Three of the Democrats running for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Cory Gardner are trying something unusual in hopes of making something happen that's never happened before — electing a woman senator from Colorado.
Diana Bray is one of the 10 candidates in the Democratic field, and she's one of seven circulating a petition to get on the June 30 primary ballot.
But on March 7, when Democrats gather at schools, churches and community centers across the state for precinct caucuses and conduct a straw poll for the Senate race, Bray will be supporting one of her primary rivals.
"I am advocating for people to caucus for Stephany. I would like to see her win at the caucus," Bray told Colorado Politics. "And I'm encouraging people to sign petitions for me or Lorena. I want at least one of us to get through."
She added, "I want to do all I can to support and enhance the three progressive women who are the people I think would do things differently in the Senate."
Bray, an Englewood psychologist and climate activist, was referring to fellow Democratic Senate candidates Stephany Rose Spaulding, a pastor and women's and ethnic studies professor at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, and Lorena Garcia of Denver, the executive director of the Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition.
They've got Bray's back, too.
"Our goal is definitely to make sure at least one of us gets into the primary. I absolutely support them," Garcia said.
"It’s essential that a real progressive makes the ballot — and a real progressive that values women’s voices. We are working overtime to make that happen."
Garcia, who is also circulating nominating petitions, said she wasn't sure whether she'll be near her home on March 7, but if she is, she plans to caucus for Spaulding.
The first-time candidate is a former executive director of the Colorado Organization For Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights and the former state director of 9to5 and the National Association for Working Women. She's also a former executive director of Namlo International, a nonprofit that supports self-sufficiency in Nepal and Nicaragua.
"We do want at least one of us, if not all of us, to make the ballot," said Spaulding, who ran last cycle against U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, the GOP incumbent who won a seventh term in the heavily Republican 5th Congressional District.
"Part of the strategy is for me to go through the caucus process," she added. "We are encouraging people in support of one or both or multiple of us that you can sign either petition, and you can caucus for me."
The strategy is at least partially dictated by the numbers.
Statewide candidates can make the primary ballot two ways in Colorado — by turning in 10,500 valid signatures from fellow party members, or by winning the support of 30% of delegates to the state assembly, in a process that starts at precinct caucuses.
It's a chore to collect that many signatures, which must be gathered from each of the state's seven congressional districts, but it's at least conceivable that quite a few candidates can qualify that way. The math, however, means that the assembly process can only send at most three — though more likely just two — candidates into the primary.
By just about every measure, the two leading Democratic candidates are former Gov. John Hickenlooper and former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, who have outraised Bray, Garcia and Spaulding many times over and are the only candidates to have registered above the low single digits in the scant polling that's been publicly released for the primary.
Both are planning to go through the caucus and assembly process; Hickenlooper is also petitioning.
They're also the only candidates who have run statewide — Hickenlooper twice, winning both times he ran for governor, and Romanoff once, when he lost a primary for Colorado's other U.S. Senate seat in 2010.
Five others are in the primary, including two women running their first campaigns, two men who recently jumped in the race and an enigmatic candidate who declared his bid in September but has yet to campaign actively.
All three of the women supporting each others' paths to the ballot told Colorado Politics that it wasn't hard to figure out they shared a common purpose.
"We are definitely very aligned in our thinking and our effort for at least one of the genuine progressive women to be on this ballot," Spaulding said. "Having gotten to know the hardy, the consistent candidates throughout this process, and we are the genuine progressives."
She said they gradually realized they could help each other over much of the past year as they crossed paths campaigning, but didn't articulate it until a forum sponsored by a consortium of young activists in December in Colorado Springs.
"A natural relationship began to develop," Spaulding said. "It wasn't made public until the question was raised for everyone at the youth debate — 'Of any other candidate, who would you support if not yourself?' None of the other candidates on the stage had the courage or the humility to articulate that anyone else was capable of earning their support, if it came down to it. They all gave canned answers, 'Of course I’ll support the nominee.' But the three of us were very clear, each of us saying, 'I will support the other two because of what I have seen of their character and their policies.'"
Garcia recalled the same moment at the debate when they proclaimed that they supported each other.
"Through all the forums, our policy platforms, people’s background, it’s clear who the real progressives are in this primary, and those are the three of us."
When she spoke with Colorado Politics, Garcia was on her way to Colorado Springs for the annual Womxn's March, where she and Spaulding were scheduled to deliver the keynote address together.
"It's things like that that demonstrate the unity that we have, and that we’re fighting really hard to make sure that a progressive woman not only gets ballot access but wins," she said. "This is a real opportunity."
"We have to do things differently to make sure a woman makes it into the primary, so Colorado can elect a progressive woman to the Senate," Bray said. "I’m hoping it’s me, but if it’s one or both of them, I would be OK with that."