A sharp political divide has led to a surge of unaffiliated voters across the United States, and La Plata County is no exception.
Unaffiliated voters became the largest voter block in October 2012, and have only increased their majority each year since. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before unaffiliated candidates started appearing on the local ballot.
Indeed, two unaffiliated candidates – Jack Turner and Charly Minkler – aim to be the first independents to ever win an election for county commissioner in La Plata County as they challenge Democratic candidates Marsha Porter-Norton and Matt Salka, respectively.
And what’s more, for perhaps the first time ever – the race for La Plata County commissioner will not feature a Republican on the ballot.
“I’m fairly confident to say this is the first time we’re not seeing a Republican opponent,” said La Plata County Clerk & Recorder Tiffany Parker.
Since unaffiliated voters became the majority eight years ago, they have represented an important segment of voters who can sway elections between political parties.
After the 2018 midterm elections, which saw Democratic candidates sweep contested races, Travis Oliger, then-chairman of the La Plata County Republicans, opined that the party’s future was in jeopardy.
“You’re not going to win in this county anymore as a Republican,” he said. “I would be amazed if we have any candidates going forward. It’s like flushing money down the toilet ... because they’re going to lose.”
But what’s happening between party lines is not unique to Southwest Colorado.
In 2016, there were about 10,750 active unaffiliated voters in the county, Parker said. But over the past four years, that number has shot up to 15,300, followed by about 11,700 Democrats and 10,100 Republicans.
“The data reflects this is a trend across the state,” Parker said. “People are feeling that they don’t want to be associated with either party and just want to be unaffiliated.”
A Pew Research Center study in 2018 found 38% of Americans identified as independents, while 31% were Democrats and 26% call themselves Republicans.
Paul DeBell, an assistant professor of political science at Fort Lewis College, agreed the move to disassociate from traditional parties has been born out of a growing frustration with national politics.
“In the context of the U.S., this idea of being independent is seen as a good thing, so there’s a move away from traditional party structures,” DeBell said.
David Flaherty, CEO and founder of Magellan Strategies, a Republican-leaning polling firm based in Colorado, said the decline of registered Republican voters in the state has led to the rise of independent candidates.
“The Republican brand is so bad right now in Colorado because of Donald Trump, it’s not even funny,” he said. “So many people are better off running as an independent.”
Unaffiliated candidates have had a rough go in the past, Flaherty said, because they often vie for and split Republican and Democratic votes. But without one party running, they may appeal to people looking for an alternative.
“Candidates (in the past) have been misguided thinking they can have success at the ballot box by calling both parties corrupt,” he said. “Voters want to know where you stand on issues and if your values align with theirs.”
DeBell, too, said running as an independent provides candidates more freedom and flexibility, but often, voters have trouble identifying where a candidate stands on certain issues.
“They do have a higher bar to articulate what they stand for,” he said.
In La Plata County, the situation is a little more nuanced.
Minkler was a registered Republican until he became fed up with local and state Republicans and switched party affiliation in 2010 to the conservative American Constitution Party.
“I make no bones about the fact I am a moderate conservative,” he said. “I don’t try to hide that fact.”
But Minkler switched to unaffiliated in 2018 as he started to think about a run at county commission.
“I believe county politics should not be about politics, it should be about what’s best for the county,” he said. “That’s why I made that change.”
Turner was a registered Democrat until he changed to unaffiliated in 2018. He said he registered as a Democrat to vote in primaries, but once Colorado passed a law in 2016 that allowed independents to vote in either primary, he switched.
“The only con (of running as an independent) is having to explain to people what that means,” he said. “It doesn’t mean I hate the other parties. It means I’m willing to talk to everybody.”
Minkler’s and Turner’s challengers have raised concerns, and criticisms, with their opponents flying under the independent banner.
Given Republican candidates’ struggles in recent years, Salka said he believes Minkler is running as an independent “to find a better way in as county commissioner.”
“My belief is that my opponent is running as unaffiliated to get the opportunity to get elected, even though his past history, he’s shown he’s a Republican,” Salka said.
Salka, himself, was previously registered as unaffiliated and registered with the Democratic Party in 2018.
“I lean more Democrat, and I knew I needed to be part of a party,” he said. “I needed help (to be elected). That’s how the system is right now, you need to be part of a party to get help.”
Porter-Norton, a lifelong Democrat, said being “truly and genuinely” independent is a challenge, and voters should take the time to understand a candidate’s financial backers and platforms.
“Voters are smart, they know whether a person’s needle is conservative and anti-regulation or in the sight of progressive issues,” she said. “People can make that decision for themselves.”
While Minkler and Turner have not received funding from the La Plata County Republican Party, they have received donations from its top members.
“If you are a conservative person, what options do you have?” Minkler said. “There is some angst between rural and urban folks in our county, that’s obvious. People have felt really disenfranchised.”
For the first time since 1940s, one party gained control of the three-person Board of County Commissioners when Democratic challenger Clyde Church beat Republican incumbent Brad Blake by just 23 votes in 2018.
After the election, Oliger said conservative voters, who mostly live in rural areas of the county, continue to be marginalized and not feel represented, especially as Durango continues to grow and attract more liberal voters.
“They don’t feel part of this community,” Oliger said. “And I sense that pretty heavily from just about everybody that I talk to. And it’s terrible. It really is.”
Calls to La Plata County Republicans representatives Oliger and Jim Harper were not returned for this story.
Carol Cure, chairwoman of the La Plata County Democrats, said just because a candidate runs as an independent doesn’t mean he or she will scoop up a large number of unaffiliated voters.
“I believe (voters) will look at the candidates, see what they have done in the past and judge accordingly,” she said.
All four candidates agreed on one thing: The role of county commissioner should not be political or partisan. And despite party, or in this case, non-party lines, a commissioner should be representative and listen to all 56,000 or so residents.
Indeed, county commissioners are tasked with nonpartisan matters like approving development projects and setting the budget.
But every now and then, ideological battles and tensions enter county government, whether by approving new regulations through a land-use code or determining the future of a coal mine.
And with the rise of independents, FLC’s DeBell said there are interesting studies going on within the political science community about whether unaffiliated candidates and voters are truly free from political leanings.
“There is a question of how much is this signaling that ‘I’m an independent thinker,’ but still reliably voting one way,” he said. “Or how much is this a genuine disconnect from partisan politics.”
A previous version of this story misidentified former county commissioner Brad Blake.