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From left, Malie Foster, Jay Geyer and Steve Peterson. The trio are three of five independents running to be Colorado state legislators this year. (Photo illustration by Jesse Paul. Photos provided by candidates, Colorado Sun file)

If Jay Geyer’s pitch to voters sounds like it was written by an ethics teacher, well, that’s because it was.

The independent candidate for the Colorado General Assembly, who teaches ethics and political philosophy at CU Boulder, isn’t rallying supporters by pledging to vote a certain way on divisive social issues like guns or abortion.

You won’t find many pocketbook issues like taxes or health care on his campaign website. And there’s no mention at all of the man in the White House, who inflames more passion than perhaps any other topic in 2018.

Instead, he wants your vote because he thinks electing an independent is the right thing do.

Jay Geyer. (Provided photo)

“It’s really becoming almost an existential crisis in politics in America,” he told The Colorado Sun in an interview.

“It’s easy to get really cerebral on this stuff, but I’ve got two little kids and it’s really hard for me to imagine 10 or 15 years from now the country being in a stronger place than it is, or even in the same place that it is. Things are unraveling really, really quickly right now, and the root of the problem is the way politics is done.”

Backed by Unite America and its local affiliate, Unite Colorado, Geyer is among a slate of five independent candidates for the state legislature who want to upend what they see as a corrosive two-party system that has become more interested in defeating the opponent than in governing for the betterment of society.

To do that, they’re trying to win over a shrinking political middle that experts aren’t sure exists — at least not in the numbers needed to win an election.

VOTER GUIDE 2018: Resources, explainers, latest news and more

Still, in theory, the idea makes sense, and it holds a lot of appeal for those who long for an exit ramp from the tribalistic status quo. Just a few independents can deny one-party control in the U.S. Senate and dozens of statehouses like Colorado, forcing the two parties back to the center if they hope to pass legislation. And Colorado, where 38 percent of voters don’t identify with either party, seems as good a place as any to try it.

But in practice?

Unite’s troubled execution of its political strategy — culminating in campaign finance complaints that the group denies — raises questions about the group’s viability. And when the votes are tallied on Nov. 6, the effort may only serve to reinforce the conventional wisdom about politics in America.

“If you don’t change the (electoral) system,” says Kyle Saunders, a political science professor at Colorado State University who studies political parties and elections, “you’re always going to have an equilibrium of two parties.”

The weaknesses in the independent “fulcrum strategy”

Unite America calls it the “fulcrum strategy.” Elect three to five independents per statehouse, the thinking goes, and suddenly moderates become the fulcrum — the swing vote — and sane bipartisan governance can break through the partisan quagmire once again.

But an analysis by The Sun of the 22 state legislative races nationally where Unite has endorsed candidates found that only a few would make progress toward that end. Others would actively detract from the group’s stated goal of a split legislature.

Take Maine.

The group is backing four candidates in the state House, including one incumbent. But only one of the other three would actually help chip away at a three-seat Democratic majority if they won. Meanwhile, in the state Senate, which is controlled by just a single Republican vote, the Unite candidate is running for a seat held by a Democrat, targeting the minority party instead of taking a decisive vote from the party in charge.

In Colorado, the same oddities emerge. The group is active in the House, backing candidates in four races — three currently held by Democrats and one by a Republican. But Democrats have a seven-seat majority, and with liberal enthusiasm at a recent high for a midterm election, few believe that majority is in real danger.

The state Senate, meanwhile, is controlled by just a single seat; but in the seven most hotly contested races, Unite is nowhere to be found. Instead, they’re targeting a single Republican lawmaker, Majority Leader Chris Holbert, in a district that elected Republicans by landslides in the past two elections.

The Colorado Senate chamber on Sept. 18, 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Nick Troiano, Unite’s executive director, suggested in an interview that people shouldn’t read too much into which districts it’s competing in across the country. He said the group simply endorsed in races where it had high-quality candidates who were committed to running.

“We’re not in a back lab somewhere where we can perfectly engineer the kind of candidate in the exact right district with the best opponent and the state legislature that’s just perfectly divided,” Troiano said.

And he notes, in places like Alaska, Arizona and New Mexico, the districts where Unite is competing are more aligned with the group’s long-term goals.

But in the short-term, he said, the point is to show that independents can win. And, counterintuitively, it may be easier to do that in a seat considered “safe” than in tightly contested races that are attracting six-figure spending from both sides.

“As both parties become more unpopular, the desire for a third party grows, but so does the risk of voting for an independent that might wind up — from the voter’s perspective — taking away votes from one side or another,” Troiano said. “That’s why it’s hard for independents to achieve escape velocity — escape the gravitational pull of the two-party system.

“But once they’re able to show that they’re credible and that they can win, that’s when I think they are able to assemble that coalition that can help get them elected.”

Can an independent candidate win in Colorado?

In interviews, emails and public appearances, the Colorado candidates backed by Unite come across as genuine independents, with varied viewpoints on issues such as taxes, schools, and oil and gas.

None of them plan to caucus with either party, but Steve Peterson, the Holbert challenger, said he would be open to doing so for part of his term in order to build the relationships needed to form a governing coalition.

Steve Peterson. (Provided photo)

The main thing that unites them is political reform. And they say that message is resonating with voters.

“From talking to folks around the district, nobody doesn’t identify with that,” Geyer said. “You say ‘the system’s broken and both parties are responsible,’ and people cut me off — ‘Yes! Thank you for saying that.’ ”

Troiano insists they can win at least one race — and if you follow the money, the group believes its best shot is House District 59, a competitive seat that Rep. Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango, won two years ago by fewer than 700 votes. This time, there’s no Republican in the race, and Paul Jones, a self-described fiscal conservative, social Libertarian and lifelong independent, is seeking to win over the displaced GOP base as well as unaffiliated voters.

Unite’s election fund has spent $277,371 on advertising through mid-October, with the vast majority going to Jones’ race, according to campaign finance filings.

But — again undercutting their stated strategy — the group has spent almost nothing to defeat Holbert, the Senate Republican whose seat could give them a deciding vote in the legislature.

And in other races — like House District 33, where Geyer is running in a four-way race against incumbent Democrat Matt Gray, a Republican, and a Libertarian — the Unite candidates appear far more likely to play the role of third party spoiler than to win the district outright.

Meanwhile, the campaign infrastructure that Unite was set up to provide has had struggles of its own.

CPR reported this month that the Secretary of State’s office is reviewing what it considers a credible campaign finance complaint against the group, which was accused by four Democratic voters of violating transparency and disclosure requirements as well as donation limits. This week, Unite and three of its candidates were hit with additional complaints filed by Matt Arnold, a political activist notorious for his prolific filing of campaign finance grievances.

Troiano has denied any wrongdoing.

MORE: A preview of Colorado’s 2018 ballot: Taxes, roads and an existential crisis for oil and gas

Colorado political consultants say the group may face an even bigger problem. There’s a reason the two parties exist in the first place: to give voters an idea of what each side stands for.

“They’re basically setting up a third party that stands for nothing,” said Ian Silverii, executive director of Progress Now Colorado, a liberal advocacy group.

Indeed, the candidates’ campaign sites don’t offer voters many clues to their ideologies, aside from the reform-minded centrism that they all adhere to.

In response to surveys from the Colorado Sun, three of the five (Geyer, Jones, and Peterson) profess to be from the center or center-right — fiscal conservatives, with moderate to liberal social views. But when it comes to how they’d vote on specific policies, they’re all over the map. Geyer supports the sales tax hike for roads and income tax hike for schools. Jones supports the transportation tax hike, but not the one for schools. And Peterson opposes both.

All three oppose the other major initiatives on the ballot — “Fix Our Damn Roads” (Proposition 109), the government takings measure (Amendment 74), or 2,500-foot oil and gas setbacks (Proposition 112). But Geyer said he would support a 2,500-foot “consent perimeter,” that would give homeowners a say in future development.

The three said they have voted for candidates from both parties in recent presidential elections, but no one backed President Donald Trump.

One candidate, Mailie Foster, declined to describe her political ideology and wouldn’t say who she voted for in recent elections. Another, Thea Chase, did not respond to emailed questions.

To elect independents, you may need to change how we vote

Saunders, the political science professor, hates to be the guy to throw cold water on the movement.

“I study polarization. I know how bad it is,” he said. “It’s the worst that it’s been since the Civil War. We need to moderate this somehow.”

He just doesn’t think Unite’s strategy is likely to succeed.

The problem is twofold. One, he says, “the middle is more partisan than it seems.” And the numbers bear that out. Few people split-ticket vote these days, and most people who identify as independent actually lean one way or the other and vote just as reliably as most partisans.

But, perhaps more importantly, America’s “plurality wins” voting system actively deters people from casting a ballot for an independent. In a three-way race with a polarized electorate, a vote for the middle is typically a vote for the loser, raising fears among voters that they could be inadvertently electing the candidate they like the least.

The Colorado House of Representatives, pictured in September. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

To give independents a consistent chance? Saunders says you have to change how people are elected. Otherwise, history will simply repeat itself.

One option is ranked-choice voting, and Maine this year will become the first U.S. state to employ it. Here’s how it works: in a four-way race, voters rank their choices from one through four. If no one receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the voters’ second choice is taken into account, and so on, until someone receives a true majority.

The system isn’t perfect; the city of Aspen tried it in local elections in 2009, then repealed it after voters reported confusion with the process. But Nick Thomas, an independent candidate for Congress in Boulder, thinks it could work if implemented correctly, and he hopes other independents will focus their efforts on generating support for the idea statewide in the coming years.

But in the meantime? Thomas, who describes himself as “socially progressive and fiscally responsible,” is frank about his chances in a race led by Democrat Joe Neguse:

“It’s probably not going to happen this round.”


Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @brianeason