HUDSON | ‘Too extreme for Colorado’ proves more slogan than substance

Author: Miller Hudson - November 5, 2018 - Updated: November 5, 2018

Miller Hudson

Radical and extreme! Haven’t we heard that accusation more than once during past Colorado campaigns? Indeed, we have. Pundits tend to forget that campaign consultants, much as other professionals, are subject to the influence of “Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.” If you are of a proper age you will recall the response to Sputnik in the American classroom: New Math and Boolean algebra. It required a decade before educators would acknowledge that high school students could no longer multiply or divide.

Somewhere, likely lost to discovery, in some election, a consultant found that labeling an opponent as radical or extreme could move the opinion of a focus group. This has translated into phrases like, “…too extreme for Colorado.” Both Democrats and Republicans rely on this framing when convenient. Whether the charge actually moves undecided voters or merely cements partisan animosities is a matter for contemplation.

Arriving in Colorado too late to register and vote in 1972, my first election in 1974 offered a governor’s race between Democratic Denver legislator Dick Lamm and the former Lt. Gov. John Vanderhoof, who was completing the term of John Love, who had been tapped by President Nixon for his Cabinet in Washington. Lamm was loathed by the business community for his leadership role in defeating Colorado’s successful bid for the 1976 winter Olympics. He attracted another set of critics who reviled him for carrying legislation to protect access to abortion services. Although these opponents did not use the words radical or extreme, they made it clear they believed Lamm was on a mission to destroy Colorado’s economy under the guise of environmental protection.

Lamm was elected anyway. This did not prevent the papers (remember we had two dailies then) from flogging him for accompanying the AdaMan climb to the top of Pike’s Peak to launch New Year’s Eve fireworks. Most voters were pleased their governor had the energy and fitness to make the climb and re-elected him twice despite several behavioral and policy blunders during his first term. By the close of his third term and an embrace of anti-immigrant rhetoric, he may have enjoyed more Republican approval than Democratic support.

More recently Michael Bennet, who was appointed by Bill Ritter to fill the Senate seat Ken Salazar left in order to join the Obama Cabinet, found himself in a race against an unexpected and relatively unknown opponent in 2010, Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck. Buck was an outsider going into the Republican primary, expected to prove a cakewalk for former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton. He won in a 52-48 nail biter. Like many prosecutors who attempt the leap from law enforcement to legislative or executive office (Ritter being the exception), he carried a closet full of resentful citizens with him.

Bennet’s campaign swiftly slipped the “too radical, too extreme” trope around Buck’s ankles nearly to the exclusion of any other message. In a joking exchange with Bennet’s campaign manager Craig Hughes, I asked him several weeks before the general election if he was confident he could win with a campaign that appeared premised entirely on the message that, “…my guy isn’t Ken Buck.” He winked at me and said, “I sure hope so!” It took until late Wednesday morning for Bennet’s victory to be confirmed.

Four years later a Democratic attempt to run a similar campaign against Cory Gardner flopped badly. Gardner had several terms in Congress under his belt and proved an adept statewide campaigner. Accompanied by his wife and daughters, the effort to portray him as an anti-woman zealot felt implausible. Mark Udall’s surrender of his re-election campaign to the advice of consultants terminated with the nickname, Mark Uterus. At this same 2014 election Ken Buck was elected to Congress and chosen as president of his freshman Republican class. Later joining the Freedom Caucus, Buck has written an amusing book exposing the behavior of swamp creatures in Washington, which has surely earned far more Democratic readers than Republicans.

This year the campaign tables turned and Democrat Jared Polis has borne the brunt of the “radical extremist” label. Polis is a five-term member of Congress who was rarely noted for rocking the boat. Yes, he lost his temper when he awoke one morning to find an oil rig across the road from his house. If he were alone in this reaction, the industry wouldn’t continue pouring millions into the fight against expanded drilling setbacks.

The “too extreme, too radical” charge tells us far more about those who level it than it does about their targets. When a candidate poses a threat to the status quo, the aggrieved fear the change he or she may usher in. It’s an assault that may have lost its punch. Buck and Polis, both Princeton graduates, support a balanced federal budget. How radical is that in 2018?

Miller Hudson

Miller Hudson

Miller Hudson is a public affairs consultant and a former state legislator. He can be reached at mnhwriter@msn.com.