DENVER – High-profile defectors from the Democratic and Republican parties went down in defeat in the election, but not before they put some dents in the two-party system.
Thanks to state Rep. Kathleen Curry and governor candidate Tom Tancredo, unaffiliated candidates and third parties finished the election with increased legal rights.
Colorado Democratic leaders are not worried, but Republican officials see the legal aftermath of Tancredo’s race as a threat to the major parties.
Curry conceded defeat Wednesday in her write-in campaign to hold on to her Gunnison-based seat in the state House of Representatives. But she, along with La Plata County Commissioner Joelle Riddle, made things easier for future candidates to defect from their parties and run on an unaffiliated ticket.
Before this year, unaffiliated candidates had to leave their parties nearly a year and a half before the election in order to get their names on the ballot.
The requirement kept Riddle and Curry off the ballot. Both left the Democratic Party in 2009. They sued in federal court to get the law overturned, but they lost.
However, they succeeded in getting the Legislature to move the deadline to defect from a party to Jan. 1 for future candidates.
Curry’s Durango lawyer, William Zimsky, thinks Curry would have won if her name had been on the ballot. She lost her write-in campaign by about 300 votes.
“It was a heroic effort, although we fell short,” Zimsky said.
Zimsky represented Curry in other lawsuits. They won a quick ruling in the days after the election that allowed write-in votes for Curry to count even if voters forgot to fill in a bubble next to her name.
A campaign-finance lawsuit that Riddle and Curry filed is still active. They are challenging a state law that allows Democrats and Republicans to collect twice as much in donations as unaffiliated candidates, because major party candidates face the possibility of a primary.
“We’re going to continue to fight that. Hopefully, we’ll get that resolved before the next election cycle,” Zimsky said.
Tancredo’s case still has the attention of Republican officials.
The former congressman defected from the Republican Party in July and got the American Constitution Party’s vacancy committee to put his name on the ballot.
In a September ruling, Denver District Judge William Hood said minor-party vacancy committees can pick any person they want, as long as the candidate is a registered voter.
The state of affairs is another blow to political parties, said Dick Wadhams, chairman of the Colorado GOP.
“We are already seeing the slow destruction of political parties through these stupid campaign-finance referendums,” Wadhams said.
Finance laws restrict large donations to political parties, but they have few limits for independent groups. Wadhams said the third parties now can undermine major parties even more by plucking away candidates who don’t want to go through primary elections.
“I happen to think that strong political parties are essential to a healthy political process,” Wadhams said.
His rival in the Democratic Party, state chairwoman Pat Waak, is not as concerned.
Tancredo and Curry are special cases, one a famous former congressman and the other a well-known incumbent state representative, Waak said.
“I think these are two very unusual circumstances,” she said. “I just don’t see this as something that sets a new standard.”
But the lawyer who argued against Tancredo disagrees.
“Maybe it’s not a big deal for Pat Waak and the Democrats, if she thinks it’s going to be exclusively a Republican Party and American Constitution Party problem,” said Richard Westfall, who sued the secretary of state to try to get Tancredo kicked off the ballot.
Westfall is a Republican Party official, but he took the case on behalf of two GOP voters, not the state party.
The court’s ruling applies to all minor parties, not just the ACP. Hypothetically, it could allow the Green Party to pick a disaffected Democratic candidate at the last minute and beat up the Democratic nominee all the way through Election Day.
Westfall thinks the Legislature should pass a law to clarify that any party switch must be completed by Jan. 1 of the election year, with no exceptions for third-party vacancy committees. Neither Westfall nor Wadhams has talked to legislators about changing the law.
Tancredo did so well in the governor’s race that the American Constitution Party is now legally considered the state’s third major party.
ACP officials are elated and say their party makes a natural home for the tea party activists who energized Republican campaigns.
“I think the original two major parties have lost their way, and I think people are hungry to get this country back on track,” said Amanda Campbell, an American Constitution Party officer and secretary of state candidate.
Next to Tancredo, Campbell is the second-most successful Colorado candidate in her party, taking 7 percent of the vote in the secretary of state’s race, or more than 100,000 votes.
Campbell’s father, Douglas “Dayhorse” Campbell, has run for Senate several times and never garnered more than 60,000 votes. Other ACP candidates running for governor or secretary of state have won between 9,000 and 13,000 votes in elections over the last decade.
Because of Tancredo, many Republican voters realized they did not need to cast party-line ballots, Campbell said.
“That just opened a world of possibilities for Colorado voters,” Campbell said.