Class is in session on a Thursday afternoon as Judi Ingelido, interim chair of the El Paso County Democratic Party, tells a group of precinct chairs at East Library how to divvy up delegates at the party's March 16 caucuses.
After a few rounds of practice, most of the 26 attendees seem comfortable with the math. But then Tom Mowle, the county's public trustee and a Democratic candidate for clerk and recorder, plays the brainy kid in the back row.
Since you round up fractions of ½ or greater, he notes, you could end up creating an extra delegate out of thin air. What should you do if your precinct is only allowed to send three delegates to the county assembly, but the math tells you four?
Ingelido, a former middle-school principal, is unruffled: "What you do is, you flip a coin."
A moment of quiet follows, broken by a murmur from somewhere in the crowd: "Oh my God."
Next Tuesday's neighborhood caucuses mark the beginning of a somewhat imperfect months-long process by which Republicans and Democrats pick and prioritize their party's candidates for office. Delegates, divided according to preferences expressed in each precinct, vote at county assemblies in April, and smaller groups of delegates go to state assemblies in May. Candidates need support from 30 percent of these delegates to appear automatically on August primary ballots.
Two years ago, presidential fervor in both parties transformed the often sleepy meetings into boisterous political forums.
While leaders on both sides expect smaller crowds this year, they're still preparing for a relatively large turnout, thanks to a sour economy, Democratic reform initiatives that have kept political fires stoked, and lessons learned from the 2008 caucuses.
On the Democratic side, the main draw for caucus-goers will be the tight race between U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and Andrew Romanoff, a former state House speaker. Republicans will have a bigger field to consider, with primary races in three state races, two county-wide posts and three races for the state Legislature. El Paso County GOP chair Kay Rendleman expects a big boost could come from local tea party and 9-12 groups.
"All of these people are energized," she says, "by what they are seeing in Washington and Denver."
Tea party effect
Before 2008, Rendleman says, caucuses county-wide might have drawn about 5,000. Then Colorado joined the Super Tuesday caucuses and primaries in a hot presidential year, and the total shot close to 12,000.
Rendleman is predicting turnout this year will be somewhere in the middle.
Lu Busse, a Douglas County resident and chair of the 9-12 Project in Colorado, says 9-12 and tea party groups have been holding their own caucus training events. Many in the "take back our country" movement who were not affiliated with a political party have been joining the Republican Party, Busse says, at least if they can stomach it.
"There are still some who are unaffiliated who just can't bring themselves to affiliate with either party," she notes.
At the state level, straw polls at recent tea party gatherings have shown preference for Dan Maes and Ken Buck in their respective races for governor and U.S. Senate, beating out the candidates many consider frontrunners: Scott McInnis for governor and Jane Norton for Senate. (Republicans also have to choose a candidate to run for state treasurer.)
Inside El Paso County, the picture is murkier. Don Rodgers, an organizer of a 9-12 group based in Colorado Springs, says his group is not making endorsements, and he doesn't know of any straw polls.
Name recognition and political alliances will likely play big roles in the clerk and recorder race, with county treasurer Sandra Damron competing against Commissioner Wayne Williams and election activist Charles Corry.
The dynamic in the sheriff's race is harder to pinpoint, with two-term incumbent Terry Maketa facing emerging issues (see "Star treatment," p. 15) and a challenge from Monument Police Chief Jake Shirk.
The GOP also has local races: Four candidates want to replace Commissioner Jim Bensberg in District 5, which covers portions of central and northern Colorado Springs. (On the Democratic side, state Rep. Michael Merrifield is running.) In state House District 17, covering parts of southern and eastern Colorado Springs, Catherine "Kit" Roupe is trying for a repeat race against Democratic Rep. Dennis Apuan; first, she faces Republican Mark Barker.
And in the northern El Paso County Senate District 9, state Rep. Kent Lambert and Thomas McDowell seek the seat being vacated by Sen. Dave Schultheis. (McDowell is petitioning onto the primary ballot, so Lambert is unopposed at the caucus.)
Though Democrats have candidates in several county and local races, the only caucus question is Bennet vs. Romanoff. Actually, there is a third option: Precincts can select uncommitted delegates, entrusted to decide later during county and state assemblies.
Ingelido is expecting big turnout, though not a repeat of the 2008 caucuses when attendance for Democrats rose from typical levels of fewer than 1,000 up to about 8,000.
President Barack Obama out-organized Hillary Clinton's campaign for those caucuses, and Ingelido says Romanoff and Bennet's campaigns are trying to draw on that experience.
"Both campaigns are following that model," she says. "They understand the caucus process."