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Voting booths at Hiawatha Davis Jr. Recreation Center in Denver's Park Hill neighborhood. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Republicans advocating for their party to opt out of Colorado’s primary elections next year are pointing to a national group’s spending in the GOP’s 2020 primaries as a prime reason that selecting candidates should be kept in-house. 

Unite America, which operates state and federal political action committees, got involved in Republican legislative primaries last year, backing candidates for several open seats who were seen as less conservative. The group spent nearly $456,000 supporting three GOP state House candidates and two Republican state Senate candidates.

All five candidates won their primaries. 

“Millions of dollars by Democrats have been spent influencing and manipulating the outcomes of our nomination races,” state Rep. Dave Williams, a Colorado Springs Republican, said during a recent debate on the issue. He supports opting out of the primary.

Rep. Dave Williams, left, a Colorado Springs Republican, speaks with other lawmakers in the state Senate on May 1, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Unite America calls itself politically neutral and both supported and opposed Democrats in 2020 primaries. Records show the group’s biggest donor gave heavily to Democratic interests. But the group didn’t spend millions, as William claims.

The Colorado Republican Party’s central committee, which has about 500 members, will vote Saturday in Pueblo on whether to opt out of the 2022 primaries and use a caucus and assembly process open only to party members. To pass, supporters need the backing of 75% of the central committee’s members, which appears unlikely to happen. 

Republicans who oppose opting out worry that barring unaffiliated voters, who make up 43% of the state’s registered voters, from the primary would damage GOP candidates in the 2022 general election. Unaffiliated voters have been allowed to participate in Colorado primaries since 2018.

Unite America’s PAC donations are fully disclosed to the Federal Elections Commission. And it wasn’t the only super PAC involved in supporting or opposing GOP candidates in 2020, though it spent the most money.

The group’s activities extend beyond Colorado, even though it’s based in Denver, and beyond candidate contests. The group’s website calls it a “movement of Democrats, Republicans and independents.”

Executive Director Nick Troiano said Unite America is responding to “growing partisanship and polarization with leaders who are putting partisan interests over what’s in the public interest, refusing to work together to solve problems.” 

A rocky start for a middle-of-the-road approach

Originally named the Centrist Project when it launched in 2013, Unite America moved to Denver in 2017 with a goal of supporting unaffiliated candidates in state-level contests.

It didn’t work out in Colorado in 2018. 

Unite Colorado, the group’s state branch, supported five unaffiliated candidates running for the statehouse in Colorado and 25 other unaffiliated candidates nationwide. It spent about $300,000 in  Colorado, mostly on independent advertising supporting the candidates or opposing their party-affiliated opponents, but all five of its candidates lost.

A report on the efforts concluded “the midterm elections failed to demonstrate that there is any meaningful, existing constituency for centrist, independent candidates.” 

And Unite’s involvement in the 2018 races spawned a series of campaign finance complaints, some filed by people with Democratic ties, others by a conservative activist. 

In 2019, Unite America and affiliated groups agreed to pay a $9,000 fine and register as a political committee. Complaints against four candidates supported by the organization were dismissed just last month with no penalties. 

“The barrier to entry was larger than we even suspected,” Troiano said. “We decided to focus on nonpartisan electoral reforms that could level the playing field for new competition, and on the other hand, change the incentives for Democrats and Republicans who today are much more concerned about pandering to the base of their party than reaching across the aisle.”

MORE: Some Colorado Republicans want to forgo their party’s 2022 primaries. Others think that’s “insane.”

Challenging the two-party system is difficult, said Seth Masket, a political scientist who is director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver.

“The two-party system is incredibly resilient,” he said. “That’s based partially on the style of elections we have in this country, but also two centuries of history.”

So Unite America turned its focus to electoral reforms that might help more moderate candidates win elections. The group advocates for mail-in voting, redistricting reform, open primaries and ranked-choice voting.

In 2020, for instance, Alaska adopted an open primary with the top four candidates moving to a general election with ranked-choice voting, where voters rank candidates in order of their preference. Unite America’s federal PAC spent nearly $2.3 million on the effort, which some believe will help moderate Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski fend off a challenge from the right in 2022.

Colorado adopted all-mail voting in 2013. In 2016, voters agreed to allow unaffiliated voters to cast ballots in either the Republican or Democratic primaries, which took effect two years later. In 2018, voters adopted two constitutional amendments creating independent commissions to redraw congressional and state legislative districts. And the state is allowing municipalities to use ranked-choice voting. Unite America supported but wasn’t financially involved in those initiatives.

Republicans decry outsider involvement in primaries

Despite a focus on electoral reforms and the group’s failures in 2018, Unite America still got involved in 2020 candidate contests — just in a different way.

Unite America’s federal super PAC raised $16.6 million in the 2020 election cycle, and nearly $10.6 million of that came from Kathryn Murdoch, a co-chair of Unite America’s board of directors. She’s married to James Murdoch, one of two sons of conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch. But Kathryn and James Murdoch aren’t involved in Fox News, and in recent years have turned their philanthropic efforts to battle climate change. She’s also donated heavily to national Democratic PACs.

Colorado’s Kent Thiry, a former DaVita CEO who spearheaded the open primaries and redistricting commission initiatives, donated $50,000 to Unite America’s PAC as well. 

Kent Thiry, former CEO of the dialysis giant DaVita. (Rachel Woolf for KHN)

That super PAC donated nearly $758,000 to the Unite Colorado Election Fund, and the state-level super PAC, in turn, donated nearly $528,000 to a group called Coloradans for Constitutional Values, which supported Republican primary candidates. And roughly $228,000 went to Better Leaders, Better Colorado, a group that supported Democratic primary candidates in Colorado.

“In so many districts, the primary is the only election of consequence,” Trioano told The Sun in explaining his group’s strategy. “Partisan primaries are fueling division and disenfranchising voters and distorting the outcomes of these elections because so few people participate.”

But Unite’s involvement was part of the political drama in Weld County, where three state House and one state Senate seats, all safe for Republicans, opened up in 2020 because the incumbents were term-limited. 

The Unite-funded super PAC Coloradans for Constitutional Values supported two of those House candidates considered less conservative than their opponents. 

But Coloradans for Constitutional Values wasn’t the only independent spender in state GOP primaries. Better Jobs Coalition and Ready Colorado Action Fund, both super PACs that typically support GOP candidates in the general election, also spent heavily in the Republican primaries.

While the Unite America money can be traced back to donors, that’s more difficult with Better Jobs Coalition and Ready Colorado. Both also operate as nonprofits that donate heavily to their super PACs, so they’d be considered dark money groups since they don’t reveal their donors.

Dan Woog, of Erie, and Tonya Van Beber, of Eaton, and incumbents state Rep. Colin Larson, of Littleton, and Sen. Bob Rankin, of Carbondale, all won their primaries with support from Unite America funded PAC. The PAC also supported Cleave Simpson, of Alamosa, in his state Senate contest though he wasn’t opposed in the primary.

Sen. Chris Hansen, a Denver Democrat, won his primary, with support from Better Leaders, Better Colorado, while Aurora Democrat John Ronquillo lost despite the support. The PAC also supported four other Democrats who didn’t face primaries and won the general election: Sen. James Coleman, of Denver, Rep. Judy Amabile, of Boulder, Rep. Jennifer Bacon, of Denver, and Rep. Lindsey Daugherty, of Arvada.

“We want people who are going to put Colorado first and not any particular political party,” said Terrance Carroll, a former Democratic state House speaker who is the director for Unite Colorado. 

But Williams and other Republicans advocating for their party to opt out of the 2022 primaries contend that outside groups spending money in GOP primaries dilutes their party’s brand.

“I guarantee you Terrance Carroll is not spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to promote the strongest Republican candidate who will defend the majority of, if not all, of the party platform,” Williams said during the recent debate. 

Yet Woog voted with the conservative Colorado Union of Taxpayers 81% of the time, Van Beber 69% and Larson 60%. Woog voted “yes” on only 41.5% of the bills that became law this year, while Van Beber voted “yes” on 54% and Larson on 60.2%, according to a Colorado Sun analysis.

Woog defeated Pat Miller, a former GOP House member from Erie. Miller said she doesn’t want to see Republicans eliminate the primary, but she doesn’t think unaffiliated voters should be allowed to participate.

“I don’t want an open primary,” she said. “It should be strictly Republicans or Democrats.”

But unaffiliated voters have participated more heavily on the Democratic side in the three primaries  thus far. They made up nearly 33% of the total 1.6 million primary voters in 2020, but only 25% of the nearly 591,000 Republican voters.

Justin Everett, a former state lawmaker who lost to Larson in the 2020 primary, isn’t a member of the Colorado GOP’s central committee, but he supports the opt-out push.

“I think it’s going to help Republicans be more electable in the general” election, he said.

Political scientist Masket questions that logic, however. 

“It’s a factional dispute within the Republican Party,” Masket said. “You have some of the more establishment types who want to keep the primaries… and others who are worried that they don’t have the control over the party’s nominees that they want. They want to move the party further right. That won’t necessarily win them more statewide races.”

Colorado Sun staff writer Jesse Paul contributed to this report.

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 9:17 a.m. on Monday, Sept. 20, 2021 to correct where Ron Ronquillo lives. He lives in Aurora.

Sandra Fish

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @fishnette