The crowded Denver mayor’s race is quickly nearing the home stretch, but there’s little indication that any of the 17 candidates are breaking out of the pack just yet.
That’s true even among the roughly half-dozen who are widely considered the top contenders, say political observers and insiders from some of the campaigns. With just two candidates now airing television ads — and two others supported on TV by outside funders — a recent poll found nearly 60% of likely voters agreed on one thing: They’re undecided.
“This is the latest developing mayoral race I’ve ever seen,” said James Mejía, a longtime Denver civic leader and former city official who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2011.
Ballots for the April 4 election go out in less than two weeks. It’s all but guaranteed to be just the first round, unless someone wins more than 50% of the vote. As of now, it’s anybody’s guess how low the vote-share threshold will be for the top two finishers to advance to the June runoff.
The race features Denver’s largest mayoral field in at least four decades, if not ever. Many voters are just starting to tune into the contest to succeed three-term Mayor Michael Hancock, experts say, with attention likely to soar once ballots hit mailboxes.
Though at least 10 candidates have fundraising totals that would allow them to buy TV ads at some level, most have held back. It’s made for a quieter campaign so far, with the candidates focusing their energies on building grassroots support: knocking on doors with volunteers, organizing events in neighborhoods and living rooms, speaking at community meetings, harnessing social media, blitzing voters with text messages, and attending the packed schedule of debates and forums.
The evolving media landscape also offers new ways to reach younger voters, from podcast interviews to digital ads and spots on streaming services such as Hulu, which several campaigns plan to buy.
“It’s really just going to (voters) — you can’t just wait for them to come to you,” said Sheila MacDonald, the campaign manager for candidate Kelly Brough, a former leader of the Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce and chief of staff to former Mayor John Hickenlooper. “That’s why we’re in every neighborhood. I think it’s going to be (about) who can talk to the most people, and who has the experience to lead the city.”
Few public polls have shed light on the standings. In January, outgoing at-large City Councilwoman Debbie Ortega’s campaign touted an internal poll that showed her leading with 16% support among 500 voters surveyed, followed by a tie at 8% between state Rep. Leslie Herod and community activist Lisa Calderón, a repeat mayoral candidate.
In late February, a group of business leaders called “A Denver For Us All” released a bipartisan poll conducted Feb. 9-10 that found 59% of likely voters were undecided. No candidate cleared 10% in the 405-person sample, with Brough leading at 7.6%.
Don’t congratulate her yet. Six rivals landed within the poll’s nearly 4.9-percentage-point margin of error of Brough.
That meant she was in a statistical dead heat with Herod, former state Sen. Mike Johnston, Ortega, state Sen. Chris Hansen, businessman and Army veteran Andy Rougeot, and Calderón. All are among the top-fundraising candidates.
But if anything, the results show that name identification — a benefit of holding prior elected office or a prominent job — has been the biggest factor boosting candidates.
“It’s amazing. This thing is up for grabs,” said Eric Sondermann, a political analyst whose experience in Denver elections goes back to 1983. He considers this year’s race, the first open contest for mayor in a dozen years, “fascinating but also impossible to analyze.”
Clear leaders may emerge soon — but it’s not guaranteed
So what will happen when undecided voters make their choices?
That question is fueling plenty of speculation. The picture might remain as muddled as it is now — or perhaps a handful of candidates will surge in coming weeks, as has tended to happen in the last several contests that elected new Denver mayors.
In 1983, 1991 and 2003, seven candidates made the mayoral ballot each time. Reliably, three to four candidates finished with vote shares in the double digits each time, with none winning the first round outright and the top two proceeding to runoffs.
In 2011, 10 candidates qualified for the ballot, with three finishing in the double-digits, between 25.7 and 28.4%. Hancock and top finisher Chris Romer proceeded to the runoff, which Hancock won, while Mejía came in a close third.
In all four of those elections, everyone who made the runoffs won at least 22% in the first round.
But with 17 candidates on the ballot this time, it’s possible nobody will reach 20%, Mejía and Sondermann said — even if likely voters begin to coalesce around certain candidates.
“I think this is going to be like” 2011, with a tight race among top finishers, but “with much, much lower percentages,” Mejía said. “We’re talking about like 14% and 15% to get into the runoff, which … is a little bit frightening.”
That’s also nerve-wracking for some candidates and their campaign advisers.
“People are making up their minds later than they traditionally would because of the large field of candidates,” said Craig Hughes, a campaign strategist for Johnston who’s a veteran of Colorado Democratic politics. “So we’re growing it step by step, building a large coalition that can carry Mike to victory on April 4” — which most likely means qualifying for the runoff.
The prospective free-for-all also raises the potential for surprises, such as a top-two finish for a proud conservative in liberal Denver.
That’s the result Rougeot, a registered Republican, is aiming for as he pushes back against the plans offered by his more liberal competitors. He’s self-funded more than 95% of his $786,000 campaign haul through Jan. 31, the most recent report available.
“Andy will break through to the second round because he’s the only candidate in the race who has an actual plan to address the growing crime problem and homelessness in Denver,” predicted Matt Connelly, a Rougeot adviser who’s a veteran GOP consultant.
TV ad war is brewing, with more participants
Rougeot launched his first TV ad in recent days, spending $60,000 for the first week’s worth of ads, according to public records on file with the Federal Communications Commission. Before that, Hansen was the only candidate directly airing ads. His campaign went up in mid-February and has spent nearly $186,000 on three weeks’ worth of ad time as of Wednesday, records show.
More ads are coming — including from outside groups reporting independent expenditures.
In late February, a flurry of TV spots began promoting Brough, with business, development and real estate interests operating under the name “A Better Denver” reporting $262,000 in media buys.
A Johnston-supporting group called “Advancing Denver” has just begun airing ads promoting him; the group has reported $380,000 in spending on media buys and is funded by people from the business and investment worlds, with former DaVita CEO Kent Thiry kicking in $150,000. And a group backing Herod called “Ready Denver” has disclosed $120,000 in spending on TV, digital advertising and production, though no TV ad buys had surfaced in FCC records as of Wednesday. The group hasn’t disclosed its donors.
So far, Sondermann is surprised by how much so many candidates are playing it safe, holding off on attacks. An exception in mid-February was when Herod and another candidate, Ean Thomas Tafoya, took Hansen to task during a debate for images of mostly Black and Latino men apparently engaged in crime in his first TV ad, a charge Hansen chalked up to politics.
“I’m sort of waiting for more candidates to do that — to embrace controversy, to say something even a little bit edgy, just to try to break out,” Sondermann said.
But look for the knives to come out as the election nears. And the candidates, who have spent weeks listening to each others’ proposals on debate stages, may look for chances to co-opt ideas.
“It’s the swiping and stealing time,” mused Donna Good, a now-retired fundraiser for several past mayoral candidates who’s served in city positions.
Good says she was torn between several candidates but decided recently to back Herod. Yet she doesn’t blame voters for waiting to tune in so soon after last November’s midterm elections.
“The people of America are exhausted,” she said. “And we’re asking them to pay attention to something that they’re sick of, which are elections. … It’s not that they don’t care, but they are just so tired.”
Campaigns hope grassroots focus will pay off
Grassroots organizing remains the focus for most campaigns, experienced and upstart alike.
“The fundamentals of the campaign don’t change even though this is a crowded race,” said Rachel Caine, a senior adviser to Ortega’s campaign. “So we’re contacting voters by phone, we’re sending text messages and we’ll be running a paid communications program, too,” including TV and digital ads and direct mail.
This year, the implementation of the city’s new Fair Elections Fund, which matches donations of up to $50 on a 9-to-1 basis using public money, has helped attract even more candidates than usual to Denver’s nonpartisan election. Tuesday marked the cut-off for donation matching eligibility.
Val Nosler Beck, a senior adviser for Herod, said Herod’s team tried to lay the groundwork for a surge in the final weeks by using the Fair Elections Fund to draw in supporters and seek out their input on the campaign, establishing tight connections.
“The Herod campaign, early on, recognized that this is a community groundswell type of race where we have to meet Denver residents where they are,” she said. “It has worked every step of the way up ’til now. … Our campaign is ready to meet the moment.”
But whether voters will come through for any campaign — no matter the endorsements they plug or how many TV ads they buy in the next month — is an open question.
Voters are considering a field in which nearly every conceivable political lane — progressive, tough on crime, anti-camping ban, pro-park space — is occupied by multiple candidates, whether they have recognizable names or not.
Jeff Fard, a community activist in Five Points who’s known as Brother Jeff, has hosted live-streamed interviews with most of the candidates on his online show. He ticked off qualities he found appealing in several candidates, including leadership exhibited by Herod at the legislature, by Calderón in the criminal justice arena and Brough in the business world — along with Tafoya’s environmental focus and anti-gang activist Terrance Roberts’ ideas for engaging the city’s youth.
“My candidate is a composite of all of these,” Fard said, noting he’s undecided.
His overall prediction is that a woman will win, marking a milestone for Denver: “Which woman is the question.”
He sees similar thought processes playing out among many voters.
“Some bemoan the fact that there’s so many candidates,” Fard said, “but what that says to me is democracy is at work. … When I see the level of candidates that we have, I’m really inspired.”
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