The story of how one down ballot candidate for county clerk and recorder plans to unseat a powerful incumbent and overcome a troubling national trend.

Meet Dan

The great hall on Colorado State University’s campus is bright as spring sunshine pours in through rows of floor-to-ceiling windows. Despite the beautiful space, students flit across the room chaotically – tutoring hours are in overdrive as final exams loom ahead.

Even amidst all the commotion, it is fairly easy to spot Dan – his age may suggest he is a young teacher or graduate student, but his eyes betray the bewilderment of someone no longer familiar with academia in late April. He works for the northern part of the county’s health district, which ruled out meeting at his job, and his garage is not yet transformed into a colorful campaign headquarters.

So we move into a drab, quiet classroom next door and he helps me set the lighting before peeling off his green down vest for our interview. Even down ballot candidates have to look official, after all.

Dan is running for county clerk and recorder, an elected position responsible for, among other things, overseeing the county’s elections, marriage and liquor licensing, and even the Department of Motor Vehicles.

“I’m running because I’ve been involved with local politics and the local community for a long time,” Dan says. “I’ve kind of been the guy behind the scenes for a lot of campaigns, but never really the person out front.”

After law school, Dan preferred to make his impact behind-the-scenes by lobbying, donating, and even ghostwriting speeches and editorials.

When he went to vote for these candidates, however, there were often few Democratic choices. After complaining one too many times, his friends at the county party told him, “To put my money where my mouth is.”

Sapienza smiles in front of a Larimer County park.

Dan Sapienza announced his candidacy at the Larimer County Democratic Convention on March 4, 2018. Photo courtesy of Dan Sapienza for Larimer County.

Dan was the first candidate registered to run for the Board of Larimer County Commissioners but withdrew his bid and endorsed current Senator John Kefalas.

By switching to an even lower-profile race, Dan won’t begin campaigning until much closer to the election. Though gubernatorial candidates have already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on television ads, he attends a few community events a week, does a little fundraising, even though he doesn’t want to, and calls it good.

“The month of April is really hard for me to run a campaign because I’m doing way too much,” Dan admits. He’s busy training volunteers to run the historic railway in Old Town and helping plan annual music festival Foco MX. “I’m involved with a lot around the community and that’s why I want to run for office, to give back a little.”

But just because the heavy lifting hasn’t started yet, doesn’t mean the campaign will be easy. Dan faces an uphill battle in nearly every part of his candidacy aside from race and gender: a dull race, strategic opponent, and disadvantaged party.

Dan vs World

Okay, well that’s a little dramatic. But even a smaller categorization, like Dan versus Larimer County, isn’t really an accurate representation. Dan faces poor odds, but they are characteristic of almost all down ballot races.

If he wanted to win, and I’ll make a wild leap by assuming that most candidates do want to win, I’ll show you how he’s doing just about everything wrong.

1. He’s doing just about everything wrong

When you’re ready to vote for Dan, scan about halfway down the ballot, maybe somewhere alongside the right margin.

Unfortunately, small details like positioning on the ballot matter a lot. The top few races receive a majority public attention – think the campaigns that drive people crazy by calling once a week at dinnertime, running endless commercials, and dominating the news cycle.

Consequently, many voters simply don’t know anything about offices like county clerk and recorder and information is hard to find compared to larger races. That lack of information, especially from the media, makes the races seem, well, boring.

Not to mention, we know people turn out in lower numbers during quieter, midterm elections and over 30 percent of those who turnout do not complete their ballot.

It doesn’t help that, given the relatively low-profile and thankless nature of these positions, few people want to run. Watching a race of one just isn’t fun.

For Dan, the lack of competition also means starting from scratch.

“The fact that there hasn’t been a Democratic party candidate for this race in over 20 years, means we have no information,” Dan says. “We can use information from other races that are countywide. That gives us some information, but this is really uncharted territory.”

“So right now, I’m trying to raise money. It’s not the glamorous part of running for office, but unfortunately, it’s one of the most important. If you can’t raise money, you can’t communicate and if you can’t communicate, people don’t know if you’re a candidate. If people don’t know you’re a candidate, they’ll say, ‘well, I’ll just vote for the incumbent.’”

2. He hasn’t already won

Lots of people know their elected official or have at least heard their name. This name recognition, which increases each day for people in office as they do their job, earns them both more votes at the polls and more donors and volunteers.

However, the challenger Dan faces came to power in an particularly unusual way.

Angela Myers worked for the previous clerk and recorder, beloved Scott Doyle, for over ten years. When he retired in the middle of his third term, limited from seeking another reelection, he appointed Myers to fill the remaining year and a half. Because Doyle was so popular, her appointment was well-received and she ran unchallenged in the next election in 2014.

Myers weathered a few controversies during those first elections, however, including the removal of a news photographer from a polling place, temporary removal of independent media near polling places on the CSU campus, and confusion surrounding voter registration and student scholarship status.

Denver7 also published an investigative report in 2017 that revealed personal information like social security numbers on public documents accessible through the Larimer county website. Though Myers rectified the situation, she also spoke out, calling the coverage “tabloidish.”

The election this November will be the first vote on Myers since these incidents.

However, despite these public incidents, Myers’ campaign prospects look good. Every single ballot will even feature her name, position, and signature in the upper left-hand corner.

An unnerving trend also emerges in Myers’ favor: the vast majority of current elected county officials are Republicans.

3. He’s not Republican

Republicans hold 20 percent more elected county seats across the nation than Democrats.

Dan attributes this in part to the rural-urban divide. Major election researchers, like Larry Sabato, agree.

Left-leaning voters tend to concentrate in urban centers, like Fort Collins, while right-leaning voters spread out over numerous rural counties, meaning a greater number of total counties is likely to vote Republican. Rural and urban citizens often think the county focuses on the other area’s issues and concerns, which has hindered Democratic candidates in the past.

Additionally, as Republicans continue to dominate county races, they continue to dominate the incumbency advantage – the idea that people in power stay in power.

So faced with burned-out voters, an incumbent whose name is on the ballot twice, and a daunting county bias against Democrats, does Dan even stand a chance?

Dan 8 months from now

The most exciting part of this whole conundrum is the opportunity to watch the entire process and satisfy the mystery come November.

We may see an animated and relatively well-publicized race, like Tom Donnelly’s re-election to the Board of County Commissioners where Democrat Karen Stockley proved an opponent to reckon with. (Worth noting she still lost by a ten point margin.)

Unlike most downballot candidates, Dan has a slick website and is active on social media,  even offering “clapback” tweets native to the medium.

Dan Sapienza, "I'd ask for a refund." quoting Joe St. George, "Winner! Congrats!"

Dan banters with a political reporter for Fox31 News on Twitter about spotting gubernatorial candidate Mike Johnston at a rally for teachers at the Capitol.

On another note, we may also hear very little from Dan as the months pass by until Myers is reelected, as is somewhat expected.

As a self-identified (and probably self-evident at this point,) county politics nerd, I truly hope we are treated to a civil, but lively competition between these two candidates that capitalizes on unusual interest in a non-presidential election year to create real dialogue.

“The other day at a dinner I said, I’m really excited to be running for county clerk and recorder and that got a laugh,” Dan says. “I’m in a race that few people are interested in and the incumbent’s name is written in giant letters right on the ballot. That’s going to be a big challenge but I’m looking forward to it.”

“We’ll make clerking and recording really sexy,” Dan laughs. “I hope.”