Meet the Independent Trying to Win Jared Polis's Congressional Seat

Independent Nick Thomas is trying to upend the political world, but in a non-Trumpian sense.EXPAND
Independent Nick Thomas is trying to upend the political world, but in a non-Trumpian sense.
Nick Thomas for Congress
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On paper, Nick Thomas has all the makings of a solid congressional candidate for the 2nd District. The Boulder native went to Colorado State University, has an accomplished background, particularly in foreign policy (which includes a 2009 youth ambassadorship to South Korea with the State Department), and the 34-year-old can appeal to the sizable chunk of younger voters in the college-heavy district that includes Boulder and Fort Collins. Thomas has also qualified for the November ballot.

But there's one major, historically difficult issue working against Thomas's candidacy: He's an independent.

The odds — especially in this hyper-partisan political environment — are heavily stacked against Thomas winning against Democrat Joe Neguse, the overwhelming favorite in this race, or against Republican Peter Yu or libertarian Roger Barris. CO-2 is a heavily Democratic district, represented by gubernatorial nominee Jared Polis. Neguse won his June primary by more than thirty points, and he's attracting big money to ensure that this seat stays blue. It'd be the upset of upsets, to put it mildly, if Neguse were to somehow lose this fall. 

Just don't tell Thomas that.

As you'd probably expect from someone running in a district that went for Hillary Clinton by over 20 percentage points in the 2016 presidential vote, Thomas is no fan of the commander-in-chief. But he does side with him on a couple of issues, perhaps most notably in his negotiations with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. He's also an advocate for some fiscally conservative policies but considers himself extremely liberal on environmental and social issues. Thomas wants to run what he describes as a positive campaign against candidates he considers to be friends. He also wants to win this race, and he says he's not just running to make a point.

Westword: Where's your attention now heading into this fall's general election?

Nick Thomas: Everything has heated up quite a bit [since the primary]. So we've been going, but now it feels like everything is finally catching up with that. Everyone is taking it seriously.

What's been really nice with our race, as a third-party candidate that sometimes gets pushed aside, we've actually been included in all of the forums in the CO-2 area since January, and we've had four or five of those, which has been good. At this point, though, with the Democrats having completed their primary, we are looking to do a series of real debates rather than just these forums, where we'll do three to five debate-style events on specific issues. We'll have one hour to cover something like transportation and infrastructure, or maybe health care. It'll also be a little more debate-style, so we can actually hold each other to things rather than just give talking points and move on.

Meet the Independent Trying to Win Jared Polis's Congressional SeatEXPAND
Nick Thomas for Congress

The other thing is, in January and February, I went on a national tour to show that running as an independent wasn't just an offhand thing. Every time an independent wins around the country, people sort of explain it away as a fringe event, or a random occurrence. You've got the governor of Alaska, Bill Walker, you've got a senator out of Maine, Angus King. You've had local people win in Kansas, Missouri and Maine, and yet every time it happens, it's looked at as a one-off. So I put together a national tour where we went around the country connecting big candidates and big groups. We'll actually be continuing it in two weeks. It's been on the side for a couple months, but I'm going to do the last four stops in about two weeks with events in Salt Lake, Reno, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Congressional [candidates] travel for fundraisers all the time. But they keep it really quiet, because you're leaving your district, and they don't like publicizing raising money from out of a district even though everyone does it, and they don't like publicizing that they're leaving their district because the whole idea is that you're representing your district and those who vote for you. My thing is, if you're going to do it, be open or honest. That's the whole point of this campaign anyway. Be honest with the people you're representing rather than hiding it. Gosh, we had [Texas congressman and Senate candidate] Beto O'Rourke in north Boulder a month and a half ago. Nothing wrong with that, but you'll never see that in the press, because they keep those things under wraps. But if we're going to do it, why not be open about it?

To me, [leaving the district] is a two-fold thing. One, it's because I really do want to show that there's an actual network of people who are like-minded in the view that we need credible third-party candidates, and not just — and I don't mean any disrespect in this — a libertarian or Green Party candidate, who always gets 4 to 7 percent of the vote. Until we get ranked-choice voting, this will always be the case. Whereas if you're running as an independent, you're running as an issue-based candidate, particularly if you're running in the light I am, as a social progressive and fiscally responsible. You're talking about stances that 60 to 80 percent of the American electorate take. But the Democrats have stopped talking about being fiscally responsible, and the Republicans have lost their credentials of being socially more progressive.

Forty-two percent of Americans first call themselves an independent, and yet we haven't had an independent in the U.S. House of Representatives in forty years. I would be the first nationwide. I would represent Boulder, but I've also made this pledge that I'd also be representing Colorado. The [plurality] of the state is independents, and I'd be the only independent [among our Congressional delegation].

Give us some examples of where, ideologically, you might side with one party on a certain issue and the other on another issue.

I'd say I'm more progressive than the Democratic candidate on climate issues. I think climate is more of a front-and-center issue that we need to focus on. It used to be a very bipartisan issue. Why the heck aren't Republicans still pushing virtues of taking care of the place that we live in? I'm thrilled when Republicans step forward and don't say, "This is a blue issue," but rather, "It's a human issue." It's also ironic that Democrats won't speak up more about that. In a sense, I'm more progressive on [climate issues than Democrats].

Meet the Independent Trying to Win Jared Polis's Congressional SeatEXPAND
Nick Thomas for Congress

One of the biggest issues with education in our state is that Democrats love talking about how we're 42nd, or 47th of the states in different education levels, and Republicans love talking about how actually we have more funding per student compared to other places. So where's [the money] going? You need to fund the teachers better. In the last ten years in a couple of our universities, we've seen much larger amounts of money go to administration and staff rather than teachers. Even the presidents' offices on both state campuses have expanded greatly with administration, while full-time teachers are cut and adjuncts are employed for half the funding. Democrats won't talk about that issue, and neither will Republicans.

We had a gun debate in Boulder a couple of months ago. The Republican decided not to come, the libertarian decided not to come and [the Democrat] decided not to come, even though it was planned far in advance and all of them had said they were available. It was too heated of an issue. The Republicans have consistently said that the answer to gun violence are thoughts and prayers and nothing else, which is clearly not an answer. But the Democrats have consistently said that the answer to gun violence is getting rid of AR-10s and AR-15s, or what they refer to as assault rifles, which is also clearly not the end-all answer. The ironic timing of that debate was that it was on a Sunday following one of the recent school shootings. That school shooting happened to be with a shotgun and with a semi-automatic pistol, which would not have been outlawed by [the Democrats'] AR-10 and AR-15 ban, and yet was just as potent and just as dangerous.

What we're continuing to see is that the two candidates of the two major parties are making every issue into less of a dialogue about constructive criticism and feedback and a real debate, and more of simply soundbites on a topic. They use talking points that they've been given by their leadership that never actually work and don't go into the roots of the issue but help them raise money.

What are your thoughts on President Trump?

I think he's done a terrible job. On one hand, it really bothers me that parties spend so much effort resisting presidents of the opposing party. You see that both in the resist-Trump movement and in the Democratic message, where their only platform right now is "resist Trump." But what are you going to do? What if you were the president today. What would you do? They don't talk about that; it's just "resist Trump." But they're not alone. You saw the same thing from Republicans during the Obama administration. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell even said it when Obama was president: that Republicans' number-one priority is to make Obama fail. It's absolutely insane. It's ludicrous. It's also why you see so many people walking away from politics and one of the reasons why you see such a low voter turnout.

In my personal opinion, one of the most important things that we can possibly do to get a fifty-year [nuclear weapons] stalemate moving forward is to talk with Kim Jong Un. When Trump mentioned that while he was running and said, "I would talk to him," and people on both sides got upset with him, I applauded him, because I think this is the whole point. You have to have dialogue. Then, a few months later, he fell back and called him "rocket man," and that was obviously idiocy. Then he went out and met with him, which I again applauded, and now we've sort of fallen back to the old Trumpism. So the beauty of Trump is, he's not following normal protocol. He is upsetting the system, and he is throwing things off. The big negative, and the dangerous negative, is he also clearly has no idea what he's doing. In some things, we do need to shake up the system. It's obviously broken. The Democratic Party is broken, the Republican Party is broken. That's why you saw this massive populist uprising. This is why Bernie Sanders got so far, and why Trump got even farther. And that hasn't been solved.

But at the same time, you should have a president or elected officials who are okay with breaking the old system, are okay with seeming to put Americans first rather than special interests. I don't believe that he's doing that, and I also don't believe that he has the background or knowledge to understand the ramifications of some of the choices that he's making, like these trade deals. Our economy may be visibly doing very well at the moment, but the underlying pins are crumbling. And if we go into a tailspin with the economy in the next few months, that will decide if the Democrats actually have a big blue wave or not in November. And nobody knows because nobody can tell what Trump's going to do next.

Are you connected with Unite Colorado, the independent group working to increase the number of and support independent candidates here in the state?

I support them and I'm one of their candidates to watch. They do not endorse candidates running for the U.S. House.

What's your path to victory?

The beauty of what I'm doing is it's not just for show. It's not a joke. Although there are a lot of hurdles we have to get through, we actually do have a path to victory, which is so very rare, especially considering no one has done this in forty years. The three big things are: one, we have an open seat. Jared Polis gave us a gift by running for governor. So we have an open seat in the 2nd Congressional District. The second big thing is we have a very, very gerrymandered district. In a sense, all the studies have basically told us that you have to almost run head-to-head in order for people to really look at a third-party candidate. And in this district, I love Peter Yu — he's a nice guy, and Roger Hudson's a great guy. But in reality, if you look at both numbers and sentiment, both of them are token representatives of their party. We have 200,000 registered independents. We have 170,000 registered Democrats, and then you have 130,000 registered Republicans, a large portion of whom will vote for me. The Trump Republicans will vote for Peter, and the non-Trump Republicans, those who can't bring themselves to vote for a Democrat but are embarrassed by their president, will vote for an independent. The cherry on top is having a libertarian in the race along with Peter.

You've got the numbers, you've got the open seat, you've got the need, and then you've got this incredible district that I more tied into than any other candidate, having been born in Boulder, having gone to school at CSU, and having spent a lot of time in Grand Lake. This is all part of the district. But this is also a highly educated district, and voters will look outside the box and not necessarily just follow the flow.

It gives us, amazingly, a path to victory.

This conversation was edited for clarity.

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