Kent Thiry urges Colorado Republicans against calling off next year’s primary election

Author: Ernest Luning - September 15, 2017 - Updated: September 18, 2017

DaVita Inc. President and CEO Kent Thiry (Photo courtesy Thiry via Twitter)DaVita Inc. President and CEO Kent Thiry (Photo courtesy Thiry via Twitter)

The wealthy executive who championed a ballot measure to let unaffiliated voters cast ballots in Colorado primaries is urging state Republicans to defeat a proposal to scrap next year’s primary election and instead nominate candidates at party assemblies.

The Colorado GOP plans to consider whether to cancel the primary at a meeting of the Republican state central committee Sept. 23 in Englewood. The decision will take the vote of three-quarters of committee members, according to Proposition 108, which was approved last fall by state voters.

“It would be a mistake for Republicans to slam the door on Colorado voters by canceling their primary,” said Kent Thiry, the colorful president and CEO of kidney dialysis giant DaVita Inc. and the main financial backer of the ballot measure. “Even within the party there is a recognition of the mess it would create to tell voters ‘we are closed for business.’ It would be even more of a travesty for the men and women in our military as it would prevent many of them from having the ability to participate at all. The voters spoke very clearly to the parties — open up your primary, that is what is fair, that is what is sensible. Not listening would be exceptionally risky.”

Thiry, who changed his voter registration from unaffiliated to Republican in March, was considering a run for governor in next year’s election but announced in late July that he wouldn’t be running. Instead, he said he plans to support “centrist candidates, common sense causes and other efforts that promote collaborative governance” in next year’s election.

At the beginning of September, Colorado had 3,351,785 active, registered voters, roughly evenly distributed among  Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters, with a smattering belonging to the state’s minor political parties.

Supporters of the opt-out proposal argue that any unaffiliated voter can affiliate as a Republican in a matter of minutes and then vote in the primary but that it doesn’t make sense to let outsiders help pick the GOP’s nominees.

“To allow unaffiliated voters to have an influence on the selection of our candidates is foolish,” said Adams County Republican Ben Nicholas, who petitioned party leadership to hold a vote on the issue. “It would be as foolish as allowing the New England Patriot fans to have a say in who the Broncos starting quarterback should be.”

Colorado Republican Party Chairman Jeff Hays is opposed to doing away with the primary.

“We’re going to look at this thing as an opportunity, not a crisis,” he told Colorado Politics last month. “We feel it’s an opportunity to go win over some hearts and minds. That’s the way we’re approaching it.”

The state GOP sent an email to central committee members against the opt-out proposal Wednesday from U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, an opponent of the ballot measure.

“When Proposition 108 was offered last year, I opposed allowing unaffiliated voters, people who don’t identify as proud Republicans, to pick our candidates in the primary election,” Buck wrote. “Even though I’ve struggled with this issue, I think it’s best for the (party) to move forward and consent to the will of Coloradans. To disregard the voters would potentially hurt our statewide candidates in the upcoming election and would embody the back-room dealing our party stands against.”

The party plans to hold a forum on the question the night before the central committee meeting at its annual fall fundraising dinner. Panelists include Nicholas, Secretary of State Wayne Williams, former congressional candidate George Athanasopoulos, former state GOP chair Dick Wadhams, with radio host Jimmy Sengenberger moderating the discussion.

The Proposition 108 ballot measure, which passed in November with a little over 53 percent of the vote, requires county clerks to send Democratic and Republican primary ballots to unaffiliated voters unless either of the major parties decides to drop the primary and nominate candidates at party assemblies. Parties have until Oct. 1 to notify the secretary of state if they’re opting out of the primary.

Democrats held their state central committee meeting in the first week of August, and the question didn’t even come up, a party spokeswoman said.

“Why would we cancel an election?” said Anne Wilscack, the party’s executive director, stifling laughter. “No one even raised that as a possibility.”

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning is a political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has covered politics and government for newspapers and online news sites in Colorado for more than 25 years, including at the Highlands Ranch Herald, the Jefferson Sentinels chain of community newspapers and the Aurora Sentinel, where he was the city hall and cops reporter. After editing the Aurora Daily Sun, he was a political reporter and blogger for The Colorado Independent site. For nearly a decade, he was a senior political reporter and occasional editor at The Colorado Statesman before the 119-year-old publication merged with Colorado Politics in 2017.