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What’s a Caucus and Why Should I Care?

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Fred Brown of The Denver Post had a nice story over the weekend on the caucus system and why you should (or should not) get involved.

So, are you planning to go? Didn’t think so. It’s been a generation since caucuses attracted respectable turnouts. But party officials and political scientists want you to go. Please, please show up, they plead. Let’s have at least a limited range of political diversity. Don’t let the overzealous drive the system.

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Bob Loevy, a political science professor at Colorado College, remembers when his precinct caucus would attract 20 or 30 Republicans – especially in 1980, when Ronald Reagan was running for president. For Democrats, the big year was 1972, when anti-war fervor brought out supporters of George McGovern. “Now my caucus draws four or five at the most,” says Loevy. “It’s sad.”

But if you want to have a voice in who’s running for office, go to your precinct caucus. By the time the general election comes around in November, it may be too late. You could be stuck with a choice between candidates who, to put it mildly, don’t appeal to your best instincts. Caucuses draw from the edge of the pool, not the center. Disproportionate numbers of left-wing Democrats and right-wing Republicans attend, and their influence continues all the way up to the primary elections in August.

To participate, you must have been registered as a Republican or Democrat for at least 60 days. The one-third of Coloradans who have no party affiliation don’t get to go, even if they wanted to.

Republicans and Democrats are busy trying to drum up interest for the caucuses, which take place on Tuesday night at 7:00. Republicans are a little busier, I’m guessing, than Democrats because the top of their ticket is actually contested, with Bob Beauprez and Marc Holtzman both running for governor. The Democrats only have Bill Ritter as their candidate, so there is less urgency in most areas to increase caucus attendance.

So, should you go to your caucus? That’s a tough question to answer, in part because caucuses themselves are so hard to understand. I conducted my precinct caucus in 2004 after a training session, and I am supposed to do it again on Tuesday. I still don’t completely understand how it works when we pick delegates, yet you hear from the party brass and political science professors that this is a very important process.

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I guess the best answer is this: The importance of the caucus depends entirely on where you live and who is running for office that year.

For example, if you are a Republican, the caucus is important this year because you will be deciding on a candidate for governor. It’s unlikely that both Beauprez and Holtzman will fail to make the ballot when the caucus delegates go to their county assembly, but the margin of victory will help provide momentum for one campaign or the other. If you are a Republican who lives in Congressional District 5 (Colorado Springs), then your caucus is really interesting this year, because there are four candidates running to succeed retiring Rep. Joel Hefley in addition to the choices for governor.

Now, if you are a Democrat who lives in, say, southern Jefferson County, there’s really not much going on for you. The Democratic candidates for governor (Bill Ritter) and congress (Bill Winter) are unopposed, and most of the canididates for lower office probably won’t have primary opponents, either. Your presence won’t likely play a huge role this year, unfortunately. But if you live in Congressional District 7 (Lakewood, Arvada, Aurora and Adams County), you may want to go to your caucus because there are three Democrats vying to be elected to congress in Ed Perlmutter, Peggy Lamm and Herb Rubenstein. Lamm has already said she will forego the caucus process because she likely doesn’t think she’ll have much support, but a high turnout in favor of Perlmutter will certainly provide him with strong momentum after the county assembly.

If you don’t know what the big races in your area are going to be in 2006, you might want to go to your caucus to just learn a little more. Otherwise, well, it depends on where you live and how interested you are in general.

Party Caucuses
Tuesday, March 21
7:00 p.m.
Open to all registered Republicans and Democrats who have been registered to vote at their current address for at least 60 days.
To find your caucus location online, click REPUBLICAN or DEMOCRAT.

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