Primary predicament

With two days to go until Colorado’s primary election, voters in this state, not to mention candidates, can be forgiven for suffering from PCE — political campaign exhaustion.

Pick your race: U.S. Senate for both parties, Congress, governor or state Legislature. If the candidates aren’t taking constant potshots at each other, their supporters are writing vitriolic letters to the editor or comments on media and political websites. In the governor’s race, there seems to be a new report each day in one media outlet or another, about the latest misstep by one of the two Republican contenders.

It’s that race, more than any other this year, that illustrates the problems with Colorado’s primary selection process.

For one thing — and tea party types are right in this respect — the process allows party leaders and their favored candidates to elbow most other candidates out of the game. Many people believe Josh Penry would have stayed in the race for governor if key figures in the Republican Party hadn’t made it clear Scott McInnis was their annointed candidate.

McInnis also talked Tom Tancredo out of running in the GOP primary by promising to incorporate part of Tancredo’s agenda into his own platform. Tancredo is now a third-party candidate for governor and a possible spoiler for the Republican nominee. He’s angry about the problems McInnis and fellow GOP candidate Dan Maes have gotten themselves into.

Second, the precinct caucus system allows small groups of very committed voters — often far from the mainstream of Coloradans in general — to control caucuses and push little-known or fringe candidates. This isn’t new in 2010. It has occurred for decades, often producing candidates who are unappealing to independents and moderates in both parties.

Finally, the requirement that candidates for party nomination receive at least 30 percent of the delegate vote at state or district conventions means that it’s unlikely voters will see more than two primary candidates in a single party for any given office.

We’re not thrilled with the easy primary-petition process some states use, which frequently results in a half-dozen or more candidates — some of whom fit nicely in the “buffoon” category.

But there is something appealing about a system in which anyone can run in a primary if he or she can find enough people to sign petitions on their behalf, without having to rely on the favors of party leaders or the small groups of voters who attend caucuses. That wouldn’t end nasty campaigns, of course, but it would provide party voters with more choices.

Think how much better off the Republican Party would be now if it had three or four legitimate candidates for governor. Voters turned off by McInnis and Maes would still have solid choices.

And Democrats, watching the stomach-churning politics of personal destruction that their U.S. Senate primary between Andrew Romanoff and Michael Bennet has devolved into, might still have a less-tainted candidate to back.

Colorado should dump the precinct caucuses, along with the county, district and state assemblies as a means of choosing primary election candidates. It should consider adopting an open primary system with petition requirements set high enough that the least-credible candidates would be dissuaded from running.

Meanwhile, we can all breathe a sigh of relief, knowing it’s almost over — at least until the general-election season begins in earnest on Wednesday.


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