It’s a blend that keeps statewide elections competitive, sends a bipartisan delegation to Washington, D.C., and gives both major parties a chamber to control in the state Legislature. But, purple states like this also attract the attention of interested outsiders, whether as a bellwether for the rest of the country or testing grounds for novel political strategies.
This coming November, Colorado will serve both those purposes for Unite Colorado, a nearly year-old political organization, formerly known as the Centrist Project, that’s intent on electing at least four unaffiliated candidates to the state Legislature in hopes of denying either major party control of one or both chambers. The group’s 28-year-old executive director, Nick Troiano, who transplanted to Denver from San Francisco last spring, believes that most voters are so turned off by “partisan tribalism” that, if they see that victory is viable without major party backing, they’ll opt for reform-minded independent candidates. He’s “not 100 percent sure” where his candidates stand on the major issues, but he’s confident that most unaffiliated voters “aren’t ideologically driven.”
And, he’s not subtle about the political strategy. “It’s a hack to the system,” says the ex-Republican. “Because if no party controls the majority, suffice it to say independents will have a lot of leverage on how the institution is run and what issues are on [the] agenda.”
As things stand, Democrats control the Colorado House by nine seats and Republicans control the Senate by one. At the start of the session, Sen. Cheri Jahn, of Jefferson County, dropped her Democratic affiliation, though she’ll still caucus with the Democrats. Troiano thinks that’s a sign of things to come, calling Jahn “one of the first dominoes.”
Troiano is hoping one of the next dominoes may be here in Colorado Springs, where Unite Colorado is running a candidate in House District 18 where there are 18,756 unaffiliated voters, 16,517 Democrats and 14,498 Republicans. Three Democrats and two Republicans are already vying for the seat that’s been held by term-limited Democrat Pete Lee since 2011. They’re now joined by Maile Foster (pronounced like “smiley” without the “s”) — a local financial advisor and community servant from Gold Hill Mesa, west of downtown.
Foster, who spent most of her life as a Republican, “truly never dreamed about running for public office” until last spring. That’s when Troiano and Unite Colorado’s other operatives, some of whom used to work for Democrats and some for Republicans, were casting their net for potential candidates. They found Foster through her role as president of the Rotary Club of Colorado Springs, approached her and, through a series of emails and meetings, convinced her to run with their backing (which, according to Troiano, includes campaign management, in-state and out-of-state fundraising and other “talent services”).
So, what’s Foster’s vision for the district and the state? Policy-wise, she’s not sure yet. “Well, I’m not a career politician so I haven’t really studied everything that’s going on until more recently,” she says, adding that her inexperience isn’t a problem since, “as a single mother as a teenager, I learned quickly how to make hard choices.” Plus, because household finances are a “good analogy” for running government, Foster believes her background as a family wealth manager means she’ll be able to “get up to speed quickly” in the Legislature.
In the last presidential election, she voted for “the lesser of two evils,” but wouldn’t say who that was, in her opinion. “I don’t think voters care so much about that,” she says. “But, yeah, I was frustrated, feeling like neither candidate really represented me. And I think there’s a lot of people like me [in HD18] who say, ‘Well, I’m fiscally conservative but socially liberal so where do I fit?’”
Between now and November, Foster says she’ll be “digging deeper into the district,” listening to voters and learning about issues. “I’m open to talking to people on both sides of the aisle to come up with common-sense solutions that help all citizens,” she says.
State election rules say unaffiliated candidates for the House need 400 petition signatures by July 12 to get on the general election ballot.
Each of the party-affiliated candidates in HD18 who responded to the Indy’s request for comment welcomed Foster to the race.
“We are committed to a Better Colorado for Everyone. Those efforts will not cease,” wrote Republican Jillian Likness. Democrat Terry Martinez said he’s “planning on running an issues-focused race that talks to voters of all political stripes.” Democrat Graham Anderson and Republican Donald Howbert didn’t answer.
Former Manitou Springs Mayor Marc Snyder, generally considered the Democratic front runner at the moment, noted that Unite Colorado didn’t exactly boost his successor’s shot at re-election this past November. In fact, the cash that Unite Colorado, then called the Centrist Project, spent on mailers on behalf of former Mayor Nicole Nicoletta’s campaignmay have backfired. “I think it was very disconcerting to a lot of folks in little Manitou to see that influx of money from an outside group,” Snyder says. “I don’t think it was the deciding factor [in Nicoletta’s loss], but seems like it just exacerbated this public perception that she was disconnected from the community.”
Snyder, a “proud Democrat” who considers himself “pretty centrist,” thinks Unite Colorado’s play in HD18 could have the same effect as it did in the Manitou race, but says that “there are larger forces at work in 2018.” He adds, “I think Democrats now have some real enthusiasm and energy that was lacking in last year’s election.”
That may be, but the House Majority Project, an initiative of the Colorado Democratic Party, plans to do more for down-ticket Democrats than just ride the wave. “Any seat that has historically been targeted by both sides is one that we will spend time and resources to win,” HMP Executive Director Matthew McGovern told the Indy by email. He also disagrees with Troiano’s assertion that unaffiliated voters care more about process than policy and questioned Unite Colorado’s true motives. “I don’t know their internal strategy, but the fact is that they’ve targeted 3 competitive Dem-held House seats and 1 deep-red GOP Senate seat. I’d like them to release their donors in order to see who their funders are,” McGovern wrote.
Organizationally, Unite Colorado has two components — the Unite Colorado Grassroots Election Fund, a small donor committee, and the Unite Colorado Election Fund, an independent expenditure committee — both of which are required to disclose donors. (The state organization is a branch of a national group, still known as the Centrist Project, which is a 501(c)(4) with a federal political committee and a Separate Segregated Fund.)
The independent expenditure committee has no contribution limit but is barred from coordinating directly with candidates. Secretary of State records currently show the fund’s balance at $0. The small donor committee’s donations are capped at $50, which can be bundled into $4,800 campaign contributions. At the end of September, it had $12,655 on hand. Both entities were due to file new reports on Jan. 16, after the Indy’s press time.
Troiano expects Unite Colorado to raise over $1 million this election cycle from “individuals who believe our political system is broken and are investing in new competition to fix it.” Is campaign finance reform part of the fix? Unite Colorado’s “Declaration of Independents,” recently signed by their slate, including Foster, says “we support reforms to ensure our political process truly represents the people — including the way we draw district lines, fund campaigns, and run elections.”
But, what are their specific proposals? “We haven’t gotten that granular yet,” Troiano says.
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