Surprises from an old system

Colorado’s caucus system is definitely dated, a relic from the 19th century that few states use anymore.

A number of pundits and political leaders have talked for years of scrapping the caucus system in favor of something more modern — perhaps one that allows candidates to simply file a declaration of their candidacy and opens up the primary elections to all voters.

But there has been no groundswell of public demand to abandon the caucus system. And Tuesday’s Colorado caucuses for both parties offered some insight into why that might be the case.

Take the Democratic race for the U.S. Senate. Incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet is clearly the choice of the Democratic establishment, having had President Barack Obama campaign in Denver on his behalf, and having raised almost 10 times as much campaign cash as his challenger, former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff.

But in straw polling conducted at Democratic caucuses around the state, Romanoff was the clear winner, garnering 51 percent of the votes to Bennet’s 42 percent. Mesa County Democrats were among the few to reverse that trend, giving the nod to Bennet by a margin of nearly 3 to 1.

In the Republican Senate race, underdog Ken Buck, a Greeley prosecutor, was dead even with former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton, who is the choice of many Republican Party leaders. In that race, results from Mesa County Republicans were nearly identical to those of their counterparts statewide.

Then there were the tea partiers, many of whom had never been active in politics until the tea party protests last year over health care reform and federal spending. Many of them also attended their first party caucuses Tuesday night. And their brand of fiscal conservatism is clearly a force to be reckoned with this year. Additionally, for the most part, they aren’t pounding the drum on social issues, as religious conservatives did when they dominated party politics a decade and more ago.

One knock against Colorado’s caucus system is that it can be easily controlled by the fringes of both political parties, not the centrists who make up the core of Colorado voters. But Tuesday’s results don’t paint that sort of picture.

After all, Romanoff was seen as a moderate Democrat while in the state Legislature, and on most policy issues, he is not fundamentally more liberal than Bennet. But he is more likable. And many Democratic Party loyalists believe he was given a raw deal when Gov. Bill Ritter appointed Bennet instead of Romanoff to replace Ken Salazar in the Senate.

On the Republican side, the conservative Buck drew substantial support in the Senate race. But the most conservative candidate in the gubernatorial race, businessman Dan Maes, gained little traction in his race against the more centrist former congressman, Scott McInnis.

Tuesday’s caucus results suggest that participants in both parties engaged enthusiastically at this most basic level of politics, but they want to make up their own minds, not have party bigwigs tell them who to support.


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