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

Andrew Romanoff won a decisive victory in a primary preference poll for U.S. Senate conducted Saturday at the Democratic caucuses, defeating former Gov. John Hickenlooper, the national party’s favorite in the race.

Romanoff scored 55% of the vote and Hickenlooper came in second with 30%, according to a preliminary tally from The Colorado Sun. Three other little-known candidates finished well behind the top candidates in the poll, which drew only the party’s most faithful supporters

“The appetite on the part of the national establishment was to crush our little grassroots army here, and that didn’t turn out too well for them,” Romanoff said in an interview Sunday. “Voters want somebody who is going to go and fight for them and not just do the bidding of some party boss or the bidding of a power broker in Washington.”

The results from the Saturday caucuses are expected to give Romanoff’s overlooked campaign a jolt of momentum, but the preference poll is not a reliable predictor of which candidate will win the Democratic nomination in the June primary.

Moreover, the former House speaker’s victory is overshadowed by the irregularities that marred the caucus vote Saturday. The party has not yet reported preliminary or official statewide results.

The vote totals from the 3,133 precinct caucuses posted by the state party were incomplete and incorrect through Sunday. Democratic officials were forced to retract initial counts reported by numerous counties because of calculation errors. It also remains far from certain how many delegates the candidates won ahead of the county assemblies, which will take place in coming weeks.

A spokesman for party Chairwoman Morgan Carroll acknowledged a plethora of problems but defended the process Sunday. 

“I think it’s important to remember that the caucuses are done by volunteers … and they are doing the best they can and working really hard,” David Pourshoushtari, the spokesman, said. “It can be an imperfect process, as we’ve seen, but I think democracy can be messy and what’s important is that they get in all the numbers … rather than be inaccurate.”

Democratic turnout slim at caucuses, near 1% statewide 

Turnout for the caucuses fell well below expectations and was lower than the 2018 levels for the Democratic gubernatorial race. 

In Cheyenne County, no one showed up. And three other counties didn’t report any results.

Once all the votes are counted, it will represent only about 1% of the 1.2 million registered Democrats in the state. State party leaders blamed the lack of interest on the coronavirus outbreak, confusion about the process and abnormally warm weather Saturday afternoon.

MORE: Colorado’s Democratic caucuses reveal party split between Romanoff’s values, Hickenlooper’s electability

Days before the caucuses, Hickenlooper predicted he would win, but he retreated Saturday and forecast a loss before the votes were even counted. 

He said the caucuses draw the more progressive factions of the party, and he is not their candidate. Hickenlooper is a supporter of fracking for oil and gas and backs a public health insurance option, rather than a broader government-run health care through “Medicare for All.” 

“If you’re someone who runs maybe not as far, not as progressive” it’s harder, he told reporters. “I’m not always embracing the pathway that some people here today do.”

But Hickenlooper — who won the backing of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee soon after he announced his bid in August — said he’s confident he will fare better in June and be able to beat Republican incumbent Cory Gardner in November. “I’ve run statewide twice in bad years for Democrats and I have a relationship with Democrats across the state,” he said. “And that relationship should allow me to build momentum and really take Cory Gardner on head to head.”

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

Romanoff looks for a bump to “supersize” his campaign

Romanoff is the candidate more aligned with progressives. He backs the Green New Deal and supports Medicare for All — two policy proposals that Hickenlooper distanced himself from in the Senate race and during his failed presidential bid. 

But Romanoff’s campaign is a shoestring effort compared to his rival, who is raising millions, getting help from national Democratic heavyweights and hiring a large staff.

Hours after his victory, Romanoff’s campaign sent a fundraising email to supporters, hoping to capitalize on the victory. “This is no time to ease up; we need to expand our grassroots campaign,” the candidate wrote. “That means recruiting more volunteers and raising enough resources to reach the airwaves.”

It’s a position Romanoff knows well. In 2010, he challenged Sen. Michael Bennet, the national Democratic favorite appointed to the seat a year earlier, and won the party caucuses by a similar margin. But he lost the primary in June that year.

In an interview, Romanoff acknowledged the challenge ahead, but he drew confidence from the caucus vote. He said he is seeing a fundraising bump and plans to “supersize” his campaign in the coming months.

“Voters took a look at me and made their decision pretty clear,” he said.

The support at the caucuses should win Romanoff enough delegates to the county assemblies to qualify for the ballot. He needs support from 30% at the subsequent state assembly to secure his slot.

Hickenlooper may reach the mark, too, but it’s not as consequential. His campaign also collected signatures to make the ballot as an insurance policy.

The results from Saturday’s caucuses will leave three other Democratic U.S. Senate candidates struggling to qualify for the June ballot. Stephany Rose Spaulding, a college professor and Trish Zornio, a neurologist and researcher, finished with a fraction of the vote and delegate count.

U.S. Senate candidate Stephany Rose Spaulding speaks at a forum at Centennial Middle School in Montrose on Sunday Oct. 20, 2019. (William Woody, Special to the Colorado Sun)

They will need to find a way to pick up more support before the state assembly if they want to qualify, a difficult task given Saturday’s results after none of them appear close to the 30% threshold.

A handful of other candidates are seeking to qualify for the ballot with signatures.

The Colorado Republican Party also hosted caucuses on Saturday, but officials did not conduct a preference poll because Gardner does not face a serious primary challenger. Lx Fangonilo, the party’s executive director, said he won’t have turnout numbers for days, but the GOP expects turnout on par with Democrats.


Updated at 8:45 p.m. on Sunday, March 8, 2020: This story has been updated to reflect updated results from the Colorado Democratic Party.

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.