Caucuses signal start of 2014 election cycle

GOP has more at stake for March 4 meetings
The Colorado Statesman

It’s time for Colorado voters who want to participate in grassroots Republican and Democratic party organizing to partake in that biennial ritual, the precinct caucus. The party meetings are being held throughout the state on March 4 in schools, churches, community centers and other neighborhood gathering places, marking the first official step in the year’s political calendar.

Republicans could have an easier time encouraging the party faithful to get out on a Tuesday night, with several statewide and hotly contested legislative races up for grabs, but it could be a challenge to make sure straw poll ballots are up-to-date after this week’s tumult in the U.S. Senate race and the potential for last-minute entrants in other races. Democrats, on the other hand, face an uphill battle persuading voters to show up, with only a handful of local or lower-profile races with multiple candidates seeking nomination.

Anyone can attend caucuses, but only the registered voters who meet certain requirements can participate in caucus business. Caucus-goers must have been affiliated with their party by Jan. 4 and had until Feb. 4 to change an address to their current precinct. Caucuses start promptly at 7 p.m., so party officials are urging attendees to arrive early — many locations will be operational by 6:30 p.m. — to sign in and be prepared for the meeting.

Republicans are directing voters to the state party’s cologop.org website to find caucus locations and preregister, potentially speeding the check-in process on Tuesday night. Likewise, Democrats have a caucus-finder posted at coloradodems.org.

State Republicans anticipate a robust turnout at caucuses, though party officials declined to predict specific numbers. With nominations for U.S. Senate, governor and attorney general at stake, plenty of candidates and outside political groups are beating the bushes to turn out supporters in hopes of eventually securing a sufficient number of delegates to make the primary ballot, Republicans said.

Rather than conduct a statewide, non-binding preference poll for top races, as has been the GOP’s practice the previous three election years, this year county parties had the option to poll caucus-goers. Most of the larger counties contacted by The Colorado Statesman said they plan to gauge preferences for the U.S. Senate and governor’s races, although results will be reported county-by-county rather than statewide.

“We’re thinking people are excited,” said state GOP communications director Owen Loftus. “A lot of campaigns are working overtime getting people to attend caucuses so they can support them at the state assembly. Just look at Facebook or Twitter or open up the paper to see how upset people are with our current senator or current governor, so we’re expecting high turnout.”

At press time, there were six Republicans vying for the chance to run against incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Udall: U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, state Sens. Owen Hill and Randy Baumgardner, along with Mark Aspiri, Tom Janich and Floyd Trujillo. Seven candidates have declared they’re seeking the nomination to take on incumbent Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper: former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, Secretary of State Scott Gessler, former Senate Minority Leader Mike Kopp, state Sen. Greg Brophy, Adams County Republican Party Chairman Steve House, Roni Bell Sylvester and Jason Clark.

“Yes, there is not a statewide contested race at this point,” conceded Jennifer Koch, executive director of the Colorado Democratic Party, “but it’s still important to go. It’s the heart of our organizing operation. It’s the one place to have your voice heard.”

Koch predicted between 35,000 and 50,000 Democrats would show up at caucuses this year, up significantly from recent years.

Koch said that caucuses are where the party recruits the vast majority of its hard-core volunteers and touches base with its most consistent donors. “These are our folks, these are the people who are going to be chasing ballots in October when ballots drop,” she said.

Democrats count only a few contested races across the state this year — just three state House seats, compared with more than a dozen potential legislative primaries on the Republican side — so most precincts will conduct a straw poll between Udall and “uncommitted,” though county parties are able to hold preference polls for local races that exist.

In addition to nuts-and-bolts party business — recruiting election judges, considering party platform planks and passing the hat for donations — the primary purpose of caucuses is selecting delegates bound for Democratic and Republican assemblies held throughout March, culminating in both parties’ state assemblies on April 12. Candidates who garner at least 30 percent of delegate votes at assemblies are designated to the June 24 primary ballot. Candidates can also petition their way onto the ballot but must get at least 10 percent of delegate votes if they’re also participating in the caucus-assembly process.

For the first time in four years, Democrats and Republicans will be caucusing on the same night. During presidential years, parties have the option of moving their caucuses to early February, as state Republicans did in 2012 in a bid to amplify Colorado’s voice early in an unsettled primary. (Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum scored headlines that night by winning preference polls in Colorado and two other states, previewing what turned out to be a long slog to securing the nomination for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.)

Caucus turnout seesaws from year to year, depending on whether each party has contested marquee races to be decided. In 2012, Republicans counted roughly 66,000 party faithfuls in attendance, up from roughly 23,000 who showed up for the 2010 midterm caucuses. An estimated 12,500 Democrats attended caucuses in 2012 — it was a hurdle to turn out voters when the choice was between President Barack Obama and “undecided,” party leaders admitted — and had a turnout on par with Republicans in 2010, with roughly 22,000 filling caucus chairs. Both parties set recent high-water marks at the 2008 presidential-year caucuses, when Democrats saw some 120,000 attendees and Republicans reported roughly 70,000 at caucus.

The next step after caucus night is county assemblies — no later than 25 days after the caucus, by state law, although a few smaller counties are going straight from caucuses to county assemblies on Tuesday — and multi-county district assemblies to nominate legislative and congressional candidates, most set on the eve of the state assemblies, which both parties are holding on April 12. The Democratic state assembly will be at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver, followed by the party’s annual Jefferson-Jackson Dinner fundraiser at a nearby hotel. Republicans are convening at the Coors Events Center in Boulder on the University of Colorado campus.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com