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COVER STORY | Colorado’s dark horses: What makes non-major-party candidates run?

Author: Marianne Goodland - November 5, 2018 - Updated: November 6, 2018

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Unity Party founder and 2018 Colorado gubernatorial candidate Bill Hammons (Photo courtesy Hammons via Facebook)

For some minor-party and unaffiliated candidates, running for office is a labor of love. Others run to advance their party’s name recognition to the point where their candidates will someday be viable.

But don’t suggest to any of them that a vote for a candidate who doesn’t have a “D” or “R” by their name is a waste.

“God did not ordain two parties in the United States,” said Bill Hammons, the Unity Party’s candidate for Colorado governor.

This year, 55 candidates who don’t represent one of the two major parties are running for statewide, congressional and legislative seats in Colorado. Libertarians are the biggest group, with 22 candidates — six running for congressional seats and the rest competing for statewide offices.

Another 13 are unaffiliated or independent candidates; the rest come from an assortment of third parties: the Approval Voting Party, the Green Party, the Unity Party and the American Constitution Party.

To become a candidate for a top statewide office, such as attorney general or governor, a non-major-party candidate needs 1,000 signatures or 2 percent of the votes cast in the previous primary, whichever is less. For a seat in the state House of Representatives, it’s 400 signatures or 2 percent; for a state Senate seat, it’s 600 signatures or 2 percent.

Third-party candidates can also get on the ballot through their party’s state assembly, if they have one.

The problems that these “dark horse” candidates face might best be told by Charles Messick, a Libertarian candidate for Senate District 20, which includes Wheat Ridge and part of Lakewood. It’s one of the five hottest races for control of the state Senate.

Charles Messick, a Libertarian candidate for the state Senate District 20 seat, says, “Even if our candidate doesn’t win, at least our voices are heard.” (Courtesy of his campaign)

Messick got a call about two months ago from someone taking a poll in the district. He was asked if he was more likely to vote Democrat or Republican or if he was undecided. He told the pollster that he was, in fact, a candidate for the district seat. The pollster wouldn’t give up and asked twice more whether he would vote Democrat or Republican.

Someone may have learned from that experience, because Messick says he got another call from a pollster recently that allowed a choice other than Republican or Democrat.

Libertarian James Gilman of Black Hawk is another candidate in one of those five hot Senate races: In Senate District 16, which is held by Republican incumbent Sen. Tim Neville of Littleton. The Democrat in the race is Tammy Story.

Gilman describes his campaign as low-key. He hasn’t attempted to raise any money, and because he does shift work, he has had limited time for campaigning.

What he’s enjoyed most is talking to people. Gilman said he believes he has a small but widespread base of support in the mountain communities of the district, such as in Gilpin County and the towns of Conifer and Evergreen.

Gilman said he has gotten an “honest perspective on what people see with a Democrat or Republican as their only true viable options. It’s very educational.”

He said he differentiates himself from the major-party candidates “by not having my feet held to the fire” by big-party agendas. The Libertarian Party agenda for government is minimalistic, he said, and its approach is the “get out of my bedroom and backyard” mentality that people say they support.

But people are also gun-shy about voting for someone other than a Democrat or Republican, Gilman said. “They know what they will get with one party or the other, but not with a Libertarian.”

Gilman is already thinking about his political future after the election: “I’ll get some votes,” he said. “It will be interesting to see how many.”

And the number of votes he gets will give him feedback about whether to run a more aggressive campaign in the future, he said. “This is kind of a test of the waters.”

Thea Chase, an unaffiliated candidate in House District 54 (Photo by Darlene Holmes, courtesy Chase campaign)

The 10 percent threshold

For unaffiliated or independent candidates, the first choice might be what to call yourself. There’s no definition in state law about what such a candidacy means, other than not being affiliated with a party. As a result, you’ll see some candidates on the ballot identified as unaffiliated, and others as independent.

Thea Chase is an independent candidate in House District 54, in Western Colorado’s Mesa and Delta counties. She chose the term “independent” for herself rather than “unaffiliated” as she believed it would be more understandable. There’s also the “UN” part of “unaffiliated.” To her, that means the absence of something and she thought it wasn’t as good a description. And while she is an independent, she has been endorsed by Unite Colorado, which seeks to support select unaffiliated candidates.

Chase has had an experience that many non-major-party candidates lack: winning. She’s currently a trustee on the Palisade Town Council, elected two years ago. She points to her 25 years in the Grand Valley and business experience, which she said has provided her with strong name recognition.

This year marks the first entrance into statewide politics for the Unity Party, founded by Bill Hammons of Boulder some 14 years ago. Hammons ran for Congress twice, in 2008 and 2010, but this is his first time running for a Colorado statewide office. He’s one of two minor-party candidates on the ballot for governor, along with Scott Helker of the Libertarian Party.

Hammons isn’t naive about his chances of winning the race. “Don’t get me wrong, it would be great if we could win the election,” he told Colorado Politics. But his goal is more big picture: Getting attention for the Unity Party that could help it surpass the magic 10 percent voting threshold in the gubernatorial election that qualifies a minor party as a major one.

Tom Tancredo at a campaign stop in Colorado Springs on Oct. 1, 2010. He ran as a third-party candidate for governor that year, finishing ahead of Republican Dan Maes but losing to Democrat John Hickenlooper. (Kevin Kreck, The Gazette – file)

It’s not unheard of or even an unlikely goal. Go back to 2010, when former Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo ran for governor as a candidate of the American Constitution Party (ACP). Tancredo earned 36.4 percent of the vote and the ACP, just like that, was a major party in Colorado for the next four years.

Tancredo finished ahead of the Republican in the 2010 race, Dan Maes, who earned so few votes that the Republican Party came within 17,524 votes of being relegated to minor party status.But Democrat John Hickenlooper was elected.

Tancredo was back in the fold of the Republican Party just a few months later. The ACP’s run as a major party ended four years later. It  didn’t even run a candidate for governor in 2014 and isn’t running one this year, either.

This year, Amanda Campbell is the ACP’s choice for secretary of state and the highest profile ACP candidate on the ballot. She’s the daughter of Douglas “Dayhorse” Campbell, who ran several times for Congress and was the party’s leader in Colorado until he passed away in June 2014.

She doesn’t regret seeing the ACP slide back to minor-party status, citing bureaucratic headaches and cost, which she said was more than the party wanted to deal with.

During those four higher-profile years, the party didn’t achieve what it needed to to make a lasting mark on the public, Campbell said. As a minor party, it gets to make its own rules, and one is around money. It can collect dues, which is the major funding source for the party, and can restrict voting at its state assembly through its bylaws to dues-paying members. For major parties, she said, state statute setsthe rules first and party bylaws come second.

She said she chose the secretary of state’s office because she spent a lot of time there over the years tagging along with her father, giving her a front-row seat to what he was trying to accomplish and the roadblocks he faced. It gave her lots of experience with elections and the voting process, she said.

Campbell, a small-business owner, also said she’s dealt with the office on business matters. She’s also carrying on her father’s legacy and interests, noting that he was a single father and instilled in his children the issues he was passionate about.

‘All for solving problems’

Hammons, on the other hand, is itching for the Unity Party to gain enough ground to reach major party status. He pointed out that the party is now active in 38 states. “Almost every run I’ve made for office is to give the Unity Party a voice,” he said recently.

He said running to make a difference is a great goal, but “I’m a firm believer that this is not the game we’re playing right now.” He wants to achieve the 10 percentthreshold and make the Unity Party a major party in 2020. That would help the party put a presidential candidate at the top of the ticket, at least in Colorado, he said.

Messick also would like to see the Libertarian Party reach that magic 10 percent level. He pointed out his party has grown dramatically in the last few years. More people are willing to run and participate in the party, he said, and are sufficiently disappointed in the current representation to do something about it.

Hammons said voters seem to be excited about just what the Unity Party is and what it stands for. “People are looking for alternatives” to the two major-party opponents, he said.

As with other non-major-party candidates, Chase, the House District 54 independent, said she’s committed to making sure everyone’s voice is heard. “It’s our job to seek out those opinions,” she said. “I’m passionate about looking at the political arena differently.”

In a district that routinely elects Republicans, Chase points out that she appeals to Republicans because she isn’t a Democrat. She’s opposed to Proposition 112, which would restrict most oil and gas development near buildings, and single-payer health care.

“I’m all for solving the problem, but it seems like people are coming up with the solution first,” she said.

Republicans are comfortable with her for another reason, she said: business. She’s been running a business incubator center for startups in the valley for years.

You don’t have to look far to see where non-major-party candidates miss out the most, and that’s in  candidate debates. Only one person who spoke to Colorado Politics — Chase — has been regularly invited to participate in area debates, including the Club 20 debate in September.

Chase, however, is the only other candidate on the ballot for the House District 54 seat; the Democrat dropped out during the summer, leaving Republican Soper as the only other contender. But Chase said she was invited to the Club 20 debate before the Democrat dropped out. She got in, she said, because she met the Western Slope advocacy group’s criteria, which she said was based in part on viability. “I’ve been invited to every debate since then.”

Messick said being left out of the debates and a lot of other things is frustrating. In publications or debates where candidates are listed, those who don’t have a D or R behind their name usually don’t get mentioned, he said. He said he even reached out to some of the publications running voter guides, asking to be included. “I didn’t expect long blurbs, but hoped to be included.” Most have ignored him.

Campbell said she also hasn’t been invited to debates, claiming they have “certain rules that guard them.” She said the debate hosts also consider polling numbers, and candidates often don’t get invited unless they’re polling at 25 or 30 percent. She has, however, been invited to speak at town halls and breakfasts about the issues.

When the ACP was a major party, however, its candidates did get invited to debates, Campbell said. “It did open doors to invitations to debates that are closed to minor parties.”

Spoiler alert

There are instances when minor party or unaffiliated candidates are accused of being spoilers, taking votes away from major-party candidates. That was the label some pasted on activist Ralph Nader in 2000. When Nader ran for president that year as the Green Party candidate, he won enough votes in key states that some said he cost Democrat Al Gore the election; Republican George W. Bush became president.

In Colorado, dark-horse candidates are sometimes asked to drop out to avoid costing a major-party candidate the election.

The non-major-party candidates who spoke to Colorado Politics dismiss the spoiler argument. They have a right to be on the ballot, too, they say.

As Hammons, the Unity Party’s candidate for governor, sees it, if his votes total more than the spread between major-party candidates Jared Polis and Walker Stapleton, the story of Election Night will be his party and his ticket, he said.

“We aren’t spoilers,” Hammons added. “This is what the system supports.”

“We get the argument that we’re stealing votes from Republicans,” said Campbell, of the ACP. “No vote is wasted. You either agree with the office or candidate or you don’t. If you don’t, like many who don’t agree how money is being spent, your vote does the talking when your politicians aren’t doing what you need them to do. If more people believed there was a disservice by who is picked by Ds or Rs, spent their vote accordingly, we would have better serving politicians.”

It’s one of the reasons she likes “ranked choice” voting, a system in which voters choose multiple candidates, and rank them in order of preference. Ranked voting would do away with the argument that your vote is wasted by choosing a dark-horse candidate, Campbell said. “I might get more votes. They agree with me first, but if I don’t get the most the votes they shift to the next person.”

“There is an argument for stealing the vote,” Campbell added, “but the other side is that if you don’t think you’ve been served well you won’t vote for that person anyway. I do my community a disservice by not running and not give them an option to vote for me.”

Gilman, in Senate District 16, said voters tell him they like the idea of a third party, but “I don’t want to waste my vote.” His response is to ask if it is more of a waste of a vote to “vote for someone who doesn’t share your ideals or interests.”

Don’t suggest to Messick, either, that Libertarians are spoilers. To those who ask if voting for a Libertarian is wasting their vote, he asks if voting for Hillary Clinton in 2016 was a waste because she lost.

“That’s the same way Libertarians feel,” Messick said. “Even if our candidate doesn’t win, at least our voices are heard.”

It shows arrogance, Messick added, for people to believe that if there wasn’t a Libertarian on the ballot that everyone would vote for the candidate of their choice. “Those who vote Libertarian are looking for someone to vote for rather than just someone to vote against,” he said.

It’s also a sign of the current political climate, Messick said, one in which two parties are constantly warring with each other rather than working together.

He recounted the first time he met the Democrat in the race, Speaker Pro Tem Jessie Danielson of Wheat Ridge. “I told her she was running a good campaign,” which he said appeared to take her by surprise, that another candidate would be nice to her.

“It’s sad that our politics have gotten to the point where we can only think about making the other person look bad rather than working together,” Messick said. “That’s what I offer.”

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland is the chief legislative reporter for Colorado Politics. She's covered the Colorado General Assembly for 20 years, starting off in 1998 with the Silver & Gold Record, the editorially-independent newspaper at CU that was shuttered in 2009. She also writes for six rural newspapers in northeastern Colorado. Marianne specializes in rural issues, agriculture, water and, during election season, campaign finance. In her free time (ha!) she lives in Lakewood with her husband, Jeff; a cantankerous Shih-Tzu named Sophie; and Gunther the cat. She is also an award-winning professional harpist.