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How Centrist Is Colorado? Governor's Race Will Test That Reputation

Rather than going after voters in the middle, both the Democratic and Republican nominees are playing to their base.

Jared Polis wants everyone to have health care. The Democratic candidate for governor in Colorado is promising to work together with other Western states to create a single-payer -- or make that multipayer -- consortium that will provide health coverage for every individual. “Health care is a human right,” Polis likes to say. “I believed that 10 years ago when I first ran for Congress on a platform of ‘Medicare for All,’ and I believe it today.”

There’s nothing particularly unusual about this stance in the current political climate. Lots of Democrats have made promises to push for some version of a universal health-care system, including a number of Democratic nominees for governor. But it still seems like a hard sell for Polis to make in Colorado. Just two years ago, voters decisively shot down a single-payer proposal known as Amendment 69. Nearly four out of five voters, or 79 percent, opposed the measure. Granted, it was a different proposal from what Polis is offering today, and it was drafted in such a way that cost it support among some liberal groups. But the intent and surely the goals were the same as the plan Polis has made the centerpiece of his campaign.

Universal health care is just one of the progressive promises that Polis is running on. He also intends to fund free kindergarten and pre-K classes throughout the state. He wants to prod businesses to give employees ownership stakes in their operations. And he wants the state to convert all its energy usage to renewable sources by 2040, a policy Republicans warn will cripple the state’s $30 billion oil and gas industry. Polis, who is 43, has served in Congress for the past decade. (He made history as the first openly gay man to win a seat as a nonincumbent; if he wins in November, he will be America’s first openly gay man elected governor.) This spring, he introduced legislation to roll back last year’s tax cut package, prompting a derisive tweet from President Trump that Polis proudly wears as a blue badge of honor. “Jared Polis is really the most liberal candidate the Democrats have ever fielded,” says Dick Wadhams, a GOP consultant and former state party chair. “The Democratic Party has moved to a place it’s never been before.”

If Polis represents a break from the more centrist line of Democrats who’ve been elected in recent decades to the job, including term-limited Gov. John Hickenlooper, his opponent has also endorsed policies that place him on the right end of the spectrum. State Treasurer Walker Stapleton has talked incessantly about the dangers of sanctuary city policies, to the extent that he almost comes across as a single-issue candidate. During the Republican primary campaign, the 44-year-old Stapleton gave Trump a starring role in all his ads. “They both tried to appeal to the more, let’s say, politically oriented voters in their base,” Hickenlooper says, “which for the Republicans are much more to the right and the Democrats much more to the left.”


To win the governorship, Republicans say State Treasurer Walker Stapleton needs to expand his platform and offer an “optimistic vision” for the state. (AP)

Around the country, candidates in both parties are doing their best to fire up their bases. In campaigns for governor, candidates are talking a lot about national issues that excite partisan constituencies -- not least Trump himself, whether they’re Republicans pledging fealty to the president or Democrats who are repulsed by him. They’re not devoting nearly as much time or focus to the state-level issues they’ll actually grapple with as governor. “It probably won’t hinge on who has the best road proposal or who has the best plan for K-12,” says Bill Owens, the last Republican governor of Colorado. “It’s winnable for either party, but it’s about who is able to define the other as too extreme. It’s who can make the most ad hominem attacks.”

Although this may be a familiar scenario in many states this year, it’s still a little bit surprising that things are playing out this way in Colorado, which is among the most closely divided states in the country. Registered independents there outnumber both Democrats and Republicans. Democrats narrowly control the state House, but Republicans have a one-seat advantage in the state Senate. Hickenlooper just barely managed to hold on for reelection during the 2014 GOP wave, taking 49 percent against a weak opponent. Colorado Republicans won all the other statewide contests during that last midterm, including a U.S. Senate seat held by a Democrat. Hillary Clinton carried the state by five points in 2016 and now Trump’s approval ratings are deep underwater. “With the right candidate, this state trends slightly red,” Democratic consultant Ted Trimpa says. “Anyone who thinks it’s going to be a blowout either way is high.”

In a state split between its Democratic cities and conservative rural areas, most elections are decided by the swing voters in suburban Jefferson and Arapahoe counties. But neither Polis nor Stapleton seems to feel that his best hope lies in appealing to the mythical middle voter. Instead, both camps are working to excite their core supporters, in large part by tearing down the other guy as being beyond the pale. “Moving toward the middle is probably an outdated paradigm,” says Joe Webb, who chairs the Jefferson County Republican Party.

Webb was one of the breakfast speakers at a recent Monday morning meeting of the Jefferson County Republican Men’s Club (where “women are ever and always welcome”). Over their eggs and pancakes, about 30 attendees were warned repeatedly about the stakes in the governor’s race. Fred Holland, the club’s organizer, said that “Nov. 6 is probably the most important election in your lifetime,” while Kim Monson, a Denver radio personality, warned “we are facing an ideological Normandy.” For his part, Webb sought to persuade these stalwart Republican voters to get active and volunteer strictly on the basis that Polis was unacceptably liberal. “Regardless of how you voted in the primary,” he said, “there’s only one person between Jared Polis and the governor’s mansion.”


“Nov. 6 is probably the most important election in your lifetime,” warned Kim Monson, a Denver radio personality, at the Jefferson Men’s Club in July. (David Kidd)

Webb isn’t the only Republican worried about Polis winning. The Democrat led in polling conducted in the aftermath of the June 26 primary by comfortable single-digit margins. Polis is one of the richest members of Congress, having sold two internet companies, Blue Mountain and ProFlowers, for a combined $1.25 billion. He has always spent freely on his own races -- well over $10 million during this year’s primary alone -- and he’s built up a network of field operations around the state that Stapleton has yet to come close to matching. Republicans also recognize that Colorado presents the kind of demographic profile that suits Democrats at the moment, with large numbers of minorities -- the state is 21 percent Hispanic -- and highly educated urban professionals. Democratic turnout nearly tripled in the primary from 2014 levels, rising 197 percent. Republican turnout, by comparison, was up by about 30 percent. Independents, known in Colorado as unaffiliated voters, could vote in a partisan primary for the first time this year, and 62 percent of them chose to vote on the Democratic side. “I don’t think you can look at that and not see that the intensity is on the Democratic side,” says Wadhams, the GOP consultant. “We would sure be crowing about it if more Republicans were voting in primaries.”

Colorado’s population has grown by 10 percent since 2010, with much of that growth centered in the Denver-Boulder metro area, which attracted 400,000 additional residents. Denver proper gave just 19 percent of its vote to Trump in 2016; his share in Boulder County was 22 percent. It’s possible that Polis will get essentially no support in places like southern Colorado or along the Western Slope, but the yoga mat-toting residents of Denver may well be able to outvote them at this point. In order to win, Stapleton will have to keep Polis’ vote share under 70 percent in Denver, says Democratic state Rep. Dan Pabon. That won’t be an easy task if he continues to frequently and openly embrace Trump. “Denver and the metro area have a blue heart, and that blue heart gets bigger every year,” Pabon says. “This year, that blue heart is beating pretty fast, given the dynamics in Washington.”

If the blue heart of Colorado has truly grown in size, it may not matter how liberal or expensive the promises Polis has been making might be, at least not during an election year dominated by partisan passions. “Jared Polis is not the type of Democratic candidate who has thrived around here over the last four decades,” says Colorado political commentator Eric Sondermann. “If Jared Polis becomes governor, either there’s a huge blue wave that washes over the country and this state, or Colorado has fundamentally changed and is now California East, as opposed to Nebraska West.”

Colorado has been a state where the pendulum of political control has swung repeatedly in recent years. When Owens ran for governor in 1998, Republicans had been blocked from the office for 24 years. He led them out of the desert by running on a simple, straightforward platform. He said he would cut taxes, strengthen schools and school accountability, and widen Interstate 25, the major north-south route that runs through Colorado Springs, Denver and Ft. Collins. After winning by less than 10,000 votes the first time around, Owens was reelected easily in 2002 with 63 percent of the vote.

But despite his political success, his party lacked much of an agenda for his second term. GOP legislators soon took an ideological turn. They devoted the bulk of their time to social issues, 

addressing “God, gays and guns” rather than nuts-and-bolts concerns such as roads and schools. (Actually, they didn’t ignore schools entirely. At one point, legislators debated a ban on foreign flags from schools.) The lack of focus on the practical business of government led much of Colorado’s business community to abandon the GOP, or at least sit on the sidelines. The result in 2004 was the first Democratic takeover of the legislature in 30 years.

Owens worked pretty well with the new Democratic majority on issues such as taxes and light rail construction. Once he left office, Democrats won the governorship three straight times. As the years went by, their legislative majority grew more liberal, passing environmental laws and gun restrictions that didn’t play well outside of Denver and Boulder. In 2013, 11 counties held symbolic popular votes to secede. That same year, the gun control effort led to the recalls of two Democratic state senators and the resignation of a third. In 2014, Republicans enjoyed a near sweep of statewide offices and took back the state Senate.

Polis played a role both times the parties seemed to overreach. He was part of the “Gang of Four” wealthy investors who largely bankrolled the Democratic comeback 14 years ago. They built up a party infrastructure -- think tanks, voter identification and outreach and data collection -- that has continued to boost the prospects of Colorado Democrats. But Polis took some hits within the party for his sponsorship of initiatives for the 2014 ballot that would have curtailed fracking. He withdrew them in a compromise brokered by Hickenlooper to have a task force examine the issue, but some Democrats believe Polis’ proposal roused the oil and gas industry, which invested heavily in politics that year, helping to oust a sitting Democratic U.S. senator.

The energy sector already pays for much of the GOP party’s field operations in Colorado. Republicans are counting on oil and gas interests to match Polis’ millions. His push for 100 percent renewable energy sources “would have multibillion-dollar negative impacts on the state of Colorado,” says state GOP chair Jeff Hays.

To beat Polis, Republicans will have to hit him high and hit him low, Hays adds. With the party itself, super PACs and other affiliated groups “lashing” the Democrat, he says, Stapleton will be freed up to offer a more “optimistic vision.” 

The question is whether he has one. In the weeks after the primary, Republicans openly expressed concern about Stapleton’s ability to come up with a positive agenda to sell around the state. In recent years, Republicans have lost a series of contests by nominating candidates who had a message that could win primaries but weren’t acceptable to the larger general election electorate. Stapleton is seen as potentially more broadly appealing, but since winning the nomination, he’s spent most of his time trying to raise money to catch up, rather than touting a new vision.

Stapleton is practically the personification of an establishment candidate. His great-grandfather was a five-term mayor of Denver and he’s a cousin of George W. Bush. Some Republicans say Stapleton, highly conscious of the now-unfashionable Bush family connection, went too far in the primary in trying to appear Trumpian. Stapleton not only showcased Trump’s image constantly, but asked Tom Tancredo -- a former congressman and failed candidate for governor and president who has long been notorious for divisive rhetoric on immigration -- to nominate him at the state party convention. Stapleton ended up winning the primary by 19 points in a four-way field. He would have been better off pivoting to the center early, which might have cut his primary margin in half but put him in a better position for the fall, says Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Denver. “You can make a mathematical argument that Walker played too much to the base,” he says.

Most Republicans do credit Stapleton for having the acumen to navigate a tough primary field successfully. They believe he can win but recognize that there are several big ifs involved. In addition to raising money and expanding his platform of ideas, some frankly worry whether he has the charisma to win over voters. “In Colorado, the likability factor is huge,” Caldara says. “The question is, can Stapleton turn into a likeable guy?”

If he can’t, for now, the centerpiece of Stapleton’s campaign is his base strategy: seeking to gin up fears about Polis and his “radical, left-wing agenda.” “My gosh,” says Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers, “if Polis can’t energize Republicans in Colorado, I’m not sure who can.”


“It’s really sad to see Polis run as far left as he can and Stapleton running as far right as he can,” says state Sen. Cheri Jahn. (David Kidd)

Even before Polis was nominated, the Democratic Party had already moved too far left to suit Cheri Jahn. First elected to the legislature in 2000 as a Democrat, the senator declared herself an independent at the end of last year. She was sick of the partisan posturing, she says. Although lawmakers in the divided legislature were occasionally able to find common ground, she complains more time was spent voting on “message amendments” than coming up with real solutions. Jahn sees that extending into this year’s campaign. “It’s really sad to see Polis run as far left as he can and Stapleton running as far right as he can,” she says. “It’s really tough for the independent voters to make a decision between the two.”

But if either candidate moves seriously to the center, the other will waste no time vigorously reminding voters of all the “extreme” stances he’d taken just weeks or months ago. Traditionally, the best route for a candidate has been to articulate problems that affect everyday lives and how he’d go about solving them. Given the state’s rapid growth, both liberals and conservatives alike spend a good amount of time stuck in traffic. “If either ran on modernizing highways and fixing I-70, people would cross party lines to vote that message,” says Rob Witwer, a former Republican legislator who coauthored a book about the Democratic takeover in 2004. “It would signal to the people of Colorado that this is a candidate who is not just posturing to get into power but understands the job he’s running for and has an agenda to accomplish something.”

Perhaps such a belief is out of step with these hyperpartisan times. Candidates choose to speak to what they believe voters are interested in. Whether because of social media or because hardly any Colorado news outlets are covering the governor’s race full time or because of this president, it seems that even people who follow politics closely are most interested in national issues right now. Even when the candidates address the state’s challenges, they’re not talking about the nitty-gritty of policy choices or management. Instead, it’s promises for universal health care or attacking illegal immigration. One of the lessons of this era, and the success of figures such as Trump and Bernie Sanders, is that Americans want their politicians to present “big, bold ideas,” says Trimpa, the Democratic consultant. “I come from the school where, in campaigns, you do whatever that’s legal you need to win,” he says. “Then, you move on to governing.”

There’s still a school of thought that agrees with the notion of campaigning in poetry and governing in prose. But does that still happen in practice? If you campaign by demonizing your opponents, you’ll come into office leading a divided state. Those resentments often carry forward into governing. They certainly don’t set the stage for collaboration. Whoever gets elected governor in Colorado this year will preside over a legislature that will still be closely divided, even if his party controls both chambers. Getting anything done -- let alone realizing bold visions like universal health care -- will be a struggle. And Colorado voters have already shown the door to parties that go too far once in office.

From the breakfast meetings at the Jefferson Men’s Club to the state party headquarters itself, the biggest fear Republicans express is not only that Polis will win, but that once in office he will be both symptom and cause of the state becoming more like California. Despite California’s economic success, Colorado Republicans worry that adopting its politics means embracing higher taxes and greater regulation. “When it comes to Californians, I think we all welcome intelligent, creative people,” says Hays, the state Republican chair, “but we don’t want them to re-create their political environment.”


The candidates aren’t devoting much time to the state-level issues they’ll grapple with as governor, such as the state’s infrastructure needs. (AP)

But Colorado is bound to be different from California in one significant way. Colorado is set for continuing growth, projected to gain 50 percent more people, to 8.5 million, by 2050. It’s already nearly doubled its population since 1980. Its road capacity certainly has not doubled over that same period. “Our infrastructure was built decades ago, for decades ago,” says Kenton Kaplan, a high school student in Boulder interning with the Polis campaign.

When California had its great postwar growth spurt, building up its highways, water infrastructure and universities, its government was functional. Colorado’s ability to cope with growth is already constricted by its strict tax limitation laws. Like the country as a whole, it may find its ability to address the most serious problems has also been hampered by the fact that it’s narrowly but deeply divided when it comes to choosing government leaders. “Colorado is growing at a time when people are incapable of working together,” says Witwer, the former Republican legislator. “People are so divided and dysfunctional, so intent about social issues or being offended by tweets, it’s possible to imagine things literally falling apart before they get addressed.” 

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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