Summit County caucuses for favored candidates in crowded fight for Colorado governor nominations
Tuesday is caucus day in Colorado, a vestige of old school, neighbor-to-neighbor politics that will shape the state’s crowded contest for the Governor’s Mansion.
More than 3,000 schools, libraries and community centers across Colorado’s 64 counties will open their doors at 7 p.m. for the biennial conclaves of local Republicans and Democrats, who will break into neighborhood-level groups to select delegates for state party nominating assemblies in April.
“It’s the first grassroots level of participation,” Summit GOP chairman Kim McGahey said. “It gives individuals — not big corporations — but individual voters and individual citizens the opportunity to participate in a meaningful way in our electoral process.”
The night’s voting will be the first in a series of hurdles that most gubernatorial candidates need to clear to get their names on primary ballots in June. There are plenty of names in the running already, and caucusing is one first step in winnowing down the wide-open field.
Only members of political parties are allowed to participate in their respective caucuses, but others are free to observe. Party members must also have been registered to vote by early last month to partake.
Summit County Republicans will caucus once again at the Silverthorne Pavilion. Democrats, meanwhile, are switching venues to Summit Middle School from the Community and Senior Center, which was overwhelmed by the turnout for the 2016 slugfest between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.
“The last caucus was off the charts in terms of the number of people that showed up,” said County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier, a Democrat. “We went beyond capacity because of the high, high interest. That was very different from previous caucuses.”
Turnout will probably be lower this year, but local Democrats decided to play it safe and get a bigger venue. The dizzying number of gubernatorial candidates could generate more interest than usual, along with redlining political intensity at the national level.
“We don’t know what’ll happen this year,” Stiegelmeier said. “There’s a lot of interest in general with what’s happening in Washington. There are also a lot of candidates for the governor’s race, but that could just make it more confusing for people.”
The attorney general race is open as well. George Brauchler, district attorney for Colorado’s 18th Judicial District, is the lone Republican in the race. He will square off against the winner in a current field of four Democrats led by Obama administration veteran Phil Weiser and former State Rep. Joe Salazar.
U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, a Democrat whose district includes Summit County, is considered the front-runner for his party’s nomination in the governor’s race, with high name recognition and a huge personal fortune to pad his campaign war chest.
But challengers Mike Johnston, a former State Senator from Vail, and Cary Kennedy, the former State Treasurer, are ratcheting up pressure on the Boulder Democrat, and Lieutenant governor Donna Lynne and businessman Noel Ginsburg are also in the running.
Polis is guarding his left flank with a call for 100 percent renewable energy by 2040 and major investments in infrastructure and education. He has also introduced a bill in Congress that would significantly expand wilderness areas in Summit and Eagle counties, although its path forward in a Republican-controlled congress in unclear.
Stiegelmeier nonetheless cites that as one of many reasons why she is endorsing Polis, along with her fellow County Commissioner Dan Gibbs.
None of the candidates are showing up for Summit County’s caucuses, but supporters will make brief speeches on their behalf. Local candidates don’t need to caucus to get on the ballot but will likely take advantage of the opportunity for stump time with the party faithful.
Democrats will also debate party platform resolutions to send to the state committee in charge of the official policy positions of Colorado Democrats.
“I think the precinct-level discussions you hear around the party platform are the most interesting part — what your beliefs are, what you think the party should be doing,” Stiegelmeier said. “It’s a great experience in grassroots democracy.”
Republicans, meanwhile, won’t be having much platform discussion, focusing instead on selecting precinct committee members and delegates for the countywide GOP assembly on March 17.
“It’s a room full of people that are involved in the process and want to have a say in the process,” McGahey said. “These are people who are conversant in the issues and people who want to participate.”
Each of the 20 Summit County Republican precincts will choose their favorite for governor from a crowded field as well. State Treasurer Walker Stapleton is currently in the lead with 26 percent support among likely Republican voters, according to a poll released Monday by GOP-leaning Magellan Strategies.
Attorney General Cynthia Coffman came up second in the poll at 13 percent, followed by Doug Robinson with 8 percent and Victor Mitchell with 5 percent. But 39 percent of voters polled were still undecided, muddying the picture.
“Although the field is settled, there is a long way to go before this primary is decided,” analysts wrote. “The truth is, a lot of money will be spent by the campaigns between now and the June 26th primary.”
Amid the swirl of candidates form both parties, Colorado’s first-ever open primaries add another unknown to the race. Thanks to a ballot measure passed by voters in 2016, unaffiliated voters will be able to vote in the primary for one party of their choosing — but not both. That could change the calculus for candidates vying for their party’s nomination in June.
“There’s an added intrigue with unaffiliated voters this year,” McGahey said. “That adds a whole different weight to this election.”
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