The Democrats running in Colorado's June primary for the chance to challenge U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner could be getting some company.
Following a ruling Tuesday that put immigrant rights activist Michelle Ferrigno Warren on the ballot, even though her petition drive came up thousands of signatures short, nonprofit executive Lorena Garcia said Wednesday that she plans to ask a Denver District Court judge to apply the same standards to her campaign, which collected nearly twice as many valid signatures as Warren but has so far failed to qualify her for the ballot.
Two Democrats had already made the June 30 primary ballot — former Gov. John Hickenlooper, who collected a sufficient number of petition signatures, and former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, the sole candidate to emerge from the party's caucus and assembly process.
The addition of Warren — and possibly more candidates — to the primary threatens to upend what appeared just days ago to be a choice between the race's two leading fundraisers, both veteran politicians representing the Democrats' centrist and more progressive wings.
Garcia, whose campaign has been contesting individual signatures ruled invalid by the Secretary of State's Office, said in a teleconference with supporters that she will switch tactics and instead argue that her signature-gathering effort came close enough, considering the coronavirus crisis, which arrived in Colorado in the weeks before petitions were due on March 17.
"We could continue to go through that process and prove that we actually did collect enough signatures, or we could take advantage of the lawsuit that Michelle Warren won," Garcia said, noting that her signature totals were closer to the mark than Warren's.
"That precedent has already been set at a ridiculously low threshold," she said. "Fifty percent? For a judge to say that 50% is substantially compliant is nuts."
In a 28-page ruling, Denver District Court Judge Christopher J. Baumann said the 5,383 valid signature submitted by Warren "substantially complied" with state petition requirements that statewide candidates turn in 10,500 signatures from registered voters, with 1,500 coming from each congressional district.
A spokeswoman for Secretary of State Jena Griswold wouldn't say Wednesday whether the office plans to appeal the judge's decision. The deadline to appeal is Friday.
"We’re going to take advantage of it," Garcia said. "We’re going to file our case for substantial compliance based on that ruling now."
She added that her campaign intends to petition the court Friday and that she will request that the case be heard by the same judge.
"Here we are. What some people thought was going to be a two-way primary — what we thought was going to be a three-way primary, now looks like a four-way primary," Garcia said.
It could turn into a five-way primary, however, because Baumann is expected to rule soon on a case involving another Democratic U.S. Senate candidate with similar circumstances.
Climate activist and psychologist Diana Bray, who turned in her petitions a day before the deadline, is scheduled to ask the judge at a Friday hearing to put her on the ballot.
Bray could face a bigger hurdle than the others, since the secretary of state only approved fewer than 3,000 signatures, but she also plans to argue that the COVID-19 pandemic prevented her from submitting what she calls "stranded signatures" from dozens of circulators who were unable to get their forms notarized and deliver them to Bray.
"Losing the last two weeks of the collecting period was very significant for our campaigns," Bray told Colorado Politics. "The entire signature collecting process is flawed, and I will address this in my testimony on Friday."
Garcia, for her part, sounded like Tuesday's ruling had breathed new life into a campaign she launched in late 2018.
"My real hope is that having four candidates on the ballot is going to increase turnout," she said, arguing that the candidates will be contacting a broader base of supporters.
"We have to work our absolute hardest to amplify our message so people realize there is a people-centered candidate. They’ll have the option to choose someone they’re excited about, someone they won’t have to plug their nose and vote for."
While Romanoff has been running to the left of Hickenlooper — touting his support for the Green New Deal and Medicare for All — Garcia has been running to the left of Romanoff, charging the former legislative leader with abandoning the immigrant community in a notorious special session that produced legislation Romanoff has since apologized for championing.
"When people say one candidate has the best chance to beat Cory Gardner, we can say, now is our chance and our opportunity to vote our values," Garcia said. "Now is our chance to vote in a new type of leadership. We can’t have to settle this time."
Spokespeople for Hickenlooper and Romanoff's campaigns didn't respond to requests for comment.
The secretary of state must certify ballots by May 7, and they start going in the mail to most state voters on June 9.