DENVER (CN) – Colorado’s primary elections will be open to 1.3 million unaffiliated voters for the first time in state history on June 26, leaving campaigns on both sides of the aisle vying for the support of independents.
Although the Centennial State last elected a Democratic governor and supported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race, the swing state’s elections are widely seen as toss ups due to an even split between Democratic, Republican and independent electors.
This year, independent voters in Colorado are allowed to participate in party primaries for the first time.
“This is a bit of a wild-card feature, and people are approaching it differently,” said Seth Masket, a professor of political science at the University of Denver and author of the book “The Inevitable Party: Why Attempts to Kill the Party System Fail and How They Weaken Democracy.”
“Some campaigns are really trying to take advantage of [the open primary], and deliberately trying to reach out to the more unaffiliated, more moderate voters,” Masket added.
With Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper leaving office after serving two terms, Lieutenant Governor Donna Lynne, also a Democrat, is eyeing the spot.
“We are thrilled that unaffiliated voters are voting in this election because we believe it is exactly those voters who Donna will appeal to. It’s exactly those voters who said ‘neither of the two parties meet my needs,’” said Michelle Ames, a campaign spokeswoman for Lynne. “She is not built to carry the party line, no matter what the party line is. She is built for those voters in that problem-solving middle.”
Many political campaigns are embracing the expanded pool of constituents, though few actually expect independents to determine the outcome.
“I think unaffiliateds are generally unaffiliated because they are less engaged, so their turnout won’t be vastly unexpected or unpredictable,” said Brett Maney, a spokeswoman for Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Robinson. “I think it will be pretty standard for what you see in the general.”
A recent poll by Magellan Strategies put State Treasurer Walker Stapleton in the lead of the Republican primary for governor with 36 percent of the vote, while 27 percent were undecided. A survey of Democratic voters last week estimated 39 percent were undecided, while 31 percent supported Congressman Jared Polis for governor.
Some voters view the open primary as an opportunity to play the game differently.
“I was a registered Democrat, but I changed it to unaffiliated so I could vote in the primary strategically,” said James Rogers. “[Former Congressman Tom] Tancredo was going to run and I thought, ‘oh, vote for him because he’s nuts and will probably lose the election,’ but he’s not running, so I’ll probably vote Democrat.”
Until he dropped off the Republican gubernatorial ticket in January, Tancredo was a regular contributor to the conservative website Breitbart and his extremist views were considered closely aligned with the alt-right movement.
Masket’s research shows that open primaries don’t necessarily make for more moderate candidates.
“One of the interesting things about when states have shifted from open to closed primaries, or the other way around, is that you don’t tend to see a shift in the sort of candidates that they nominate,” the professor said. “You still mostly get pretty conservative Republicans, pretty liberal Democrats. One reason is that even if independent unaffiliated voters can participate in a primary, they usually don’t.”
In addition to its “motor voter” program that registers citizens to vote when they sign up for a state driver’s license, Colorado has tried to increase voter turnout by putting ballots in the mailbox. Last week, unaffiliated voters received ballots in the mail with explicit instructions to only cast votes for one party.
A 2016 ballot measure approved by Coloradans opened up the party primary elections to independent voters, but the Legislature added a few conditions along the way: each voter may only vote for one party and whichever party they support will be made public record.
To avoid appearing too moderate too early on, candidates are instead trying to reach out to purple voters with progressive values.
“[Robinson’s] certainly a conservative, but he’s not just serving red meat all the time,” Maney said, describing the Republican gubernatorial candidate as a progressive conservative. “His base is certainly in the Republican Party, but his strengths both in the primary and in the general are in his ability to reach the independents.”
Voters who lean left are looking to Democratic candidates to protect them from Washington politics.
“I would say the rhetoric that the Republican Trump party that speaks to his base is ignorant, racist, fascist against the common person,” said Sasha Stiles, who has been voting Democrat “for forever.”
“So is that divisive? It’s worse than divisive, it’s heinous,” she said.
Jason Peters of Aurora said he’s planning to vote during the primary for Democrats to counteract Trump’s hold on the Republican Party.
“Personally, this next election, I’m trying to vote Democratic because I’m not a fan of Trump, so I believe if his party can’t have power … they won’t have as much control,” Peters said.
Democratic candidates have seized on that sentiment.
Asked whether Democratic gubernatorial candidate Cary Kennedy was running as a liberal or a moderate, her Deputy Communications Manager Serena Woods insisted, “She’s staying true to her progressive values.”
“I think that the Republican candidates for governor are following the lead that is coming out of Washington which is very divisive rhetoric and I think for most folks here in Colorado, both progressives and moderates and Republicans too feel that that’s not the way we do things,” Woods said “Cary uses this line of the campaign a lot, she says, ‘What happens in Washington stays in Washington.’”
Still, the open primary is not expected to bridge any divides between the parties.
Masket said that’s no accident.
“Parties are really trying to reinforce their divides,” he said. “They’ve been steadily polarizing, particularly in Colorado in recent years, and I certainly don’t see that evading. Republicans are largely … rallying behind Donald Trump. Democrats are largely lining up against him, that sort of trickles its way down throughout the political system.”
And disagreement isn’t a downfall—it’s democracy, he added.
“Fifty or 60 years ago, the big complaint about the party system was that the parties were too similar to each other, that they weren’t offering voters a choice,” Masket said. “You don’t have that problem anymore, they are definitely different. They are definitely offering a choice. The problems are where that interferes with governing, where a government truly cannot get anything done, because one side is doing absolutely everything to undermine what the other side is doing.”