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A man fills out his ballot after registering to vote at Vanguard Church in Colorado Springs Nov. 3, 2020. The church served as a location where voters could register, drop off completed ballots or fill out a ballot in person. (Forrest Czarnecki/The Gazette)

Add former state Rep. Dan Thurlow of Mesa County to the list of Coloradans who have dropped their party affiliation to join the ranks of the state’s largest voting bloc. 

Thurlow made the switch from Republican to unaffiliated at the start of the year and then went on Facebook to explain his decision. He had been a Republican since he turned 18 in 1969.

Thurlow praised many Republicans, including local stalwarts Bob Buford, Tillie Bishop and Kathy Hall and statewide members of the GOP, such as former U.S. Sens. Bill Armstrong and Hank Brown.

“They all had differences in style, personality and political philosophy. They had career ambitions and worked toward those. But I believe they all had one thing in common. At the end of the day, they would put their country, their state or their county before their own self-interest,” Thurlow wrote.

“I do not see that in the Republican Party today.”

He ripped the outgoing president, calling Donald Trump the “world's greatest con man.”

It would be easy to blame Trump for the Colorado Republican Party’s decline in numbers and relevance, but buffoonery on the state level hasn’t helped the GOP.

And it’s not just Republicans who are leaving their party. Democrats are, too.

Data from the Secretary of State’s office shows that over the past four years, 17,344 Democrats and 16,163 Republicans have dropped their party affiliation.

The number of Democrats surprised me. The number of Republicans did not.

I said goodbye to the GOP in 2020 so I could participate in the Democratic presidential primary. It’s my second time around being unaffiliated. The earlier, brief registration was sandwiched between 15 years of being registered as a Democrat and almost a decade as a Republican in Colorado.

Thurlow’s decision drew praise on Facebook, including this comment from former House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, a Denver Democrat: “Thanks for standing up for your beliefs and for decency. We need more people like you now more than ever.”

Of course, Democrats weren’t making those kinds of statements when two high-profile members of their party defected -- while they were still in office. Thurlow has been gone from the legislature for two years.

Rep. Kathleen Curry, a Gunnison County rancher and water expert, made the switch in 2009. She had to give up her coveted chairwoman post of the ag committee and the plum job of speaker pro tem. Curry said her decision to become unaffiliated was not based on any single bill, action or person. 

“It’s just a matter of where I fit,” she said at the time. “But I’m not changing my personality overnight just because I filled out a form. I’m still going to vote my conscience, which the majority of time is with the Democrats.”

But when Curry ran as a write-in candidate in 2010, the Democrats who had begged her not to drop her affiliation sent political mailers insinuating she had been rejected by the party. 

State Sen. Cheri Jahn of Wheat Ridge became unaffiliated in late 2017, just  before the start of her last legislative session, in 2018. She said at the time that state and national politics had become more polarized and partisan since she was first elected to the statehouse in 2000 as a Democrat.

“I have always brought an independent voice,” Jahn wrote on Facebook at the time. “I didn’t change, the system changed. This system is terribly broken. I have watched through the years and witnessed that there is more care about politics and those in power than serving people in the state.”

One reason more Coloradans are registering unaffiliated is because voters in 2016 passed Proposition 108. It allowed unaffiliated voters to automatically participate in either the Democratic or Republican primary election without having to affiliate. Before, they needed to affiliate and then switch back to being unaffiliated. 

That’s how I became a Republican in 2010. I wanted to vote in the GOP primary because there were three contested races, for U.S. Senate, governor and treasurer. I just never un-affiliated when the primary was over.

The first test of the new law came in the 2018 primary election. Then-Secretary of State Wayne Williams launched a campaign to educate unaffiliated voters that they could only vote one ballot. If they voted both the Democrat and Republican ballot that came in their packet, neither would count. Some experts predicted the rejection rate could be as high as 7 percent, a killer in close races. 

As part of the campaign, wooden U’s were sent to county clerks, lawmakers, college campuses, policy makers and journalists to decorate. Williams held news conferences in Grand Junction, Colorado Springs and Denver to highlight voting only one ballot. 

It was a brilliant campaign. (Of course I would say that. I served as Williams’ communications director.) But here’s the proof: The rejection rate for unaffiliated voters who had marked both ballots was only 2.4 percent. 

And that fall, for the first time, unaffiliated voters landed top of the list for highest turnout in Colorado, with Democrats and Republicans coming in second and third, respectively. That feat would be repeated again in the 2020 general election.

Clearly, Democratic victories in 2018 and 2020 show that a number of unaffiliated voters are choosing Democrats. 

I still maintain that Trump & Co. and local GOP politics have played a role in the number of Republicans becoming unaffiliated. The litany of Trump’s actions — or inaction, such as in dealing with the pandemic — are legendary.  

Thurlow on Facebook pointed to ones in recent days, such as Trump’s effort to overthrow the results of the November election showing he had lost and the “amazing pardons for the den of thieves that surround him.”

And he was aghast that a national survey that showed 75% of the Repubican Party still supporting Trump. He questioned why some of Colorado’s elected leaders are still with the president.

Former state Rep. Rob Witwer of Genesee, who left the Republican Party in 2019, agreed.

“The Repubican Party is playing chicken with constitutional institutions,” Witwer said, saying some GOP members are so afraid of a primary where Trump backs their opponent that they are going along with the president’s zany charge that the election was stolen.

But Witwer, who was known in the legislature for working well on both sides of the aisle, said he is equally frustrated with Democrats.

“No one’s interested in trying to fix the problems. They stand by their party even when their party is wrong,” he said. “Each party has its crazy uncle who shows up at Thanksgiving but they’ve never let their crazy uncle run the show before.”

The definition of unaffiliated is “Not closely associated with, belonging to, or subordinate to another.” The definition of subordinate is “a person under the authority or control of another within an organization.”

It wasn’t always that way in Colorado, but it sure feels like it now.

Lynn Bartels thinks politics is like sports but without the big salaries and protective cups. The Washington Post's "The Fix" blog named her one of Colorado's best political reporters and tweeters. Bartels, a South Dakota native, graduated from Cottey College in 1977 and Northern Arizona University in 1980 and then moved to New Mexico for her first journalism job. The Rocky Mountain News hired her in 1993 as its night cops reporter and in 2000 assigned her to her first legislative session. The Gold Dome hasn't been the same since. In 2009, The Denver Post hired Bartels after the Rocky closed, just shy of its 150th birthday. Bartels left journalism in 2015 to join then Secretary of State Wayne Williams's staff. She has now returned to journalism - at least part-time - and writes a regular political column for Colorado Politics.

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