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INSIGHTS: Will candidates talk differently after primary?

Author: Joey Bunch - July 9, 2018 - Updated: July 26, 2018

Colorado primaryRepublican Walker Stapleton celebrates clinching the gubernatorial nomination for governor. (Photo by Joey Bunch/Colorado Politics)

What is true in everything else is usually true in politics. First impressions matter. After the primaries were settled, more or less, on June 26, general election voters were primed to be impressed. In most election years, politicians would see the critical need. But not this year.

Stay with me on this.

If first impressions were all that mattered, Republicans won the opening days.

Minutes after he hoisted a daughter in each arm after he dispatched three good Republicans with relative ease, Walker Stapleton was already throwing haymakers into the heart of Democratic nominee Jared Polis’ platform, with razors in his tone.

Polis supports universal health care. In his first unscripted remarks as the nominee, Stapleton reminded reporters that voters overwhelmingly rejected Amendment 69, a single-payer state system, just two years ago because it was too expensive and bureaucratic.

Instead, with Republicans running Washington, Obamacare could become a block-grant program for the states, putting governors in the driver’s seat on health-care funding. Stapleton then talked about the billions of dollars he oversaw as state treasurer.

“It’s not a soundbite answer,” Stapleton said.

A few minutes earlier, Polis was delivering his own victory speech in another ballroom in another city, after sweeping past three good Democrats with very surprising ease.

“Wow. What an incredible night for Colorado,” he began. “And we’re excited. And this is a short night, too. Isn’t that always nice?”

Neither nominee delivered Lou Gehrig’s farewell to baseball. They were more like hockey coach Gordon Bombay‘s “Ducks fly together.” Neither expanded beyond their base.

That left the window open for a defining moment a few more days. Two days later Republicans rolled out a caravan of candidates at small rallies up and down the Front Range. Victor Mitchell, Doug Robinson and Greg Lopez, critics for months, endorsed Stapleton on the whistle-stop tour. Robinson maxed out his donation to Stapleton the day after the primary. Lopez told me he’d be glad to serve the campaign. “I’d be open to that discussion,” he said of an increasingly discussed slot for him as Stapleton’s running mate.

Democrats brought out its party’s stars at the state Capitol the next day, three days after the primary. Gov. John Hickenlooper endorsed the party’s nominee, even though Polis’ efforts to regulate fracking at the ballot box gravely complicated Hickenlooper’s re-election four years earlier.

But the message was in who wasn’t there — as in all three of Polis’ primary opponents. This was a race in which the party was called in to referee negatives attacks between Polis and second-place finisher Cary Kennedy during a tense struggle in the last days.

If images matter, the picture on the Capitol steps was a family portrait with troublesome children gone estranged. It was a hastily organized rally, party officials told us. People weren’t available, they said. Sometimes the party, however, is more important than vacation. The primary factions ultimately might stand together, but they don’t have to stand closely. They voiced their endorsement in a press advisory about the rally.

Kyle Clark, an anchor at 9News, tweeted that it was “a unity rally without the unity.”

Stapleton and Polis need to reach into the vast middle of Colorado ideologies to win in November, but neither candidate is pitching to the center. We have sanctuary city crackdowns and Trump’s tax cuts on the right matched by universal health care and all-renewable energy on the left.

Meanwhile, neither side has put forth anything that sounds like a solution beyond talking points to Colorado’s traffic jams and urban Denver housing prices.

Why? Because they know something you might not.  This is an election in which policy might matter very little. This is an election that will be driven mostly by momentum. Strapping yourself to Trump, as Stapleton has, is like riding a bottle rocket. He might soar. Polis, on the other hand, could simply hang 10 on a blue wave.

My friend Paul Teske, dean of the University of Colorado Denver’s School of Public Affairs, saw a lot of significance in the weeds of who voted in the primary.

Democratic candidates attracted 640,675 voters on primary day, compared to 516,247 for Republicans, according to vote totals released June 29.

Democrats also drew more unaffiliated voters — 69 percent more in returned ballots. Among unaffiliateds, 170,904 voted the Democratic ballot, and 100,868 sent back the Republican ballot.

It’s up to Polis to heal any wounds in the party and get his former foes in his corner so he can hold those primary voters together and keep unaffiliated voters moving to the left. That’s all he has to do, really. Stapleton has to try to stop him and hope Trump is as much of an ally in November as he was in June.

“One of the few things political scientists know is that, if you voted in a primary, you are likely to vote in the general, for the same party,” Paul told me in a personal email I asked to share. “For example, a small number of Democratic voters might be disappointed or angry that Cary, Mike or Donna didn’t win, and therefore decide not vote for Jared in November, but I can’t believe that will be a large number, or see any reason that it should be larger than the parallel situation on the Republican side.

“The only counter-argument I can see is that Republicans might have been less excited about their primaries, but they will turn out stronger in the fall, with more at stake and urging from Trump. But Trump is at least 40 to 55 percent disapproval in Colorado (with most of the 55 as “strong disapproval”), and Hillary did win Colorado by 5 points just a year and half ago.

“If you are looking for a ‘blue wave’ in Colorado in November, this is a sign that it might be building.”

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch is the senior political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has a 31-year career in journalism, including the last 15 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and is a two-time Pulitzer finalist. His resume includes covering high school sports, the environment, the casino industry and civil rights in the South, as well as a short stint at CNN.