Justin Edmonds, Special to the Denver Post
The leading campaigns in the Democratic race for governor are asking voters in the crowded primary a simple but complicated question: Which candidate do you identify with most?
The candidates are appealing to voters based on a shared identity with slogans, signs and speeches designed to secure core supporters in a field where their campaign platforms are more alike than not.
Jared Polis, a five-term Boulder congressman, is highlighting his effort to become the nation’s first elected openly gay governor with a rainbow-colored campaign logo on placards that tell the nation’s vice president, “Take that, Mike Pence.”
Cary Kennedy, the former state treasurer, and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne are competing to become the first woman elected governor in Colorado. Kennedy is embracing the identity with the campaign slogan “When Women Lead,” while Lynne downplays the notion of campaigning on gender.
Mike Johnston, a former state senator, is trying to reach different identity groups through a Spanish-language television commercial.
In leveraging a shared identity, the campaigns are forcing voters to reconcile how they see themselves, often to the effect of prioritizing one over another in a world of multiplicity.
“It’s easy to be a Democrat and vote for Democrats,” said Zoey DeWolf, a 28-year-old, first-generation American and Democratic lobbyist. “That’s why this election is super difficult. We have to be more cognizant and ask: What are the things that we want to really achieve? Am I as simple as being a woman? Am I as simple as being gay? Am I as simple as being of color? No, none of us are. That’s why it’s really challenging.”
The strategy to tap into identity politics is equal parts powerful and perilous, according to political experts, and echoes a dynamic that some Democrats believe cost them the White House in 2016.
“Democrats are divided — even at the highest levels of leadership, as far as I can tell — about whether identity politics is the road to a successful future or not,” said Steven Pittz, a political science professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. “It’s a very, very risky strategy. The reason it’s risky is that you can unify groups, … but, unfortunately, at the same time, you’re dividing and maybe turning off some other groups.”
The political power of identity lies in the ability to forge alliances among people with shared experiences – whether by race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, class, age or ideology.
“In some ways, identity politics is really important,” said Celeste Montoya, a professor in women and gender studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “It becomes a question of legitimacy, a question of ‘Can I participate in the same way? Will my issues be represented?’ ”
The use of identity-based messages in Colorado campaigns is not new, but this year, it’s more prominent because Democrats face the first competitive primary for governor in two decades.
The barrier-breaking nature of the candidates and the expectation that women – in the era of President Donald Trump and the #MeToo movement – will flex their political muscle in the 2018 election only heighten the awareness.
The topic even extends to the Republican primary for governor, where Greg Lopez, the former Parker mayor and a long-shot candidate, won a place on the primary ballot at the state party assembly after suggesting he could win the state’s Latino swing voters.
Montoya, whose research focuses on how women and marginalized groups create political change, said, “There is some evidence that having somebody who shares identity might be better at doing it,” but it’s mixed at best. “Not all women have the same issues. Not all women have the exact same political opinions,” she said. “So it doesn’t necessarily mean they will represent your issues.”
U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, a Democratic candidate for governor, speaks during the Democratic State Assembly at FirstBank Center on April 14, 2018 in Broomfield.
The candidates’ identity defines the race
Inside the Syntax Physic Opera House in Denver, dozens of Polis supporters wore rainbow-colored campaign stickers at a campaign event in May, the first in a series intended to highlight the historic nature of his bid.
In 2008, Polis became the first openly gay parent in Congress. In the governor’s race, he uses the platform to talk about “an inclusive vision” for the state and criticize Trump and Pence for their stance on LGBT issues.
“I think it’s of particular excitement to the LGBT community in Colorado, and we have an opportunity to put a thumb in Mike Pence’s face,” he said in an interview at the event, echoing his campaign signs.
Polis’ focus on the theme energized voters at the Democratic state assembly in April, but it also led to concerns that he couldn’t win a general election because his identity makes him too radical.
The concerns are more perception than reality, according to David Niven, a former Democratic strategist who now teaches political science at the University of Cincinnati. His research found that a candidate’s sexual orientation did not increase opposition among voters.
“When candidates share their sexual orientation, I think the conventional wisdom is there is danger there,” he said. “The actual data suggests the opposite – that the candidates are not penalized for sexual orientation, but we think they are.”
In 2016, Oregon’s Kate Brown, who is bisexual, became the nation’s first elected openly LGBT governor.
Niven sees identity politics as an effective path, particularly in low-interest, low-information elections such as primaries because it helps a candidate stand out. But, he added, it’s not the whole equation to winning votes.
“Who you are by itself is not the path to the governor’s office, but who you are is a starting point to credibility. Who you are is a starting point to articulating your values,” he said.
Democratic candidate for governor Cary Kennedy speaks during the Democratic State Assembly at 1STBANK Center on April 14, 2018 in Broomfield.
The women candidates tout enthusiasm in the moment
The two women in the Democratic primary run in the shadow of Hillary Clinton, who won the 2016 presidential vote in Colorado by 5 percentage points.
Kennedy declared in a Democratic event in Boulder that “2018 is going to be the year when women lead” – her biggest applause line in a speech focused on making education the state’s top priority.
“I think there is momentum all across the country and across Colorado to see women in positions of leadership, not just in the public sector but in the private sector as well,” she said afterward in an interview.
Lynne said she sees the same enthusiasm. But she has also experienced situations where male voters commented on her appearance rather than discuss the issues. “I think women are being held to different standards than men, and that is troubling to me,” she said.
The desire to put a woman in the governor’s office and make changes to address any perceived injustices against women is not her motivation.
“I don’t frame my candidacy in that way at all,” said Lynne, who focuses on her experience in government and work in the health care sector.
For women, the identity factor is especially tricky, said Bernadette Calafell, a University of Denver communications studies professor. “As we saw with Hillary Clinton, many voters have very specific ideas about how women leaders are supposed to act,” she said.
The identity motivation for women can prove potent when it’s a salient issue, but Kathleen Dolan, a leading researcher on the topic, suggested the impact is probably overstated.
The traditional electoral influences, such as a candidate’s experience and fundraising, are still more important, said Dolan, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. Not to mention, she said, two women in the race “might dilute the dynamic of uniqueness a little bit.”
“We have very little evidence that women are more likely to vote for women candidates,” she said, adding: “This pink wave is not coming.”
Former Colorado state Sen. Mike Johnston announces his bid to run for Colorado governor from the Holly Street Community Center in Denver on Jan. 17, 2017. Four of the top 10 Colorado donors support Democrat Mike Johnston and expanding charter schools.
Another candidate seeks to appeal to multiple identities
Johnston is seeking to defy identity labels in his campaign for governor, as he did in winning a state Senate seat in a predominantly African-American area of Denver.
But he is still appealing based on his biography. He would be the first teacher elected Colorado governor. The Vail native is the only candidate from the Western Slope and the sole fluent Spanish speaker. Johnston’s campaign claims that his TV ad highlighting his Spanish fluency was a first from a Colorado gubernatorial candidate. And the 43-year-old is appealing to young voters. Combined, he is looking to build the support that he believes is needed to win.
“I think,” he said, “we are all a complex combination of interests and identities.”