NOONAN: Can Morgan Carroll bring unaffiliateds into the Democratic fold?

Author: Paula Noonan - November 10, 2017 - Updated: November 10, 2017

Paula Noonan
Paula Noonan

It’s not just the Republican party fracas that’s in the news.  The Democratic party is scrambling too.  Two feature news articles in Time and the New York Times describe the cri de coeur and muck of national Democrats.  Then came Donna Brazile’s blistering takedown in her book, Hack, all puns intended.

Colorado’s Democratic party is in better shape than the national party.  Hillary Clinton won the election here. The governorship and state House of Representatives are in Democratic hands.

Nov. 7 local elections saw pro-neighborhood school winners in the Douglas County and Aurora School Board races and mixed results in Denver.  Progressive and local environmental issues won along the north FrontRange.

Still.  In 2012, Unaffiliateds started their takeover of voter registrations.  Republicans and Democrats lost that race in 2014 when unaffiliateds increased their numbers by 187,559 voters.  Democrats barely passed Republicans in registration in 2016 at 1,050,234 to Republicans at 1,044,759.  But unaffiliateds now stand at 1,143,130.

Since 2012, Democrats have increased their numbers by 193,655, Republicans by 134,637, and Unaffiliateds by 374,119.

Former Senate President Morgan Carroll, current chair of the state Democratic party, has some theories as to why both parties’ registrations declined relative to unaffiliateds.  One view predominates:  “The increase of unlimited, undisclosed, negative advertising and the amount of money from undisclosed individuals are evil,” she says, and there’s “the collective impact of negative campaigns as acts of voter suppression.”

Then there’s the party itself.  Activists new to politics see the party as a bureaucratic, rule-driven club that excludes them. “Today’s activists are galvanized by issues,” Carroll says. “Democrats need to stand in where there’s a civics gap.”

The party is suspended between antiquated structure and the issues that consume peoples’ passions. “We have to partner with activists to work on issues they care about.   Progressive unaffiliateds will come into the party when the party gets as active on causes as it is getting Democrats elected. Young people are great activists.  They need to see us on the front line.”

County parties are usually the first contact point for voters.  They’re run by volunteers, so there’s a pinch on resources. “The state party makes resources and training available,” says the chair. It’s also developing a “talent bank” to make sure that individuals with expertise use their skills where they’re most needed.

The party’s principal mission is to recruit, train, and elect candidates.  The past process for selecting candidates, according to Carroll, is antiquated.  “Anything that feels like a coronation is suspect.”

Adding a primary election to the traditional caucus is one step toward a more open process.  “Of course, no one knows how that’s going to affect campaigns except for all the money.”  In years past, both parties discouraged primary challengers due to the job of gathering funds to compete and negative campaigning.  No more for Democrats.

But the Democratic party does want to prevent a circular firing squad.  “Our candidates can take a clean campaign pledge for the primaries,” Carroll says, advertising their commitment to the positive on their campaign materials.  Even so, media mergers and the “money is speech” ruling by the Supreme Court have caused campaign costs to soar.

While virtual communities, social networks, and common causes connect people today, Carroll remains committed to organizing locally around traditional precincts and districts.  The current pull of issues now leans voters toward the Democrats.  Tying the party to causes, people, passion, and location is the challenge.

Paula Noonan

Paula Noonan

Paula Noonan owns Colorado Capitol Watch, the state’s premier legislature tracking platform.