Three takeaways from caucus night in Colorado

Photo: Jason Connolly/AFP/Getty Images

Colorado’s lengthy primary calendar kicked off with a surprise caucus winner, an emboldened left, and good — not great — turnout.

More than a year after Colorado’s first 2018 gubernatorial candidate announced his bid, voters finally got the chance to make their voices heard on Tuesday night.

Republicans and Democrats gathered at schools and community centers across the state to hold precinct caucuses, electing delegates and conducting straw polls in some of the first tangible results of the 2018 election. It was the beginning of an elaborate process that will continue through county and multi-county assemblies later this month, and culminate in statewide party assemblies in mid-April.

Under the state’s new, hybrid open-primary system, gubernatorial candidates can qualify for the June 26 ballot either by gathering 1,500 petition signatures from each of Colorado’s seven congressional districts, or by winning the support of 30 percent of the delegates to the state assembly.

In other words, there’s still a long way to go. But here are three things we learned from Tuesday night’s proceedings.

1) Cary Kennedy is for real

In the Democratic straw poll, former state treasurer Cary Kennedy pulled off a surprise victory, besting frontrunner Rep. Jared Polis by 17 points and winning more votes statewide than all of her rivals combined.

“People in Colorado are so proud of our state’s progress,” said Kennedy in an interview with Denverite. “We’re an innovative and forward-looking state, and people are looking for a vision for the future.”

Some caveats apply: Kennedy is the only major Democratic candidate to have snubbed signature-gathering in favor of focusing exclusively on the caucus process, and straw polls aren’t binding. In order to make the ballot, Kennedy will still have to hit the 30-percent mark in the final vote at the Democrats’ state assembly on April 14.

But she’s now in an excellent position to do so, and the strong grassroots support she was able to muster on Tuesday night should elevate her to heavyweight status in a primary race that, as recently as last week, veteran observers were prefiguring as a two-way bout between Polis and former state Sen. Mike Johnston.

That’s especially the case given Johnston’s underwhelming caucus results. The Vail native has already made the primary ballot through the petition process, but no doubt would’ve liked to have emerged from Tuesday’s night’s straw poll with more than 8.8 percent of the vote — slightly ahead of the 6.5 percent for “Uncommitted.”

Johnston has the backing of a deep-pocketed super PAC and a host of billionaire benefactors like LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, former HP executive Meg Whitman, and oil and gas investor John Arnold. His war chest will allow his campaign to carpet-bomb the airwaves with advertising ahead of the primary — but it’s an open question whether all that spending can translate into grassroots support.

2) The left is energized

One potentially major factor in Kennedy’s momentum is the support she’s received from two influential teachers unions, the Colorado Education Association and the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. Kennedy’s pointed defense of public education and pledge to increase teacher pay set her apart from Polis and Johnston, two well-known supporters of charter schools and the “education reform” movement.

Despite constant assault from the Trump administration and state governments across the country, the labor movement may finally be on the rise again after decades of decline. Union membership rose slightly in 2017, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This month’s historic wildcat strike by teachers in West Virginia, which shut down schools across the state for nearly two weeks, has jumpstarted similar organizing efforts in states like Kentucky and Oklahoma.

On a day when 16 Senate Democrats, including Colorado’s Michael Bennet, joined Republicans to advance a bill to further deregulate Wall Street banks, many Coloradans who caucused Tuesday night were eager for a Democratic Party that is more responsive to the demands of the working class, and more aggressive in addressing the crises of stagnant wages and a broken healthcare system.

Saira Rao, a Denver Democrat who is mounting a primary challenge against Rep. Diana DeGette, will make the June ballot after submitting 1,700 signatures to the Colorado Secretary of State’s office earlier this week, and she received the support of at least one Denver precinct on Tuesday night.

“The general feeling was that [DeGette] wasn’t doing enough with her position,” a caucus-goer told 9News’s Brandon Rittiman. “And maybe she needs a wake up call.”

3) The blue wave isn’t a sure thing

Polling certainly suggests that Democrats in Colorado and beyond are likely to be buoyed by a highly motivated base in November. But anyone looking to Tuesday’s caucuses for evidence of a massive, automatic blue tidal wave in the making would have trouble finding it.

Overall Democratic turnout topped 23,000 voters — much higher than the 2014 caucuses that featured no competitive statewide primary races, but still roughly equal to 2010 turnout. In Boulder County, Democratic party chair Ellen Burnes said the turnout was “much lower than expected,” with around 3,500 participants; Burnes said she had hoped for 10,000.

Crowds were particularly small compared to two years ago, when a highly competitive presidential primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders saw more than 70,000 votes cast in precinct caucuses statewide.

Few if any conclusions can be drawn from these turnout figures, particularly given that this is the first statewide election under the new primary system — but they’re a reminder not to take anything for granted. There’s a great deal of work left to be done if Colorado Democrats hope to achieve their first major electoral victories of the Trump era. As of Tuesday night, the work has officially begun.