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Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper turns in his signatures to secure his spot in the 2020 U.S. Senate Democratic primary on Feb. 19, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

In Colorado, Super Tuesday was just the start of the election year. The next part arrives Saturday when Democrats and Republicans host caucuses.

The 3,133 neighborhood-level meetings — held at schools, firehouses and community centers for each party across the state — are the first step toward naming delegates to the party conventions and selecting down-ballot candidates. It’s the first time in decades the two major parties hosted both a primary and caucuses.

For Democrats, it’s particularly important. The party will host a preference poll in the U.S. Senate race — a big test to see how much support former Gov. John Hickenlooper will get from the party faithful.

Hickenlooper is the top fundraiser in the race and the favorite of national Democratic leaders who prodded him to run. His two-terms as governor make him well-known and well-liked among Democrats, but he’s not a partisan cheerleader nor is he as progressive as the activists who typically attend the caucuses. 

He faces competition in the poll from four other candidates, including former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff who is highlighting Hickenlooper’s moderate stances and initial reluctance to run

On the Republican side, the party is backing U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner’s reelection and will not hold a preference poll.

Here’s what you need to know about the caucuses.

Why do we have a primary and caucuses?

The presidential primary on Super Tuesday was the first in Colorado in 20 years, and came after voters approved Proposition 107 in the 2016 election. The ballot measure reinstituted a primary to award delegates to party nominees for the White House, but it left the caucuses in place as a method to name party nominees for down-ballot races, such as U.S. Senate, the state legislature and district attorneys.

Let’s pause here to explain more. In Colorado, a candidate can qualify for the ballot by two methods. 

One path is the petition route where campaigns collect enough valid signatures from registered voters to secure a slot. It often costs big money — more than $250,000 or so — to hire canvassers to reach the benchmark.

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The second option is the caucus process, where candidates need votes from 30% of the delegates at party assemblies to earn a spot. This is the preferred option for candidates with limited campaign budgets because to qualify, they just need to win over supporters.

The caucuses Saturday are the start, and each precinct selects delegates to the county assemblies, where the process is repeated all the way to the state levels. The delegates at each stage get to vote for their favorite candidates and help determine who makes the ballot. 

What’s at stake in the caucuses Saturday?

The preference poll at Democratic caucuses will make the headlines. “Think of the caucuses as a sneak preview of support across the state,” said Democratic Party Chairwoman Morgan Carroll.

First and foremost, the initial vote will help determine which candidates will make the ballot for the June 30 primary. So the campaigns need to motivate their supporters to attend and become delegates. Five U.S. Senate candidates are seeking to qualify at the caucuses, so each is hoping to reach the 30% threshold so they can accumulate enough delegates for the vote at the state assembly.

Hickenlooper is the candidate to watch, given the mixed feelings among party activists about his candidacy since the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee attempted to anoint him as the nominee. 

U.S. Senate candidate John Hickenlooper speaks at a forum held at Centennial Middle School in Montrose on Oct. 20, 2019. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A week ago, Hickenlooper expressed confidence and caution at the same time. “I do expect to win, of course,” he told The Colorado Sun in an interview after an event with New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand in Denver.

“He’s going to kick some serious butt,” Gillibrand added.

“You have to understand,” Hickenlooper cautioned her, “our caucus system is an old-fashioned caucus system, so I might not kick that much butt.”

Romanoff, his chief rival in terms of fundraising and name recognition, began recruiting support for the caucuses months ago, but he is likewise cautious. “We are just aiming to get 30% of the vote,” he said. Asked whether he could win, Romanoff added: “It’s hard to tell. A number of folks called don’t even know the caucuses are taking place.”

U.S. Sentate candidate Andrew Romanoff speaks with voters a candidate forum in Montrose on Oct. 20, 2019. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Trish Zornio, a first-time Democratic candidate seeking to qualify through the caucuses, expressed a similar sentiment. “We know we have really strong support … but it depends on how many others come out for other candidates,” she said.

How will the U.S. Senate preference poll work?

The Democratic Party is calculating the preference poll results from the 3,000-plus precincts on paper — not through a mobile application like the one that doomed the Iowa presidential caucuses. The counties will tabulate the results and then send them to the state party, which will post them to a website, Democratic Party officials said they started training volunteers to run the caucuses in 2019, and expect it to run smoothly.

MORE: Here are the Democrats running to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner in 2020 — and who’s ruling out a campaign

At the start, most locations will conduct an informal straw poll to gauge support. Then, party members can realign themselves, if desired, for the preference poll, which will will determine how the delegates are awarded. A candidate needs 15% support in the preference poll at the precinct level to be eligible for delegates.

The candidates competing at the caucuses are: Hickenlooper, Romanoff, Zornio, Stephany Rose Spaulding and Erik Underwood. Spaulding is a college professor and pastor, and Underwood is an entrepreneur who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2018. Zornio is a researcher and college professor.

If a candidate meets threshold but doesn’t get 30% at the delegates assigned caucuses, there’s a chance they can still convince delegates at the county level to give them a shot at the state assembly and pick up enough support to qualify. The party says delegates are not bound.

If a candidate makes less than 30% but more than 10% at the state assembly, they can still make the ballot with petition signatures. Hickenlooper and Underwood are taking both routes. Hickenlooper submitted his signatures for validation in early February.

The other candidates in the race are taking the petition path — and ineligible to win votes at the caucuses — are Diana Bray, Lorena Garcia, David Goldfischer and Michelle Ferrigno Warren.

Bray and Ferrigno Warren told The Sun in January that they decided to collect signatures so that all the women candidates wouldn’t compete against each other at the caucuses. By taking different paths, they hoped at least one woman would qualify for the primary.

Who can participate in the caucuses?

Unlike the presidential primary, only Democrats and Republicans who registered as members before Feb. 14 can participate in their respective caucuses. The requirement reflects the fact that the caucuses are essentially an exercise in party building — identifying the volunteers and delegates who will help elect candidates now through November. 

And how many party members attend the caucuses will offer a glimpse at party enthusiasm for November. 

In terms of turnout, Democratic and Republican party officials are unsure what to expect because this is a first-of-its-kind event. Four years ago, the caucuses took place at 7 p.m. on a Tuesday. By moving it to the weekend, the parties hoped to draw more people. But the interest level may fall because there’s no presidential poll attached to the caucuses.

“Iowa didn’t help our cause much,” quipped Romanoff. “When you say ‘caucus’ they think it’s going to be hours on end.”

In calling party members for support, he found many Democrats didn’t even know a caucus still existed. “On most of the calls, we advised we told people to get a pen and paper ready. The process is not one you’d devise from scratch,” he said.

Thousands of Republicans have pre-registered, but party officials expect a smaller turnout than Democrats because there are not contested races at the top of the ticket. “Everything is on the right track, and we are just building up to November and Democrats are just in complete chaos,” said Lx Fangonilo, the state GOP executive director.

The Democratic Party predicts between 22,000 and 100,000 people will attend. “There is just a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of activism going on, a lot of people are engaged and really ready to replace Cory Gardner and Donald Trump,” Carroll said.

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, at an event in Aurora on July 12, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Where will my caucus take place?

The caucuses will take place in neighborhoods across the state — typically the closest school or community center. In Baca County, one of the locations is Longhorn Steakhouse Cafe.

To find a caucus, Democrats first need to know your precinct number. You can find this information on the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office website,

Next find the locations on your state party websites. For Democrats, go here to search for your caucus location. And for Republicans, go here to determine your caucus location.

The Democratic caucuses start at 2 p.m. The Republicans meet at 10 a.m. Both recommend arriving early.

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.