Democrats in Colorado this Saturday will gather to vote on who will make the primary ballot in June, providing political onlookers with a sense of how divided the state party is.
Rep. Jared Polis, one of the wealthiest members of Congress, has long been considered the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination in large part due to his ability to self-fund. However, the surprising strength of former state treasurer Cary Kennedy suggests he has yet to lock up the base of the party. The state's current governor, John Hickenlooper, cannot run again due to term limits.
Those seeking access to the gubernatorial primary ballot can qualify in one of the two ways: acquiring 1,500 signatures in each of the state's congressional districts or winning 30 percent of the vote during the Democratic Assembly, the state-level equivalent to the national nominating conventions for president.
Few political watchers foresaw that Kennedy would be a serious challenger to Polis' path to the party nomination. Yet in a non-binding straw poll at caucuses in March, Kennedy grabbed 50 percent of the vote. Polis finished second with 33 percent.
"What it really was, was a wake up call not just to all Democrat primary voters, but really to all political observers in Colorado that Jared was not going to just walk into this nomination with his millions," said David Flaherty, a Republican pollster who runs Magellan Strategies. "It showed that there was a strong, growing grassroots effort with big momentum for Cary Kennedy."
Kennedy also appeared on a recent TV debate hosted by KUSA, but Polis declined to attend.
Few can claim to have implemented a Democratic agenda in the state like Polis. He was a member and funder of the so-called "Gang of Four," a group of four wealthy donors who opened their wallets beginning in 2004 to create a historic strategy to flip the state from heavy Republican control to Democrats. The "blueprint" that emerged from their successful effort created digital, campaign, and media strategies later exported to other states and to national Democratic efforts as well.
And unlike the other members of the Gang of Four, Polis elevated his profile by going on to serve in elected office while continuing to donate to Democrats at virtually all levels of government in the state: The Colorado secretary of states campaign finance website shows Polis has 372 entries, with donations totaling just under $2.3 million.
Both candidates are running on promises of boosting the state's renewable energy portfolio. On health care, Polis is floating the idea of partnering with neighboring states to create a "regional" single payer system, while Kennedy is backing a public option plan.
Factors beside ideology may be contributing to Polis's weakness.
"Some people believe [Kennedy's success] is because she's a woman candidate in this ‘me too' environment, and she was sort of tapping that, although her message has really has been heavily focused on education and teachers," Flaherty said.
"But the other thing to keep in mind is, the demographics of a likely Democrat primary turnout is 60 percent female, 40 percent male. And there's this sense also that being a woman, she would be the strongest nominee, and that Jared Polis is going to need to readjust for tomorrow. Or at least he's hoping to have a decent showing [at the assembly], and he's going to move on from there."
Given that there are only three gubernatorial candidates seeking to make the primary ballot through the assembly, the odds are strong that both Kennedy and Polis will pass muster.