The next election is almost upon us.
By the time Halloween is a distant memory and the votes have been counted in Colorado’s off-year election on Tuesday, it’ll be just 17 weeks until ballots are due again for the state’s 2020 presidential primary, and only a few days longer until precinct caucuses kick off the process to nominate state-level candidates.
Will Colorado keep its increasingly blue hue, or will the state’s massive — and growing — population of unaffiliated voters reassert their traditionally independent streak?
Does Super Tuesday’s March 3 presidential primary — the first time in decades Coloradans will vote rather than caucus — mean state residents get more of a say in their party’s White House nominee?
Can Cory Gardner hang on to his Senate seat, or will President Donald Trump’s deep unpopularity among state voters drag down his fellow Republican?
These are the kinds of questions a bipartisan group of political consultants considered at a recent panel discussion sponsored by the Crossley Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Denver.
For two hours, the political pros pondered, pontificated and prognosticated — offering advice to some candidates and predicting the premature demise of others.
Pollster Floyd Ciruli, who directs the Crossley Center and has been sampling public opinion in Colorado for decades, moderated the talk, which featured Democrats Steve Welchert and Sheila MacDonald and Republicans Kelly Maher and Dick Wadhams, who chaired the state GOP a decade ago.
One thing they all agreed on was the increasing influence of unaffiliated voters on Colorado’s political landscape.
It’s no surprise, since the group has in recent years swollen from a third of the registered electorate to roughly 40%, with the two major parties nearly evenly dividing up the remainder.
And while they might not consider themselves Democrats or Republicans, they’ve been voting in greater numbers, too, starting with last year’s election, when they turned out in droves to cast ballots overwhelmingly in the Democratic primary, in the first state primary that allowed unaffiliateds to vote in either major party’s contest.
That propensity turned out to be a huge boon for Democrats, Welchert noted.
“Why would you vote for the Republican after voting in the Democratic primary?” he said, adding that he expects to see a similarly disproportionate turnout by unaffiliateds in the Democratic presidential primary, as well as the June 30 primary for state-level candidates, when Democrats might pick the nominee to challenge Gardner.
Partly that’s because, at this point at least, there won’t be much of a contest in either Republican primary, though Welchert suggested that could change.
Before the end of the year, as the drumbeat of the impeachment inquiry’s revelations deflates Trump’s remaining popularity in the state, Welchert said, Gardner will drop his re-election bid.
The prediction — one Welchert acknowledged was a wild one — drew chuckles from the audience and bemused frowns from his fellow panelists.
Welchert said the Democratic presidential primary is shaping up as a “free stuff vs. an eat-your-vegetables campaign” and a “recipe for Democratic disaster.”
If the party opts for one of its more left-leaning candidates, he said, “We will lose the election.”
That’s because the only states likely to matter in November are Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, and former Vice President Joe Biden has a vastly greater chance of winning those than either of his two main primary opponents, U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts or Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
“Donald Trump knows the exact same thing, which is why we're having this conversation,” he said, referring to the impeachment inquiry over Trump’s attempts to pressure the government of Ukraine to investigate Biden and his son.
Wadhams, whose work electing GOP candidates to statewide office in Colorado spans five decades, conceded that fellow Republicans have lately been calling him a RINO — which stands for “Republican in name only” — because he doesn’t much like Trump.
“I love the tax cuts, I love the judicial nominations, I love the deregulation,” he said. “All of those are traditional Republican issues — and would have been enacted by any Republican president — but Trump drives me nuts.”
Noting that the Republicans he’s worked for over the years were “gentlemen, in their demeanor, the way they conduct themselves,” Wadhams said, “I think Donald Trump is a horrible person in many ways, but I look at what the national media is like these days and what the Democrats are doing, and it drives me right back to Trump.”
The Democrats and their “free-this, free-that” proposals, he added, are driving even skeptical Republicans like himself “right back into Trump's corner.”
As far as the Democrats picking a Senate nominee, all four of the consultants agreed that former Gov. John Hickenlooper will almost certainly have a harder time winning the primary than he would the general election.
His chief rival at this point, former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff — who leads the pack of seven other candidates by all available fundraising and polling measures — could well win the caucuses and assemblies, Welchert predicted, but likely won’t have the money to compete with Hickenlooper among the massively expanded primary electorate.
“Welcome to the divisive primary party, because sometimes that can be a party-building activity, and sometimes it's not,” Maher said with a smile, doubtless recalling some of the Republicans’ more bruising primary fights in recent cycles.
“John Hickenlooper is very much a moderate,” she said. “If climate change stays at the top of the issues, he's going to have a tough primary, because he is the guy who drank fracking fluid that one time, and everybody knows it.”
Referring to herself as “a reluctant John Hickenlooper supporter” because she doesn’t agree with him on everything, MacDonald said she thinks the other primary hopefuls should acknowledge hard truths and drop out so the Democrats can devote their resources to the battle against Gardner.
“The reality is, if you are at less than 10% [in the polls], get out of the race,” she said, describing all the Democratic Senate candidates except Hickenlooper. “You are not going to win. And if you don't have enough money, you're not going to win. You say you can build grassroots support and raise grassroots money? No, you can't.”
Still, she said she wishes Hickenlooper “would liven it up,” articulating an observation shared by her fellow panelists.
“I am so befuddled by John Hickenlooper I can't stand it,” Wadhams said. “I don't think this guy wants this; I think this is a consolation prize. … If I ever suspected a candidate was going through the motions or was running for it because he couldn't get something better, I wouldn't touch that.”
He predicted that Romanoff’s constant attacks on Hickenlooper will help cement the image of the former governor as a reluctant candidate, helping pave the way for a potential Gardner upset.
“That is the danger of this primary,” Wadhams said, “because Cory Gardner will be the dynamic, young independent challenger, and Hickenlooper will be the old, tired incumbent.”