Could Colorado third-party candidates play spoiler? History shows it’s unlikely.
Nominees of minor parties have averaged just 1.5% of the vote since 1950
Libertarian candidate for U.S. Senate Brian Peotter of Colorado. (Courtesy of Brian Peotter)
Brian Peotter, the Libertarian Party nominee for Colorado’s U.S. Senate seat, doesn’t think he can win tomorrow.
But that doesn’t mean Peotter doesn’t hope to influence the contest between incumbent Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet and Republican challenger Joe O’Dea.
“Success is covering the spread between the winner and the loser,” Peotter told Newsline ahead of Tuesday’s midterm elections. “Failure is less than that.”
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Peotter and his supporters, including a number of prominent Colorado conservative hardliners, are embracing his campaign’s potential to play spoiler. They hope to deny O’Dea, who has staked out more moderate positions on several key issues, a chance to win, and dissuade leaders in the Colorado Republican Party from straying too far towards the center in the future.
To a lesser extent, the same dynamic could be at play in the Colorado governor’s race, where far-right candidate Danielle Neuschwanger is running on the American Constitution Party’s ballot line. Polling suggests, however, that Democratic Gov. Jared Polis has a more comfortable lead over Republican nominee Heidi Ganahl, who has done less to alienate conservative voters than O’Dea.
In the weeks leading up to Election Day, Peotter faced pressure from many Republicans to withdraw from the race. But he refused, pointing to irreconcilable differences between himself and O’Dea, like the latter’s stance in support of limited abortion rights and acknowledgment that former President Donald Trump’s loss in the 2020 election was legitimate.
There has been heavy pressure from friends, family, and others to drop out ... I will not bend a knee, and live life with no regrets.
– Brian Peotter, candidate for U.S. Senate from Colorado
“There has been heavy pressure from friends, family, and others to drop out,” Peotter said. “I will not bend a knee, and live life with no regrets.”
If either Peotter or Neuschwanger manages to have a discernible impact on Tuesday’s results, it would be unprecedented in modern Colorado political history, a Newsline analysis found. In 44 U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races dating back to 1950, Colorado has never had a clear-cut third-party spoiler.
In just four of those races, the winner’s margin of victory was smaller than the vote share of the top minor-party candidate. But in each case, the minor party in question was roughly ideologically aligned with the victorious major party. In 2014, for example, when former GOP Sen. Cory Gardner won a 2-point victory over incumbent Sen. Mark Udall, Libertarian nominee Gaylon Kent received 2.6% of the vote. Bennet’s 1.7-point win over U.S. Rep. Ken Buck in 2010 also featured a 2.2% vote share for Green Party candidate Bob Kinsey.
Little third-party success
Even Colorado’s most infamous third-party campaign in living memory — far-right former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo’s Constitution Party candidacy in the 2010 governor’s race — arguably didn’t amount to spoiler status, since Democratic nominee John Hickenlooper captured 51% of the vote.
The 36% vote share won by Tancredo, who launched a last-minute bid that siphoned votes from scandal-plagued GOP nominee Dan Maes, is by far the best electoral performance by a third-party statewide candidate in the last 72 years of Colorado elections.
It’s 10 times the next-highest figure over that period, the 3.62% won by Libertarian Lily Tang Williams in the 2016 Senate race, and almost exactly equaled by Kevin Swanson, the 1994 gubernatorial nominee for the U.S. Taxpayers’ Party, the former name of the Constitution Party.
Overall, 81 candidates nominated by organized minor parties have run for U.S. Senate or governor in Colorado since 1950. On average, they’ve received just 1.5% of the vote; without the skew of the 2010 Tancredo campaign, the figure is just under 1.1%.
Solidly right-wing minor parties have been most common, and most successful, in Colorado over that span, accounting for 43 candidacies and averaging over 2% of the vote. By contrast, 21 left-wing candidates running on minor-party ballot lines have averaged just under 1%. A third group of harder-to-categorize parties — including the newly formed, centrist Unity Party, the transcendental-meditation-focused Natural Law Party, and the parodic 1970s Newtist Party — have performed the worst of all, averaging just 0.66% of the vote over 15 campaigns.
Polling and political science research offers a muddled picture of the impact of minor-party voting on close races. Supposed spoiler candidates are often assigned blame in the aftermath of a major party’s narrow loss, and fear of the “spoiler effect” has prompted calls for election reforms like ranked-choice or approval voting. Some research, however, suggests that this effect is often exaggerated, and that voters who cast a ballot for minor-party candidates would be split more evenly between the major-party candidates than generally assumed.
Support for third parties also tends to be higher in early polling but wane as Election Day nears, political scientists have found. Peotter, whose support has been estimated at between 2% and 7% in recent polls, is banking on reversing that trend.
“If I have to guess, it will be between 5% and 10%, believing the shy MAGA voters are voting for me and not represented in polls,” he said.
Neuschwanger has topped out at 3% support in a poll of the governor's race released last week by Trafalgar Group, a Republican firm. Kevin Ruskusky, the Libertarian Party nominee, also received 2.1% support in the same poll.
In a Nov. 1 Facebook post, Neuschwanger responded to critics who called on her to drop out and maximize Ganahl’s chances of winning, writing that she was representing voters “disenfranchised with the two-party system.”
“I’m sorry that your candidate is not strong enough to beat Polis on her own and that she has to beg third-party candidates to turn their backs on their party and their voters to support her in this election,” Neuschwanger wrote. “Bottom line we all have commitments and the GOP is not entitled to votes they haven’t earned.”
Republican state Rep. Ron Hanks of Cañon City, the far-right election denier who lost to O’Dea by 10 points in the June GOP primary, endorsed Peotter’s campaign in October, calling O’Dea a “fake Republican” with a “near-zero chance of being elected.”
A vote for Peotter, Hanks wrote, “is not an abandonment of our true, honest, beloved Republican Party — it is a statement that we clearly see Colorado’s Republican Party has abandoned us.”
Hanks’ message has been echoed by other prominent Colorado conservatives, including Rocky Mountain Gun Owners director Taylor Rhodes and former Trump attorney Jenna Ellis, who said in a video message last month that O’Dea “deserves to lose.” And the former president himself weighed in on the race with an Oct. 17 message blasting O'Dea as a “RINO,” or Republican in name only. On his website’s endorsements page, Peotter promotes Trump’s “advice on the race.”
“MAGA doesn’t Vote for stupid people with big mouths,” wrote Trump in a post on his Truth Social website. “Good luck Joe!”
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