GOP strategists skeptical Cynthia Coffman can petition onto primary ballot for governor

Author: Ernest Luning - February 2, 2018 - Updated: February 2, 2018

Attorney General Cynthia Coffman. (Courtesy photo)

Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman plans to petition her way onto the Republican primary ballot for governor, but her modest fundraising, lack of a statewide organization and late start add up to long odds against her, say two GOP strategists who have managed successful signature-gathering efforts for statewide candidates in recent election cycles.

“It is expensive, it is difficult. I really do think the baseline number you have to spend is $250,000,” said veteran GOP consultant Dick Wadhams, who ran Republican Jack Graham’s U.S. Senate campaign two years ago.

Graham, a former CSU athletic director who self-funded his campaign with nearly $2 million, was one of four GOP Senate candidates to qualify for the 2016 primary ballot by petition, but he was the only one to make it without having to sue the secretary of state to force election officials to validate additional signatures.

Coffman is one of nine Republicans running for governor, including three others who are attempting to get on the June primary ballot by petition, as opposed to through the caucus and assembly process. The other petitioners are State Treasurer Walker Stapleton, former state lawmaker and entrepreneur Victor Mitchell and former investment banker Doug Robinson, who is also Mitt Romney’s nephew.

At the beginning of January, according to the most recent campaign finance reports, Coffman had $85,000 on hand, including about $15,000 transferred from her attorney general campaign, while Stapleton had about $875,000 in the bank, Mitchell — who wrote his campaign a $3 million check at its outset — had something over $2 million, and Robinson had about $425,000.

“There’s only one way to do it right, and that’s to spend the money you need to spend and stay on top of it, day in and day out,” Wadhams said.

“The other candidates in 2016 all spent less than that to circulate petitions, but then they ended up having to go to court. In the final analysis, they paid as much or more as we did – they had to hire lawyers and go through frankly the embarrassing process of begging a judge to count their signatures.”

It takes 10,500 valid signatures – 1,500 from each of Colorado’s seven congressional districts – to win a spot on the June 26 primary ballot for a statewide, major-party candidate. Candidates could start circulating petitions on Jan. 16 and have until March 20 to turn them in.

Coffman’s three petitioning rivals were gathering signatures for a week by the time her petition was approved, underlining another potential obstacle.

For a signature to be counted, in the case of the GOP gubernatorial primary, it must belong to a voter currently registered Republican, and it can’t have already been counted on another candidate’s petition for the same office. This creates a race to turn in petitions in crowded primaries — petitions that aren’t turned in first risk having an unpredictable number of signatures ruled ineligible, a situation requiring candidates who start late to collect even more signatures.

“It’s not easy to do, and it’s not cheap, and it takes a really compelling candidate who’s very committed to making decisions quickly,” consultant Dustin Olson told Colorado Politics, before trailing off.

Coffman, who appeared to dither for months over whether to run for reelection or switch to the governor’s race — a step she ultimately took in November — is without question a compelling candidate, Olson added.

He managed former U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez’ successful petition drive onto the 2014 gubernatorial primary ballot and last year launched a signature-gathering company with some partners called The Signature Gathering Company.

One of the few top-tier Republican consultants who isn’t running a gubernatorial campaign in Colorado this year, Olson recently signed Robinson as a client of his petition firm. He says his observations about Coffman’s prospects can be viewed with that in mind but adds he’d offer the same advice to any candidate.

“If you don’t have the infrastructure, if you aren’t able to put it together to stand up a statewide signature campaign with volunteers, you’re going to be in a tough place,” he said. “Why we started The Signature Gathering Company is there hasn’t been integrity and competence in the industry in a number of years. The truth is, there’s not that many companies that can do this.”

“An option,” Olson added, “and this is what you have to hope for, is that some company has a project fall through, and they all of a sudden have an opening. But as the petitioning season moves forward, the cost for signature-gatherers increases — it’s just market forces.”

Wadhams said he was skeptical Coffman can do it, given evident financial constraints and the ticking clock.

“If she only had $85,000 in the bank on Jan. 1, according to the report, unless she comes up with a real windfall of cash, I struggle to see how she’s going to be able to spend the money to get on the ballot,” he said. “Maybe she thinks she’s got a vast network of supporters who will march around their neighborhood circulating petitions. I don’t see it. Maybe they exist.”

Coffman’s campaign didn’t responded to multiple requests for comment about her plans to petition. On Wednesday, a spokeswoman said in an email that Coffman “remains committed to petitioning onto the ballot.”

Olson said he wasn’t willing to rule out the possibility Coffman could pull it off, but he wondered if she shouldn’t switch gears at some point and go through the assembly process, which kicks off March 6 at precinct caucuses.

Both parties convene for their state assemblies on April 14 — the Democrats in Broomfield and the Republicans in Boulder. It takes the support of at least 30 percent of assembly delegates to win a spot on the primary ballot.

That process might have become considerably easier in the GOP gubernatorial race this week after former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, who had been the only prominent Republican going through assembly, announced he was dropping out of the race because his fundraising hadn’t met expectations. (At the end of the year, Tancredo had just over $60,000 in the bank.)

“A reason a lot of people decide to take the petition route is because, if you have the resources, if you have a good organization and you have a strong plan for the primary, it takes a lot of work, but you have a lot more control over your destiny,” Olson said. “Otherwise, you face the possibility that all of your resources go up in smoke if there’s a bad situation at assembly.”

He pointed to a couple of recent state GOP assembly upsets, like when underdog U.S. Senate candidate Darryl Glenn wound up keeping a half dozen other candidates off the ballot after delivering a speech — still referred to as “The Speech” — that knocked delegates’ socks off.

“You’re putting all the chips on one day, and it’s a big gamble, whereas the petition process – if you’re the tortoise and not the hare, you’re going to be successful,” Olson said. “Neither route is cheap, but one is more straightforward, and the other is more of a gamble.”

Still, he added, neither route is necessarily inexpensive.

“The cost of a really well run assembly campaign and the cost of petitioning are not that different, but petitioning requires more money up front, and sooner. You’re going to wind up in a situation where you’re living hand-to-mouth, every dollar going into the petition campaign, and that makes it difficult,” Olson said.

Wadhams made a similar point, suggesting Coffman might have a much-improved chance of making the ballot if she opted for the assembly route, despite her campaign’s insistence that was off the table.

“My advice to any candidate is, pick a process and devote yourself to it. Don’t mess around. The caucus/assembly process isn’t exactly easier – you have to commit to a set of car tires and drive around the state and show up wherever two potential Republican delegates are meeting,” he said, recalling the more than a year Glenn did just that to build support before his speech dazzled delegates. “She could probably run an effective assembly effort on $80,000, but if you haven’t devoted yourself to it and you decide to jump into that process in March, I don’t know.”

Olson pointed out that Coffman has options but noted she doesn’t have much time.

“What it’ll take for Cynthia is if she can raise money very quickly, and if there’s a petition company that becomes available, she can do it,” he said. “But, if she was asking me for my advice, I would tell her to strongly consider going through the assembly. She should be able to get 30 percent. However, in all of these scenarios, it’s not easy. It’s going to take something more than it looks like she has at this point, and there are other candidates out there who have strong, professional operations that have been working for a long time.”

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning is a political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has covered politics and government for newspapers and online news sites in Colorado for more than 25 years, including at the Highlands Ranch Herald, the Jefferson Sentinels chain of community newspapers and the Aurora Sentinel, where he was the city hall and cops reporter. After editing the Aurora Daily Sun, he was a political reporter and blogger for The Colorado Independent site. For nearly a decade, he was a senior political reporter and occasional editor at The Colorado Statesman before the 119-year-old publication merged with Colorado Politics in 2017.