Election 2018GovernorNews

Cover Story: ‘Anybody’s ballgame’ — crowded ballots, wide-open primaries make for a wild governor’s race

Author: Ernest Luning - April 4, 2018 - Updated: April 5, 2018

The Colorado Capitol building in Denver. (knowlesgallery, istockphoto)

DENVER — For the first time in 20 years, Colorado voters in both parties are faced this year with contested primaries for an open seat for governor.

While the race to replace term-limited Gov. John Hickenlooper has been underway for more than a year and front-runners have emerged, the June primary ballot likely won’t be finalized until the end of April — just five weeks before mail ballots are delivered — and veteran strategists say the nominations are far from determined.

“This time, I think it’s going to be a free for all,” said veteran political operative Dick Wadhams. “Anybody could win.”

Colorado has been a consistently blue state in presidential elections for the past decade, but its voters have proven willing to elect Republicans at the state level — including voting twice for State Treasurer Walker Stapleton, who by just about every measure is the leading GOP gubernatorial candidate.

But several well-funded and well-known Republicans are also running, and the party’s primary voters have been known to throw curve balls in recent elections — picking neophyte tea partier Dan Maes for governor in 2010 and handing the U.S. Senate nomination to underdog Darryl Glenn in 2016.

The other leading Republicans in the race are Attorney General Cynthia Coffman and wealthy businessmen Victor Mitchell, Doug Robinson and Barry Farah; the latter jumped in the race just two weeks ago.

Several others, including former Trump campaign official Steve Barlock, former Parker Mayor Greg Lopez and Larimer County Commissioner Lew Gaiter III, are planning to compete with Coffman and Farah at the state assembly in Boulder on April 14, where it’ll take the support of 30 percent of delegates to make it onto the ballot.

Stapleton, Robinson and Mitchell have all turned in petitions to get on the ballot, and the secretary of state’s office is in the process of verifying their signatures. It could be close to the April 27 deadline before the primary line-up is certified, officials have said.

On the Democratic side, two candidates who have both been elected once statewide appear to be at the front of the pack — U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, the 2nd District congressman and internet millionaire who won a seat on the state Board of Education in 2000, and former State Treasurer Cary Kennedy, who won in 2006 but lost her 2010 re-election bid to Stapleton.

Kennedy scored a win in precinct caucuses earlier this month and appears to be on track to emerge from the April 14 state assembly with top-line designation on the ballot. Polis, who is competing with her in the state assembly and is awaiting verification of his petitions, has held the lead in recent polling and is poised to pour millions of dollars into his campaign.

Former state Sen. Mike Johnston is the only candidate to be guaranteed a spot on either party’s primary ballot so far — his petitions were approved a couple of weeks ago — and he has held a slight lead in fundraising since last year. He’ll also benefit from an independent expenditure committee that got a $1 million infusion from former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, meanwhile, is petitioning onto the ballot.

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The difficulty for Republicans will be to win the primary vote while maintaining an appeal to Colorado’s evenly divided electorate, strategists say, particularly in a year that promises to be dominated by President Donald Trump.

GOP primary voters, polling shows, overwhelmingly support Trump and say immigration is their top concern in a state where Hispanic voters are the fastest-growing bloc of voters, and Democrats and unaffiliated voters have soured on the president.

Democrats could have their own challenge not to hew too far to the left amid what’s shaping up to be record levels of voter enthusiasm fueled by anti-Trump sentiment.

The Democrats aren’t used to a crowded primary, either. It’s been eight years since the party has had a top-of-the-ticket, statewide primary — when former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff lost a bid to oust U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet — and it’s been generations since Democrats have had to choose between more than two primary candidates for governor.

This year’s primary includes another level of uncertainty, as unaffiliated voters are set to receive primary ballots from both parties for the first time. For candidates who can afford it — and that could be most of them, according to record-setting fundraising by campaigns and outside groups — the unaffiliated voters could amount to enough votes to make the difference in crowded primaries, where a swing of a few points could spell victory.

Wadhams, a former state GOP chairman, knows what it takes to elect a Republican governor of Colorado. He managed the 1998 campaign of then-State Treasurer Bill Owens, the only Republican to win the office in the last 48 years.

“With the departure of Tom Tancredo, we are left with a field where any one of these (GOP) candidates currently running could wage a successful campaign for governor in November,” Wadhams said. Tancredo, the anti-immigration firebrand and former congressman, had been the Republican front-runner but ended his campaign in January, citing insufficient fundraising.

None of the Republican in the field, Wadhams said, have yet “met the standard” established 20 years ago by Owens — a solidly conservative but nonetheless mainstream candidate — but he added that there’s still plenty of time.

“That’s the good thing about a primary — it makes the candidates better. It makes them sharpen their messages, sharpen their agendas,” he said.

“I don’t think any candidate in our field has really defined a clear agenda that can take them through the primary into the general. They all talk about the right issues — transportation, health care, big spending — but I haven’t seen the specificity. Voters want to know, what are you going to do for me?”

Wadhams cautioned against drawing too much inspiration from Glenn’s U.S. Senate campaign, when he staked out the most aggressively conservative position and emerged from a five-candidate field. (Wadhams managed the campaign of 2016’s second-place Republican finisher, Jack Graham.)

“You can’t throw a lot of red meat out there to win the primary and think you can dive back to the middle for the general election — you’ve got to define the sweet spot,” he said.

“The challenge for Republicans is not only to talk about an issue like sanctuary cities — it’s potentially a good issue, there’s increasing concern on the impact they’re having on public safety — but a Republican has to be able to convey concern about the Hispanic community. If Republicans fall into the trap of using rhetoric and issues that alienate Hispanic voters, it makes it hard to win a general election.”

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A veteran Democratic strategist agreed, although he suggested the Republicans’ focus on immigration could be more perilous than Wadhams imagines.

“Making the so-called ‘sanctuary city’ issue central really translates into beating up on immigrants, and I think it’s a poor way to look at running in the fall,” said Alan Salazar, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s chief of staff and the former chief strategy officer for Hickenlooper.

“Voters are going to be worried about quality of life, sustainability, health care, education, investment for the future,” he said. “All these things are lining up to be key issues for Democrats. If Republicans line up with Trump on immigration, not only will they alienate the largest growing group of voters in the state, but they’ll (also) isolate themselves as the party that doesn’t solve problems, that stays in a right-wing box.”

Salazar said the Democratic field is so hotly contested because the state’s political climate — “the Trump effect” — means the winner of the Democratic primary is the odds-on favorite to be the next governor.

Each of the Democrats bring strengths to the race, he said, including Polis’ statewide profile and the money he can put into the race, Johnston’s reputation as an innovative and charismatic politician who can appeal outside the party’s traditional voters, Lynne’s attractiveness to unaffiliated voters and Kennedy’s strength with the party’s base, as demonstrated by her performance in caucuses and county assemblies.

“Another thing — never discount this — is that voters do still react to personality and likability and trustworthiness and the overall biographical narrative of people,” Salazar added. “There’s a tendency to look at who has the most money. Sure, money’s important, but people get their information different ways these days. I think people gravitate to leadership qualities.”

Ian Silverii, executive director of ProgressNow Colorado, said it’s too early to draw conclusions about the Democratic field with a month to go before the June 26 ballot is even set.

“This is still very much a developing race, because there isn’t a consultant in the world who knows which (way) unaffiliateds, who participate in the first primary they’ve been able to vote in, will vote — either which party or which candidate,” Silverii said.

“Any candidate who has enough resources to communicate and can break through the noise and clutter with solid, creative ads and a compelling narrative can win this thing. The Democratic nomination for governor is still anyone’s ballgame.”

As for the leading Republican candidates, Wadhams said it’s fair to say Stapleton has replaced Tancredo as the front-runner, but the primary is still up for grabs. He sketched out pathways to victory for four other candidates, along with cautioning that crowded ballots can yield surprising results with the vote splitting in unpredictable ways.

Mitchell, who seeded his campaign with $3 million of his own money, is spending at least $1.5 million in advertising before the primary, while Coffman, “despite the curious nature of her campaign” — she just unveiled her campaign team last week, and her fundraising has lagged the other leading candidates’ — has been elected statewide and has one of the state’s best-known political names.

“People also say Doug Robinson is the most likable candidate in the field, which, by the way, is a very important commodity for a candidate. If Doug can harness that perception, he could definitely be in this thing,” Wadhams added.

Farah, a first-time candidate with ties to the Koch brothers conservative network, got in at the last minute to take advantage of what he described as an opening for an unabashed conservative at assembly.

He could shake things up further if he makes the ballot, Wadhams said. “That would be a huge achievement. It would really thrust him into the race in a big way.”

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Rory McShane, a national GOP campaign operative who managed then-Secretary of State Scott Gessler’s Republican run for governor in 2014, has watched the Colorado race closely from afar this season.

The competitive Republican primary, he fears, will take a big toll on the eventual winner. He said Tancredo did the right thing by dropping out, because while it’s fun to win a primary, it’s hard to pivot to a high-priced general election with a relative empty wallet.

“In 2014, we saw the same thing as Scott Gessler, Tom Tancredo, Bob Beauprez and Mike Kopp battled it out, but at the time the opening ante for a credible campaign was about $400,000 – a daunting task with $1,100 campaign finance limitations,” McShane said, describing the last Republican gubernatorial primary.

“Not surprisingly, Beauprez, who partially self-funded, emerged victorious in the primary. He walked into the general both resource- and attention-starved,” he said. Beauprez had to scramble for cash and ultimately loan money to his campaign to compete against the incumbent, Hickenlooper, who faced no primary opposition and had been stockpiling campaign cash for years.

Money will be a key player from now until November, against outside donors and campaigns’ direct fundraising by well-known candidates with moneyed ties, he said. “We could face the same fate as 2014, only spending much, much more to do it.”

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning is a political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has covered politics and government for newspapers and online news sites in Colorado for more than 25 years, including at the Highlands Ranch Herald, the Jefferson Sentinels chain of community newspapers and the Aurora Sentinel, where he was the city hall and cops reporter. After editing the Aurora Daily Sun, he was a political reporter and blogger for The Colorado Independent site. For nearly a decade, he was a senior political reporter and occasional editor at The Colorado Statesman before the 119-year-old publication merged with Colorado Politics in 2017.