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Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks to Democratic voters at a caucus site in Denver on March 7, 2020. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

Updated: 9:45 p.m. 3/7/2020.

The Democratic U.S. Senate primary in Colorado narrowed to a two-candidate contest Saturday, as pockets of party faithful gathered for caucuses and weighed whether to back a known quantity or a progressive firebrand.

John Hickenlooper, the moderate former governor and one-time presidential candidate, split support in a preference poll taken at 3,133 neighborhood caucuses across the state with Andrew Romanoff, a former state lawmaker who has presented himself as the progressive choice.

The early results posted by the party were plagued with problems. A party spokesman acknowledged the initial totals were incomplete, and some numbers were taken down after first being posted. In addition, some major counties did not submit vote or delegate totals and now say they won’t be able to send final numbers until Sunday evening.

RESULTS: Scroll to bottom to see continuously updated county-by-county preference poll results in the Colorado Democratic caucuses.

Romanoff dominated in Denver, taking almost two-thirds of the vote in Hickenlooper’s home turf, where he served as a two-term mayor. He also won big in Arapahoe and Jefferson counties.

“Our grassroots campaign just crushed the D.C. machine,” Romanoff tweeted as the early results posted. “The powerbrokers and party bosses in Washington didn’t get the memo, but it turns out a lot of people in (Colorado) want … a progressive champion.”

Stephany Rose Spaulding, a longshot candidate with a low-budget campaign, and Trish Zornio won limited support with roughly 6% of the vote each.

The results being posted by the Colorado Democratic Party continue to change because of problems with the numbers from the counties. Many counties have yet to report.

The vote is the first look at whom Democratic voters in Colorado support in a crowded field of nine contenders, and it reflects the deep split about the party’s direction that is evident in the presidential contest. 

The turnout may not meet expectations of party officials, who forecasted between 22,000 and 100,000 would attend the caucuses in a show of enthusiasm for the party’s push to oust the Republican incumbent, U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner. But confusion about why the party held a caucus after the presidential primary Tuesday, combined with the midday Saturday time and worries about the coronavirus, kept participation low. 

The preference poll results are nonbinding, but the party uses them to allocate delegates to the candidates at the county assemblies. The delegate counts are the first indication about whether the candidates will qualify for the ballot.

Right now, Romanoff is in the strongest position, followed by Hickenlooper. But the early delegate projections don’t match the results observed by The Sun at Denver precincts. A spokesman for the Colorado Democratic Party told The Sun that they are working to correct the delegate count but said the vote totals are correct.

Romanoff entered caucus day as the party favorite

Romanoff, the former state House speaker, entered the day poised to claim the most support in the preference poll after spending months courting the diehard, liberal Democrats who typically attend.

The poll offers a glimpse at support within the ranks for the candidates, but it’s not a surefire barometer of who will win the Democratic primary in June. In the 2018 governor’s race, Jared Polis finished second at the Democratic caucuses but won the primary and later the November election. Likewise in 2010, the most recent party contest for the U.S. Senate nomination, Romanoff won the caucuses but lost the primary to U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet.

Former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff speaks to Democratic voters at a caucus site in Aurora on March 7, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

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

Hickenlooper does not need the caucuses to secure a place on the primary ballot because he also submitted voter signatures, but he needs to show strong support from the party. Before the results were even posted, he downplayed expectations and made clear the June 30 primary vote is the one that matters most.

“It’s mostly the very progressive part of the party, but you get to hear what their concerns are. … I’ll join a long line of successful Democratic primary (winners) who didn’t do well in the caucuses,” he told reporters in the hallway at Smiley Middle School after his caucus. 

Asked if he was predicting a loss, he later clarified: “If I lost. I’m not making any predictions.” 

MORE: What you need to know about Saturday’s Colorado caucuses, where Hickenlooper faces test in U.S. Senate race

Earlier in the afternoon, Hickenlooper walked classroom to classroom in the building where his son went to middle school to make his pitch.

Hickenlooper focused first on the coronavirus and criticized what he called the Trump administration’s slow response before pivoting to his work to address climate change and his support for universal background checks on firearm purchases. He faced multiple questions about his initial disinterest in the race and reassured Democrats he’s committed.

“If you leave here with one thing: It took me a while to get to this place but I am 100 times more passionate about running for U.S. Senate than I ever was running for mayor or governor,” he said, repeating a line he has been using on the campaign trail for months.

Hickenlooper won his precinct caucus by a narrow, five-vote margin that forced him to split the delegates with Romanoff two apiece, and he saw mixed results at the other precincts he visited.

Romanoff attended the caucus at Mission Viejo Elementary in Aurora, where no one showed up at 20 of the 48 precincts represented. Only a few dozen caucus-goers turned out.

Romanoff didn’t gather signatures to make the ballot, so the caucuses represented a big test for his campaign’s viability and future. He walked around the school handing out fliers and greeting voters and remarked upon the low turnout.

MORE: Hickenlooper makes campaign trail debut touting compromise. His rivals in the Senate race say it’s the wrong approach.

“We knew this going in,” Romanoff said of the probability for a low turnout. “The weather’s nice, (it’s on) a Saturday for the first time, there’s obviously some public health concerns about coming to a place with lots of other folks and the presidential primary confused folks.”

But the candidate, who was accompanied by his mother in a campaign T-shirt, said he was “cautiously optimistic” about how he would fare. 

Romanoff read from text messages from supporters across the state reporting positive results, but the results at his caucus site were mixed. His supporters at Mission Viejo Elementary talked about liking his record on the environment, stance on gun control and his views on social inequality. 

“I think he’s very well-qualified,” said Marsha Steirn, a 72-year-old retiree.

“I think he’s just more progressive when it comes to climate change,” said 24-year-old Andrew McMahon. “That’s one of the most important issues for me personally.”

MORE: Andrew Romanoff’s record on immigration complicates his progressive bid for U.S. Senate

Others backed his policy positions but expressed worries about how he would fare against Gardner in November.

“It’s not that I don’t like (Romanoff),” said Lynn Walton, a 63-year-old paralegal who backed Hickenlooper. “I just don’t think any of the other candidates have the name recognition or the experience to defeat Cory Gardner. It’s an electability issue for me.”

Paul Mitchell, a 73-year-old retired lawyer backing Hickenlooper, echoed that sentiment. He said he likes Romanoff, but worries about his chances in November. “It’s very important that we win the seat,” Mitchell said. 

Dave Rodriguez, a 68-year-old retired nurse practitioner, said he understands those electability concerns. But he was backing Romanoff. “I want to give my voice to my issues,” he said.

Democratic voters at a caucus site in Aurora on March 7, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Other candidates struggled at caucuses

Spaulding won at least one precinct at Mission Viejo Elementary, handily beating Romanoff and Hickenlooper. Her supporters said she proved herself during her failed 2018 bid to unseat longtime Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn when she won so many votes in a conservative district. They also mentioned her positions as a woman and ethnic studies professor made her a stronger candidate.

Tay Anderson, a Denver Public Schools board member, caucused for Spaulding in Denver. He said he’s unsure who he will support in the June primary but wanted to get a woman on the ballot.

“I strongly believe that if we failed nationally to nominate a woman, at least here what we could do is put a woman on the ballot to give Coloradans the real choice,” he said.

Several other candidates did not participate in the caucus, opting instead to qualify for the ballot by collecting voter signatures on petitions. They include climate activist Diana Bray, community organizer Lorena Garcia and immigrant advocate Michelle Ferrigno Warren. 

To qualify for delegates at the caucus, the candidates first needed to get 15% support in the preference poll. Zornio, a researcher seeking office for the first time, struggled to reach the threshold. Erik Underwood, a former Republican who made a failed 2018 Democratic bid for governor, took only a fraction of the vote.

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....

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