Election 2018FeaturedNews

TRAIL MIX | Is it time for independent candidates to shine?

Author: Ernest Luning - July 13, 2018 - Updated: July 26, 2018

Nick Troiano, executive director of Unite Colorado (Ernest Luning/Colorado Politics)

The independent slate of legislative candidates running under the Unite Colorado banner inched one step closer to getting on the ballot this week, potentially bringing them that much closer to doing something no independent Colorado candidate has done before — winning a seat in the General Assembly.

At a sparsely attended rally July 9 on the steps of the Capitol, the organization — which made a splash when it set up shop in Colorado and got involved in some municipal races last year under its old name, the Centrist Project — announced it was turning in something over 4,000 petition signatures for the five candidates it’s endorsing.

Altogether, that’s a little under twice the number of signatures needed for the five candidates to qualify for the November ballot. (It takes 400 valid signatures from registered district voters for House candidates, 600 for Senate candidates, or a total of 2,200 for Unite Colorado’s five hopefuls.)

The group also said it’s added one candidate to its roster and has dropped one of the candidates it initially backed, keeping its fingers in four state House races and one state Senate race.

“Unite Colorado is proud to congratulate all five of our endorsed independent candidates for state legislature on their successful signature gathering efforts,” Nick Troiano, the group’s executive director and a one-time independent candidate for Congress in Pennsylvania.

“The more than 4,000 petition signatures submitted to the secretary of state … are a clear statement that voters across the state desire a new and better option on their ballots this fall. We are thrilled to have the opportunity to support strong independent candidates who will put people over party in the Legislature.”

That’s the hope, anyway.

Colorado voters who don’t belong to either major political party flexed their collective muscles in the primary that concluded a few weeks ago, returning ballots in numbers higher than anticipated. It’s unclear whether the unaffiliated vote — which amounted to about one-quarter of the ballots cast in the Democratic and Republican primaries — swayed the outcome, or whether once all the data has been sliced and diced, it will turn out the unaffiliated voters voted like their partisan cohorts.

But one thing is clear: Unaffiliated voters appear to be energized this year. The question is whether unaffiliated candidates will benefit.

Unite Colorado candidates accounted for five of the 11 unaffiliated legislative candidates who turned in petitions by the July 12 deadline, Secretary of State Wayne Williams said. (In all, 35 candidates running for Congress, statewide and legislative offices, as well as the nonpartisan Regional Transportation District Board of Directors, submitted signatures.)

The group is testing two propositions in Colorado. The first is that independent candidates can win election in today’s ultra-polarized political environment if they have something like the kind of infrastructure the parties provide to their candidates. The second is something called the “fulcrum strategy” — Centrist Project founder Charlie Wheelan’s notion that a small number of unaligned lawmakers can force legislative bodies toward common-sense solutions to problems that Republicans and Democrats are too rigid to tackle.

Before announcing its plans, the group commissioned polling in Colorado last year that found voters dissatisfied with both parties. A full 85 percent said they would be open to supporting an independent legislative candidate.

Armed with those poll results and a core group of supporters, including tech entrepreneurs who have come to value market disruption, the Centrist Project invested some money and tried out some strategies in three local races last fall and won one.

It’s likely all five of the candidates toasted at the group’s rally will qualify for the ballot, and they’ll probably be running more robust and visible campaigns than most unaffiliated candidates have — Unite Colorado officials said they’re going to spend around $1 million on the legislative races, including a months-long recruitment and training effort that got under way last fall.

Three candidates have worn the United Colorado colors since January: Maile Foster in El Paso County’s House District 18, Jay Geyer in Broomfield’s House District 33 and Steve Peterson in Senate District 30. In March, the group added Thea Chase in Mesa County’s House District 54, and at this past week’s rally Paul Jones, running in House District 59 in the southwest corner of the state, joined the crew.

A few days before the rally, the organization decided to pull its endorsement from Eric Montoya, a Thornton city councilman running in Adams County’s House District 31. Troiano told Colorado Politics the organization was no longer comfortable backing the candidate after some information came to light but declined to go into details. Montoya didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment, but he turned in petition signatures on July 12 and will know soon whether he has qualified for the ballot.

At the same time the group held its rally, organizers announced that one current and three former state legislators have joined its steering committee, including the General Assembly’s lone independent lawmaker, the term-limited state Sen. Cheri Jahn, who dropped her affiliation with the Democratic Party in January.

The others who have added their names to Unite Colorado’s list of advisors are former state Sen. Norma Anderson, a Lakewood Republican; former state Sen. Lois Tochtrop, an Adams County Democrat; and former state Rep. Rob Witwer, and Evergreen Republican.

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.