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A primer on pre-primary politics

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By Rob Witwer

With precinct caucuses now in the books, the 2010 election season is officially under way. Caucuses are an important first step in the nominating process, through which each major party selects its nominees for the general election this fall. 

With the exception of presidential nominations, there isn’t much public attention given to the way parties pick their candidates. It’s as though each November we’re presented with a ballot listing a Democrat, a Republican and perhaps one or more third-party candidates, with the winner assuming public office.

But for a candidate just to get on the general election ballot in the first place is quite an accomplishment and it all begins with the precinct caucuses.

Here’s how it works. Every voter who is registered with the Democratic or Republican party is entitled to attend the precinct caucus, which is a neighborhood-level meeting. These meetings occurred last month. There, neighbors chose a few people to represent them at several assemblies, including assemblies at the state, congressional and county levels. 

 For example, at the state Republican assembly in May, delegates will vote on their party’s nominees for the U.S. Senate, governor, treasurer and several other statewide offices. 

Candidates receiving 30 percent of the assembly vote are automatically on the primary ballot. If more than one candidate receives 30 percent of the assembly vote, the candidate receiving the most votes receives “top line” on the ballot, and so on. Candidates receiving less than 30 percent but more than 10 percent can still petition onto the ballot, but that isn’t easy (candidates who ignore the assembly process altogether can petition onto the ballot as well). Candidates receiving less than 10 percent at the assembly are barred from ballot access.

But the assembly doesn’t end the process. From there, the action moves to the August primary ballot. In the primary, every registered Republican in the state is entitled to vote. The winner of the August primary will be the party’s nominee in November, and will face the Democratic candidate chosen through the same process.

Whereas assemblies tend to favor one-on-one political skills, the primary is a totally different ballgame. It’s possible for a candidate to make personal contact with every delegate, but it’s impossible to reach even a fraction of the registered voters in a party before the primary. For that reason, it’s common for winners at the assembly to lose the primary. The key difference is usually the financial resources to wage a TV, radio and mail campaign to sway primary voters.

The primary is Aug. 10. With snow still on the ground, that seems a long way off. For now, all eyes are on the delegates selected at the precinct caucuses last month and the state party assemblies in May.

Rob Witwer is a former member of the Colorado House of Representatives and co-author of the upcoming book, “The Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado (and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care).”