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Nicolais: Colorado’s unaffiliated voters flex their primary muscle to reject extremists

Last week nearly 60% of unaffiliated voters casting ballots chose to vote in the Republican primary and help stave off far-right extremists

Colorado primaries have come and gone, and the November general election has officially begun. The state GOP avoided its nightmare scenario and Democrats have already pivoted from attempts to manipulate Republican voters into attacks on the victorious candidates.

Mario Nicolais

Even as the two major parties begin battering each other, the role of unaffiliated voters still deserves more analysis. Specifically, unaffiliateds hold the key to curbing extremism in Colorado.

The rapid ascent of unaffiliated voters over the past decade has been well documented. They now account for 44.8% of the Colorado electorate. That compares to the paltry 28.2% represented by the Democratic Party and anemic 25.2% represented by the Republican Party (the remainder are split among minor parties like Libertarians, Greens, etc.).

As I wrote a few weeks ago, that number should only climb as the benefits for registering unaffiliated become more evident. For example, in a year like this when Democrats offered very few contested primary races, unaffiliated voters could choose to vote in the Republican primary.

That is exactly what I did, and I seem to be in pretty good company.

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Overall, 430,865 unaffiliated voters cast ballots in last week’s primaries. That is 35.77% of 1,204,528 total votes turned out across the state. Of the 353,604 ballots already processed (there were still 77,261 outstanding as of Friday), nearly 60% were cast in Republican primaries.

While some Republicans will surely spin that as a sign of unaffiliated voters trending toward their side of the aisle in the run up to November, that interpretation seems foolhardy. 

In contrast, it appears that unaffiliated voters may be beginning to exercise their electoral clout in the critical primary process. That is an important step. As the two major political parties continue to pander toward the extremists in their respective bases, it will fall to unaffiliated voters to blunt that change.

In seats where either Democrats or Republicans hold substantial advantages in the November general elections, the primary race becomes the all-important contest. Historically, those seats have frequently gone to the candidates who align with the extreme on either end.

The calculus changes when unaffiliated voters exercise their still newish right to vote in either.

While most evident in the statewide races where unaffiliated voters joined with a significant number of Republicans to reject the extremist views of candidates like Ron Hanks, Greg Lopez and Tina Peters, it also played out down ballot.

The influx of unaffiliated voters in the Republican primary surely helped House Minority Leader Hugh McKean beat back a far-right attack. Similarly, Rep. Mary Bradfield warded off her own challenge from an extremist. 

In contrast, the relative paucity of unaffiliated voters in Democratic primaries allowed the left-most candidates to declare victory in several races across the state. Those candidates included Regina English in House District 17, Jenny Wilford in HD 34 and Elizabeth Velasco in HD 57. 

The best example comes from HD 6 where Elisabeth Epps, a criminal justice activist  and Candi CdeBaca acolyte, narrowly defeated Katie March.

While unaffiliated voters certainly participated in each of those Democratic primaries, they did not do so at the same levels as they did in their Republican counterparts. If the unaffiliated participation had been reversed, it seems likely some of those races would have gone the other way.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

My assumption is that unaffiliated voters in those districts simply saw the same existential threat people like Hanks and Peters posed to our democracy and were compelled to cast ballots against them. Say what you will about candidates like Epps — and I am not a fan — but the policies she advocates for would not undermine our entire system of government.

There is still work to be done. For example, Colorado’s leading embarrassment, Rep. Lauren Boebert, easily brushed aside the lackluster campaign of Don Coram. But there is hope.

Only about a quarter of the unaffiliated voters in the state participated in last week’s primary. As that number climbs, so will the prospects for better government in our state.


Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq


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