• U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet
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Colorado Republicans’ path to unseating Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet could hinge on a slate of six upstart GOP candidates whose decision to try to use the unpredictable caucus and assembly process to get on the ballot is heaping volatility onto a race with national consequences.

Because the candidates all lack name recognition, even within their own party, there is no clear frontrunner and it’s anyone’s guess who will prevail when Republicans gather on April 9 at the GOP state assembly to decide who should advance to the June 28 primary.

“It is more volatile and more open than we’ve seen in a long time,” Dick Wadhams, a former Colorado GOP chairman, said of this year’s caucus and assembly process.

Here’s how the caucus and assembly process works: Republican voters gather in small numbers at precinct caucuses to elect delegates, often based on which candidates they support. Those delegates then go on to represent their precincts — often a neighborhood — at state assembly.

Candidates running for U.S. Senate who are seeking a spot on the primary ballot through the caucus and assembly process need the support of 30% of the delegates at the state assembly to advance to the June primary.

That means a maximum of three, but more likely two and possibly only one, of the six GOP challengers going the caucus and assembly route will make the primary ballot on April 9.

It’s the “dumpster fire of all electoral processes,” said Tyler Sandberg, a GOP political consultant.

“It is a just byzantine process that is impossible for anyone to understand, let alone the average voter,” he said. “It’s going to be a 10-car pileup at state assembly.”

Precinct caucuses, the first step in the process, were held last week at high schools across the state. And like high school, precinct caucuses are incredibly unwieldy.

Turnout can be low since caucuses force people to show up at a specific date and time, leaving some precincts with no delegates. Candidate name recognition can be little to none among caucusgoers. And delegates can always change their mind when it comes to who they support.

Add in a field of U.S. Senate candidates that GOP voters are still getting to know, and it’s essentially a free for all

Wadhams said he didn’t think the U.S. Senate GOP slate worked very hard to try to persuade supporters to become delegates, leaving the battle to make the primary ballot especially wide open.

“In the Senate (race), most of these people are really unknown,” he said. “They are people who haven’t had much visibility in the party before.”

The power vacuum could be filled by a Senate candidate with the best name ID, such as state Rep. Ron Hanks, a Fremont County Republican who has embraced and spread unfounded conspiracies about fraud in the 2020 presidential election. Or it could be filled by a candidate who simply gives the best speech to delegates at the state assembly.

Hanks declined to discuss his caucus and assembly strategy, but he said he feels confident “where we’re at right now.”

“We’ve got a good plan in the works,” he said. “I really have no worries on this. I’m putting this on faith.”

Ron Hanks speaks at a Republican U.S. Senate candidate forum on Feb. 3, 2022, in Fort Lupton. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Only Denver businessman Joe O’Dea is trying to make the Republican U.S. Senate primary ballot through the much more predictable, though very expensive, signature-gathering process. He must turn in 1,500 signatures from GOP voters in each of Colorado’s eight congressional districts to secure his spot in the primary.

Going the signature-gathering route this year will probably cost anywhere from $200,000 to $500,000 for a statewide candidate, money that O’Dea, a multimillionaire, has. Hanks, by comparison, raised less than $20,000 in the last three months of last year.

The only other Republican Senate candidate with enough campaign cash or personal wealth to try to make the ballot by gathering signatures is Gino Campana, a former Fort Collins city councilman. But he opted for the caucus-assembly route instead, which at a recent candidate forum he called “the good, old-fashioned … process.”

The other four Republican U.S. Senate candidates seeking to make the primary ballot through the caucus and assembly process are former talk radio host Deborah Flora, former El Paso County GOP Chairman Eli Bremer, Colorado Christian University Professor Gregory Moore and Peter Yu, who has worked in sales and marketing.

Candidates who decide to go the caucus and assembly route save money, but subject themselves to the whims of a relatively small group of fickle party insiders.

The volatility of the process was on full display in Colorado’s 2016 Republican U.S. Senate primary, when El Paso County Commissioner Darryl Glenn shocked the Colorado political world after he secured so much support at the GOP state assembly that year after delivering an inspiring speech that he kept several other candidates, including favorite Tim Neville, then a state senator, from the ballot.

Glenn went on to win the GOP primary, but lost to Bennet in the general election.

In 2018, seven GOP gubernatorial candidates in Colorado sought ballot access through the caucus and assembly process. Only two secured at least 30% of the delegate vote: then-Treasurer Walker Stapleton and former Parker Mayor Greg Lopez.

Lopez’s victory came as a shock and meant that then-Attorney General Cynthia Coffman was denied a spot on the primary ballot.

“I still have PTSD from that day,” said Roger Hudson, a Castle Pines city councilman who was Coffman’s campaign spokesman. “I wake up in cold sweats.”

Hudson also worked on Glenn’s 2016 Senate campaign, which he says was an example of how at the state assembly “anything can happen and often does.”

The unpredictability of the caucus and assembly route was on full display last week for three Colorado Sun reporters who visited precinct caucus locations in Arapahoe, Douglas and Jefferson counties.

At Cherry Creek High School, where turnout was tepid, the first two caucusgoers a Sun reporter approached couldn’t name even one of the GOP’s U.S. Senate candidates. The next five all said they support Flora, a Douglas County mother who has picked up a following because of her recent activism in local school issues. She has not held elected office before.

“Deborah Flora brought national attention to what was going on in schools in her comments during school board meetings,” said Jaclyn Lauer, a Republican voter from Centennial. “I was really intrigued by her tenacity and how well spoken she was.”

Renee Anderson, a precinct captain at ThunderRidge High School in Highlands Ranch, said Flora is her pick in the Senate race too. She’s heard Flora speak at various Republican events and had the opportunity to talk to her about water issues.

“I think Deborah Flora is very smart,” Anderson said. “She has reached out to anybody who will listen. She hears what they have to say and incorporates it into how (she can) make that better at the federal level as a senator.”

adhams said the Republican precinct caucus he attended in southern Jefferson County last week was sparsely attended, too, “which is a little surprising because there’s so much enthusiasm among Republicans about the possibilities in 2022 and the fact that we have very competitive primaries.”

Since precinct caucuses are where delegates to the county and state assemblies are chosen, low turnout means little competition to become a delegate.

Republicans at another precinct caucus at Arvada West High School were disappointed by the low turnout, and noted a lack of volunteers to head up precincts. There wasn’t much talk about the Senate race. Conversation centered on baseless concerns about fraud caused by Dominion Voting Systems equipment, as well as a perceived need for a voter identification requirement.

“I’m still concerned about the (voting) machines,” said Marc Auville, a precinct chair from Arvada, claiming the machines would benefit Democrats, and Republicans should therefore turn out in force. Mention of Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters’ run for secretary of state generated nods of approval from the room.

“I think we all are,” another man responded.

Colorado Sun staff writers Thy Vo and Jennifer Brown contributed to this report.

This story is from The Colorado Sun, a journalist-owned news outlet based in Denver and covering the state. For more, and to support The Colorado Sun, visit coloradosun.com. The Colorado Sun is a partner in the Colorado News Conservancy, owner of Colorado Community Media.