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In Colorado Governor's Race, Unaffiliated Voters Are A Wild Card

Democrat Jared Polis and Republican Walker Stapleton inside the CBS4 studio just before their first televised debate.
Democrat Jared Polis and Republican Walker Stapleton inside the CBS4 studio just before their first televised debate.

Walker Stapleton and Jared Polis are on their final push in the battle to become Colorado's next governor. They're in the middle of a series of debates around the state, just in time for ballots to start arriving in mailboxes next week. Many Republicans and Democrats may have already made up their minds, but there are wild cards still in play, including the impact of unaffiliated voters and fallout over the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

The Kavanaugh question came up during the CBS4/Colorado Public TV/KOA NewsRadio/Colorado Sun debate last week. Polis and Stapleton were asked if they supported the then-impending confirmation of Kavanaugh, who faced allegations of sexual abuse that the FBI, in a limited investigation, failed to corroborate.From unaffiliated voters to Justice Kavanaugh - wild cards in Colorado's race for governor.

Polis, a Democrat and congressman, and Stapleton, a Republican and state treasurer, split predictably along party lines.

"I opposed him before those charges were made, I want to be clear, because I oppose his fundamental judicial philosophy," Polis said, "which I see as restricting our freedom and failing to rein in and out of control... presidency."

"As the father of two daughters -- 7 and 4 -- I think it's important that they be respected and taken seriously," Stapleton said. "If somebody does any wrong to them, I'd want that as a dad, but there's no doubt that Washington has made an absolute circus out of this and now the Senate needs to vote."

For months, pundits and polls have indicated a "blue wave" could make Democrats the big winners on Nov. 6, Election Day.

But, earlier this month, an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Maris poll found July's 10-point advantage for Democrats had narrowed to just 2 points, a statistical tie.

Jim Jonas, a Denver-based independent political consultant, said the partisan fight over Kavanaugh seems to have fired up Republicans.

"It has certainly energized what was otherwise a moribund Republican-based voter," he said, adding a caveat: "Will that hold? Is this now the beginnings of a backlash against Democrats? Hard to read."

If the race is tight, it puts a group that's all over the political map in the driver seat: unaffiliated voters. They're now the largest group of voters in the state with 1.2 million active registrations and it is unclear exactly how many will side with Republicans or Democrats this election.

"In some cases, they're more conservative than the Republicans and in some cases, they're more liberal than the Democratic candidates and voters," Jonas said. "So it's hard to put them into a single box."

Creating more mystery, there's not much in the way of data or public polls on the gubernatorial race, including the positions of unaffilated voters. One, by the nonpartisan Keating Research and Magellan Strategies, showed Polis 7 percentage points ahead of Stapleton and doing well with women and unaffiliated voters.

Yet the poll, released earlier this month, was full of wild cards. It was conducted between Sept. 18 and Sept. 20, just as the Kavanaugh story was heating up and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 points. Eleven percent of the 600 people in the automated telephone poll were undecided.

The past might not even be a good barometer for determining how unaffiliated voters will act either. Usually, unaffiliated voters fail to show up in significant numbers for midterm elections, said Dick Wadhams, a Republican consultant and former state party chairman.

"History tells us that unaffiliated voters don't turn out in as high as numbers in non-presidential years," Wadhams said with a caution. "This is an extraordinary election year in that you've got the day-to-day drama with the Trump administration."

He also mentioned the Kavanaugh hearings.

"Will that enthuse unaffiliated voters?" Wadhams said. "I don't know. It will be interesting to see."

After the debate at the CBS4 studio, Stapleton's campaign manager, Michael Fortney, and a Polis surrogate, former state Sen. Mike Johnston, spoke about what the candidates are doing to reach independent voters.

"I think, that Jared has come out with big plans that people are mobilized and inspired by so I think it's about what are the policies that make a difference for their lives and how do you know you're speaking to them and not just your base?" Johnston said.

"I think Walker's campaign, we reach out every day to unaffiliated voters," Fortney said. "Walker has a track record of working across the aisle and actually getting things done."

There is still a lot of effort going to keeping the party loyal active, like President Trump's endorsement for Stapleton via Twitter and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders' announcement of a Colorado visit to stump for Polis.

Democrats have a slight numbers advantage. As of Oct. 1, there were about 1 million active Democratic voter registrations compared to about 975,000 Republicans, according to Secretary of State records. Wadhams said if both campaigns get solid turnout from voters in their own parties, then Colorado's next governor will owe his election to a long-running state trend.

"The unaffiliateds, then, determining the election," Wadhams said.

Copyright 2018 KUNC

I joined KUNC in 2016 to oversee news operations just as the station changed its format to round-the-clock news and information. I got my start as a journalist at the turn of the century, working as a newspaper. I took the advice of my mentors and didn't get too comfortable at any one place, working in several newsrooms along Colorado's Front Range, learning a little more about the state each place I went. I spread my wings as a freelancer after that. I worked for many publications, including Salon, 5280 magazine in Denver and my own, now-defunct bloggy news site that, among other things, ran cartoons rejected by the New Yorker. I also got my first taste of broadcast journalism, working for "48 Hours Mystery," "60 Minutes" and, eventually, a day job as a producer at the investigative desk at 7News in Denver. My first story in public radio was a collaboration with KUNC in a subject I've long explored -- the treatment of injured troops returning home from war. It won a national Edward R. Murrow award, one of the many awards over my career I've been lucky enough to win. In 2017, I won a Columbia-duPont award for my investigation into the same subject with NPR Investigative Correspondent Danny Zwerdling.