Elections are about addition.
In Colorado, neither Republicans nor Democrats can win an election purely by turning out their own base. To win, each party must add to its own turnout by persuading voters who are unaffiliated, members of “minor” parties or disaffected members of the rival major party.
Consider the share of ballots cast by Republicans and Democrats in the past three general elections:
- In 2016, Republicans cast 33.4% of all ballots to Democrats’ 32.7%.
- In 2018, Republicans trailed 31%-33%.
- In 2020, Republicans trailed 29%-31%.
In the last two elections, Republicans running statewide have started with a turnout deficit, so they needed to persuade more unaffiliated voters than did their Democrat opponents. But instead of improving their strategy to win the hearts and minds of unaffiliated votes (UAVs), Republicans have been falling further behind. Barack Obama won 60% of UAVs in 2012; Hillary Clinton won 62% in 2016; Jared Polis won 65% of UAVs in 2018; and Joe Biden won 65% of UAVs in 2020.
If Republicans continue to produce a smaller share of general election voters and lose UAVs by 2-to-1, GOP statewide candidates will be irrelevant. But it doesn’t have to be this way. In 2014, while Democrat John Hickenlooper won 67% of UAVs, Republican Attorney General candidate Cynthia Coffman won 58% of UAVs.
That’s why the current effort by some Republicans to eliminate our primary election to stop UAVs from influencing the outcome is courting disaster.
Republicans have a bad habit of believing it’s more important to be right than to win – or letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Our candidates brag about their pristine conservative voting records without mentioning that too many of those votes were cast on the losing side.
As my old friend Sen. Ken Chlouber (R-Leadville) used to remind us, “If we don’t win, we don’t govern!” Unless a lawmaker is voting in the majority, none of those conservative votes produces greater liberty for ordinary Coloradans.
Republican Party activists – myself included – already have an advantage in selecting our candidates. By law, the top positions on the primary ballot are reserved for candidates who seek the party’s nomination through the caucus and assembly which is limited to registered Republicans.
But that brings to mind another reason why snubbing unaffiliateds who want to vote in our primary is a bad idea.
Sometimes candidates decide to bypass the assembly and petition onto the ballot for strategic reasons. In various circumstances, it can make sense to lock up a place on the ballot without the unpredictability of an assembly. But that strategy sometimes backfires.
In 2010, former Lt. Governor Jane Norton was seeking the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate. Jane was well-liked, well-known and had impeccable pro-life and conservative credentials. She led handily in most polls early in the year. But her campaign decided to bypass the state assembly and instead petition onto the primary ballot.
Her absence left then-Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck as the strongest candidate at the assembly. Many delegates who would have supported Norton instead took a liking to Buck, in Norton’s absence, and then stuck with him. Buck’s momentum grew, and he ultimately won the primary by 3%. Leaving her supporters with no choice but to support someone else – even for a day – likely cost Norton the election.
Republicans face the same mistake. Canceling our own primary would leave the Democrat primary as “the only game in town.” UAVs, who now receive both parties’ primary ballots and choose which one to vote, would in the future receive only the Democrat primary ballot, as if Republicans no longer exist. That would pave the way for unaffiliated voters to get into the habit of voting for Democrats.
Colorado Republicans are flirting with political suicide. We can’t win elections without attracting unaffiliated voters, whom Democrats shrewdly embrace. If Republicans shun them, our party – and candidates – will become irrelevant.