to every caucus attendee across the state,” said Romanoff spokesman Dean Toda. “We printed 15,000 of them, and I hope we run out. If 20,000 people come out in an off-year election, that’ll be a strong signal of the level of interest.”

The Bennet campaign is shooting for a higher turnout, with campaign manager Craig Hughes predicting as many as 25,000 to 30,000 Democrats at caucuses.

Most observers agree a lower turnout — populated by party mainstays from precinct bosses on up to elected officials — favors Romanoff, who probably knows many of the state’s most active Democrats by name, and that a higher turnout opens the door wider for Bennet.

“It would be crazy for us to count our chickens before they’re hatched,” Toda said. “But the caucuses are tailor-made for committed supporters, and Andrew Romanoff has got plenty of those. He may not have the money, but he’s got the votes, especially when it comes to rank-and-file Democrats.” Pressed to count a chicken or two, Toda continued: “I think we’ll do well. I don’t know if we’ll win outright or not, we’ll certainly be competitive.”

Deputy state field director Sheila Canfield-Jones, standing, holds a cell phone allowing U.S. Senate candidate Andrew Romanoff to address a caucus training session Tuesday evening at Romanoff for Colorado campaign headquarters in Denver.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Bennet’s campaign manager also declined to predict what will happen at the caucuses but sounded a note of confidence.

“Both campaigns have a job to do,” Hughes said, “to identify and motivate people and get them to turn out, which is no easy task on a Tuesday night in March. We’re going to aggressively do everything we can to get on the ballot.”

A source with a Republican U.S. Senate campaign said they’re expecting in the neighborhood of 20,000 GOP caucus goers, but Huff suggested that’s far too low an estimate.

She predicts the enthusiasm and urgency among Tea Party and 9/12 groups will drive this year’s Republican caucus turnout into the neighborhood of the record-setting attendance of 2008, which saw roughly 70,000 GOP voters show up. Counting 200,000 active Tea Party participants statewide, she vowed enough would get to their caucuses to surprise observers expecting a routine year.

The stakes are too high to sit it out this year, Huff said, adding that voters share her urgency.

“Think of yourself as if you’re in an army right now,” Huff told the conservatives at the Lafayette library. “You’re in an army until November, which is our last chance to save our country from socialism.”

There are some quirks between the two parties’ caucus processes.

Republicans just have to show up and vote — in straw polls taken at the outset of caucuses, this year measuring support for gubernatorial and U.S. Senate candidates, and then for delegates and alternates to county assemblies and beyond, where those candidates have a chance at winning a spot on the August primary ballot.

Democrats, on the other hand, use a complicated threshold system to determine how many delegates are allotted between candidates for the top contested statewide race — this year, the primary between Bennet and Romanoff — and then factions backing the two candidates pick from among themselves to fill delegate slots. Democrats can also elect uncommitted delegates. Party officials don’t expect many of those this year, except from counties that traditionally send entirely uncommitted slates, including Pueblo and Adams.

Republicans also require delegates hoping to advance to the state convention or other “higher assemblies” to fill out a form at their caucuses stating that interest, a point Huff emphasizes.

For those Republicans who do win selection as state assembly delegates, the party charges $25 apiece for the privilege, a practice Democrats don’t share.

“No, we do not charge people to take part in our democracy,” wrote Colorado Democratic Party executive director Jennie Peek-Dunstone in an e-mail to The Colorado Statesman. “We want anyone and everyone to be encouraged to attend and be elected delegates.”

The parties plan to report results of the statewide polls by around 10 p.m. on caucus night. It will be the first concrete measure of support among voters for candidates who have been campaigning hard since at least last summer, and could spell the end of the road for hopefuls in at least one race, the crowded contest for the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate. 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.

Both Bennet and Romanoff are likely to make the Democratic primary ballot, achieved by winning the votes of at least 30 percent of state assembly delegates.

Republicans, however, could see some of that party’s five Senate candidates drop from contention or be forced to petition onto the August primary ballot. Candidates who win the support of between 10 and 30 percent of delegates at the state assembly — or their respective assemblies for county, legislative or congressional offices — have the option to petition onto the ballot. For statewide races, a petitioning candidate needs 10,500 valid signatures of affiliated voters, 1,500 from each of the state’s seven congressional districts.

But it all starts at the caucus.

“Caucuses are the best chance we’ve got to send a message,” Romanoff said on a speakerphone held by Canfield-Jones at her caucus training class.

His opponent’s campaign had no disagreement there.

“This is like true democracy,” Everett said, “and it’s pretty cool that we’re getting to go to this caucus.”

Past Douglas County Republican Chairman John Ransom, who introduced Huff at the conservatives’ caucus training, drove home the importance of getting in at the ground level by attending a caucus.

“You’re participating in history,” Ransom said. “This is your opportunity, if you want to say, ‘Hey, I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.’ March 16 is your opportunity.” He stared down the voters and stated his case: “I can’t sit back and just wait on Election Day.”

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com