State Political Parties Stand the Risk of Losing Major Party Status in Future Elections

Colorado's Republican Party Chairman Dick Wadhams decided to not run for a third term, crystallizing cleavages in state GOPs that could risk their majority party status.
by | February 9, 2011

On Election Day 2010, the Colorado Republican Party came within 20,000 votes of losing its major-party status in the state. This week, state Republican Party chairman Dick Wadhams decided against seeking another term, citing "nuts who have no grasp of what the state party's role is." His departure highlights a growing schism in state GOP parties nationwide, one that other state Republican parties face if the Tea Party's growth continues. The risk? The loss of major party status.

The differences between major- and minor-party statuses vary by state. In Colorado, political experts say that minor parties face greater challenges in petitioning for ballot access and for holding primary elections. If parties do not hold a primary, then donors can only give to candidates for the general election, effectively halving potential candidate donations.

To be sure, the 2010 gubernatorial election in Colorado was somewhat unusual, due to a problematic GOP gubernatorial nominee and a strong third-party bid by a former congressman. The initial frontrunner for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, former Rep. Scott McInnis, saw his candidacy derailed after allegations that he had plagiarized reports on water policy. That enabled a little-known challenger, Dan Maes, to win the GOP nomination.

Eventually, Maes' own credibility plummeted when the media raised questions about his claim that he had worked "undercover" 25 years earlier with the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. This enabled former GOP Rep. Tom Tancredo to become Democratic Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper's main challenger. Tancredo ran under the banner of the American Constitution Party (ACP).

On Election Day, Hickenlooper cruised to victory with 51 percent of the vote, followed by Tancredo at 36 percent and Maes at 11 percent. If Maes had failed to receive 10 percent, the GOP would have lost major-party status. This is striking because Republican candidates in the same election defeated two Democratic members of Congress, the secretary of state and the state treasurer; and flipped the previously Democratic state House.

Minor party status in Colorado applies to all candidates up and down the ticket, and it lasts until the next gubernatorial election. Had Maes' won just 20,000 fewer votes out of almost 1.8 million cast, all Republican candidates -- for whatever county, legislative, or statewide office they sought in 2012 and 2014 -- would have been deemed minor party candidates, with all the additional challenges that entails.

The last time a Democratic or Republican state party lost its legal status as a majority party was in Virginia in 1990, says Richard Winger, the publisher and editor of Ballot Access News. At the time, Virginia law said that a "party" was a group that had polled 10 percent in any statewide race during the last election. In 1990, the Democrats decided not to run against Republican Sen. John Warner, a popular moderate. But that was the only statewide race that year, and Democrats realized too late that doing so would force their party off the ballot in the next election. Virginia's Legislature saved the party by changing in a special session the definition to any group that had polled 10 percent for any statewide race in either of the last two elections, Winger says.

That same year, Democrats in Connecticut were on thin ice. During the 1990 election, former Sen. Lowell Weicker, running under the banner of a third party, won the governorship, and the Democratic nominee, Bruce Morrison, barely cleared the 20 percent threshold needed for major-party status.

Today, state Republican organizations, dominated by conservatives whose taste runs to the right of what voters in the state prefer, puts the GOP at risk. Wadhams added that "the ability of Colorado Republicans to win and retain the votes of hundreds of thousands of unaffiliated swing voters in 2012 will be severely undermined."

Of course, there's no certainty that the same pattern will hold in 2012, a year in which there are fewer elections for statewide offices. But the 2010 election featured a confluence of both three-way races and Tea Party victories over establishment candidates in party primaries and conventions. Independent Lincoln Chafee won the governorship of Rhode Island, while third-party candidates for governor took significant (if losing) vote shares in such states as Maine, Massachusetts and Minnesota. In a rash of Senate contests, Tea Party-affiliated candidates prevailed in intra-party contests over establishment-backed candidates, including Colorado, Florida, Kentucky, Nevada and Utah.

According to an account in the Atlantic, of the 3,500 or so delegates to Colorado's state GOP convention, Wadhams estimated that in 2010 "about 40 percent of that state assembly were delegates for the first time," and that "the vast majority" were affiliated with the Tea Party or similar groups. Tancredo, for his part, returned to the GOP after the election, and it's not clear that the ACP, with its small infrastructure, can benefit from its newfound major-party status.

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