The major races in Colorado’s June 28 primaries occur on the Republican side this year. But as a result of a law approved by Colorado voters in 2018, unaffiliated (Independent) voters can now participate by choosing to vote in either party’s primary, potentially affecting results. What impact, if any, will the participation of Colorado’s Independents (40% of registered voters) in the primary elections have? How might primary results affect the upcoming midterm elections in November? What could those results mean for the 2024 presidential race?
CU Denver News asked Paul Teske, dean of CU Denver’s School of Public Affairs, to share his insights about the importance of the primaries in general and the specifics this year that might influence the upcoming local, state, and national political climate to come.
How do the primaries work?
Both parties have processes including caucuses, assemblies, and petitions for how you get on the primary ballot. (Winning candidates in the primaries are then placed on the November general election ballot.) Because most of the elected officials right now are Democrat incumbents who are largely unopposed, most of the competition is on the Republican side. In the Republican party you’ve got those who support Donald Trump and a few who don’t and that’s what some of the local and state primary races on the Republican side are about and that’s also true nationally.
Colorado does have a new, fairly unique piece to the primary elections. In the past only those registered as a Democrat or Republican could vote in their respective primaries. But in 2018 Colorado voters approved a proposition that allowed the 40% of Colorado voters registered as Independents to decide to vote in either party primary, but not both.
The theory was that it would moderate candidates elected in the primaries because the more active, excited people who participate in the primaries on the Democrat and Republican sides lean farther left and farther right respectively than your average voter on either side. The concern among the people that moved this initiative forward was that we were getting candidates in the general election who come from the extremes.
So, if you’re an Independent and you want to vote in the primary, you request to receive a Democrat or Republican ballot when you register to vote?
Yes, you have to ask for one or the other, otherwise you will receive both party ballots and must only cast one party’s ballot. (If both are returned, neither is counted.) I don’t think a large number of people actually do request one or the other but it’s possible there could be a little bit of gaming that goes on. For example, of the 40% of voters in Colorado registered as Independent, political research suggests that probably 75% of those Independents lean pretty strongly either Republican or Democrat.
You would think that they would sign up for the party they leaned toward. But if you’re an Independent but you lean Democrat, you could request a Republican primary ballot and decide you’re going to support the very right-wing Republicans because you think they will lose in a general election against the Democrats. Or you could support a moderate Republican because if a Republican is going to win in the general, you’d rather have a moderate.
Overall, it sounds like the June primaries are especially important for Republicans and Independents this year.
On the Republican side there are definitely important choices. For example, in the Secretary of State race, Tina Peters, the Mesa County Clerk, is a Republican candidate who has been very much associated with the Trump theme that the presidential election was stolen (even though there is no supporting evidence) and is facing possible criminal issues that may or may not take her out of the race. Running against her is Pam Anderson, former Jefferson County Clerk, a much more moderate Republican who does not support the idea that Trump won the election.
What other state and national primaries are important to watch?
Certainly, the Republican Senate primary race for who will run against Michael Bennett in the fall. People disagree about how vulnerable Bennett might be. There are two candidates running, one a more extreme conservative (Ron Hanks) and one more moderate (Joe O’Dea). From Bennett’s perspective, if the Republicans nominate someone pretty extreme, the conventional wisdom is that it will probably help him as opposed to if they nominate a more moderate candidate. But if 40% of the Colorado electorate is Independent, there’s the possibility that their participation could swing the general election.
We also have a new congressional seat north of Denver as a result of redistricting in 2020 that was set up to include a pretty even percentage of Democrats and Republicans with maybe a very small Democratic advantage. So, again, if the Republicans come out of their primaries with an extreme right candidate versus a moderate, that might make a difference in that race.
Overall, 2022 is supposed to be a very bad year for Democrats. Democrat Ed Perlmutter is retiring from the 7th Congressional District and State Senator Brittany Pettersen is running in the primary for his seat. If the Republicans elect a good candidate in their primary, they might have a shot in that race. As for Governor, Jared Polis is still pretty popular and likely to win a second term and in the Attorney General’s race, Philip Weiser, Democrat incumbent, would normally be seen to be in pretty good shape but that could turn out to be closer than expected.
All these races are somewhat influenced by national trends where the party of the President in power almost always loses in the midterm elections. So, it’s expected to see some turnover in Washington, especially given high inflation and the war in Ukraine. There’s a bit of a headwind running against the Democrats although the last several elections in Colorado have been pretty pro-Democratic. I think it will be interesting to see, having recently moved in Colorado from a purple to a blue state, if that holds true for a while, if that shifts to purple again in November, or if the Democrats win in these races, whether it feels more solidly blue.
Why is it important to vote in the primaries this year regardless of your political affiliation?
I think it’s important if you’re a Democrat to register your interest and get in the habit of filling out your ballot and returning it. It’s easy in Colorado, you get the ballot in the mail, and there are all these places you can drop it off for free, or you can mail it back. And then if you’re on the Republican or Independent side this time around your vote in the primary could have a real impact on the outcome of the November elections where every vote counts.
You can find more Colorado Election and Voter Registration Information here.