DENVER – The year is young enough that your plans probably aren’t fixed. Maybe you should run for governor of Colorado.
Everybody else is doing it! Well, not everybody, but the state’s lieutenant governor has jumped into the fray. So have its attorney general, its treasurer and its former treasurer.
Among a half-dozen serious Republican candidates, there’s a nephew of Mitt Romney’s and a second cousin of George W. Bush’s. Among an equal number of plausible Democrats, there’s a gay multimillionaire and two formidable women, one of whom has climbed to all 58 of the peaks in Colorado taller than 14,000 feet.
It’s a free-for-all born of these politically frenetic times. And how Coloradans sift through their choices will have resonance far beyond the Rocky Mountains.
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With the dawn of 2018, an especially tense election year revs up. Governors’ offices are up for grabs. Statehouses. And, oh yes, Congress. These midterms are when Democrats find out whether they can exploit Donald Trump’s apparent weakness to erase their party’s losses over the past eight years and erect a crucial legislative roadblock against his wild temper and worst ideas. They’re not just determined to turn the House or the Senate blue. They’re desperate.
And solidly purple Colorado is a fascinating arena to watch. Its delegation in the House of Representatives comprises four Republicans and three Democrats, but one of those Republicans, Mike Coffman, is acutely vulnerable and may in fact be the country’s best test case of whether a nimble GOP incumbent in a swing district can survive an anti-Trump tide. He has been doing a delicate dance around the president: supportive one moment, censorious the next.
The Colorado governor’s race, meanwhile, is the country’s most interesting, bringing together an eclectic cast whose fates will speak volumes about what kind of candidate – young or old, male or female, entrepreneur or technocrat, affluent or not – voters want in the aftermath of Trump’s election. It will say just as much about how pragmatic the two parties are prepared to be.
Right now, the probable Democratic front-runner is the gay multimillionaire, Jared Polis, 42, who is in his fifth term in Congress. He has better name recognition than his rivals, solid grades for his work on Capitol Hill and a history of tapping his own fortune to spend whatever it takes.
He’s also cunning. In one breath he told me, “President Trump is unpopular in our state, and voters certainly want a governor who’s going to be in the vanguard of the opposition.” That’s music to the left’s ears. In the next breath, he emphasized his success in a “broad and diverse” congressional district that “ranges from small ranching communities to ski resorts.” He thus stretched himself into an elastic creature of the center.
But he has a grating, peculiarly expressed zeal for attention familiar to anyone who follows him on Twitter. After the death of actor Robin Williams, Polis photographed himself, costumed as the famous Williams character Mork, in front of the Boulder, Colorado, house where the television comedy “Mork and Mindy” was supposedly set. (Polis lives in Boulder, Colorado’s best-known university town.) When he once got a bloody nose while driving, he had someone snap a picture, which he tweeted with this caption: “U should have seen the other guy.”
His address, coupled with the more progressive aspects of his record, guarantee that Republicans will deride him as a “Boulder liberal,” and his past feuding with the state’s oil and gas industry could come back to haunt him. Many Democrats worry that he’d be potent in the primary but eminently beatable in the general election.
Republicans have the same worry – amplified – about Tom Tancredo, a former congressman and pro-gun, anti-immigrant populist with ties to Steve Bannon and a history of alarmist, provocative statements and stands. He wrote a 2006 book titled “In Mortal Danger: The Battle for America’s Border and Security,” once called Barack Obama “a more serious threat to America than al-Qaida” and participated in the birther conspiracy. Pre-Trump, that was too much for Coloradans, and Tancredo lost bids for the governor’s office in 2010 and 2014.
But now? In a crowded primary field, his favor among ultraconservatives could amount to a victorious plurality. His viability in a one-on-one contest against a Democrat is an entirely different question, particularly in a state that Trump lost to Hillary Clinton by five points.
“We have parties that are very liberal and very conservative in a state that’s very down the middle,” said Josh Penry, a Republican strategist who served in Colorado’s Legislature for six years. “Are the parties rational enough to nominate a candidate who can get to the brass ring? Or are both parties – and I truly mean it – going into a death spiral?”
Colorado’s departing, term-limited governor, John Hickenlooper, is a Democrat; an influx of Hispanic and young voters seems to be turning the state slightly bluer; and historical trends favor Democrats in 2018. But, Penry said: “Democrats hate Trump so much that it’s clouding their judgment in a very real way. They are shouting. They are yelling. They are repelling people who should be theirs.”
Gary Hart, a Democrat who represented Colorado in the Senate for 12 years and has remained here since his failed 1988 presidential campaign, cautioned that the state’s “distinctive Western mentality” and huge bloc of independent voters – more than a third of the electorate – make anything possible. Coloradans re-elected Hickenlooper on the same night in 2014 they ousted Sen. Mark Udall, a fellow Democrat, in favor of Cory Gardner, a Republican.
In the current governor’s race, Hart has endorsed Mike Johnston, 43, a Democrat who left the Colorado Senate last January, after eight years. Johnston has Kennedyesque looks, polished speaking skills, policy fluency and a detailed pitch for what he told me was one of the biggest challenges not just for Coloradans but for all Americans: “What does the future of work look like in an era of automation?”
He wants to provide Coloradans at any point in their careers with up to two years of debt-free education or training; in return, they’d do some sort of state service. “It’s like a civilian version of the National Guard,” he said.
Although he has been raising funds at a brisk pace, the low limits on political contributions in Colorado mean that he’d be hard pressed to match Polis’ financial resources and might need aid from outside groups. That would open him up to charges from Polis that he’s indebted to special interests.
Polis has already made a big public deal of not taking any donations over $100. But he can do that because he’s worth tens of millions of dollars. When I twice asked him whether there was a limit to how much of his own wealth he’d pump into the race, he twice didn’t answer, merely noting that he’s “investing alongside” more than 3,000 donors to his campaign so far and feels good about that precisely because so many Coloradans clearly feel good about him.
Between Johnston, Polis and Cary Kennedy, 49, the former state treasurer, Democrats have three politicians under the age of 50 to consider, which may be why Donna Lynne, the state’s lieutenant governor, pointedly said to me: “I’m a young 64. I'll challenge any of them to get up a mountain faster than I can.” She’s the Democratic candidate with 58 summits to her credit.
Formerly a high-ranking official with the health care giant Kaiser Permanente, she frames herself as a restrained, responsible executive, in a way that traces the fault line between progressives and moderates in the party. “Free college, free kindergarten – you need a realistic plan to achieve these, because voters have rejected tax increases,” she told me. As it just so happens, free daylong kindergarten for all Coloradan children is one of Polis’ three signature proposals.
On both the Democratic and Republican sides, there are candidates selling themselves as disrupters who would bring private-sector savvy into government. Noel Ginsburg, one of the Democratic aspirants, is a plastics entrepreneur who pioneered a highly regarded apprenticeship program for high school students.
Republican aspirants include Victor Mitchell, 52, who touts his triumphs in technology and real estate, and Doug Robinson, the Romney nephew, whose background is in technology and financial services. Robinson, 56, has never run for office before.
Both are long shots, well behind State Treasurer Walker Stapleton, 43 – he’s the Bush relative – and Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, 56, who was recently divorced from the endangered Republican congressman I mentioned earlier. She said that she finds this race and year noteworthy, in part, for the number of women being drawn to politics.
“I think there’s still a great deal of disappointment that we didn’t elect a woman as president, and there are women voters in Colorado who would like the chance to have the first female governor in the state,” she told me, adding that “the #MeToo movement – the discussion of gender and inequality – has enlivened and invigorated them.”
Colorado is in some ways an outlier state, with a 2.9 percent unemployment rate, below the national rate of 4.1 percent. But its rapid growth has created strains on infrastructure, education and health care that mirror the country’s. It has the same cultural divides. And Democrats in Colorado, like Democrats nationally, are trying to figure out how to bridge them.
One answer is candidates who resist any elitist tag. The principal Democratic challenger for the congressional seat that Mike Coffman, 62, occupies is a 38-year-old Army veteran, Jason Crow, who did tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. Crow stresses that the country’s politics are broken and need humble newcomers like him.
“I didn’t come from money,” he said when we met recently. “I worked at Arby’s. I worked construction jobs. I put myself through college.” Among the many people who encouraged him to run was a fellow veteran, Seth Moulton, a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts who has been trying to change the party’s image by recruiting more candidates who have served in the military.
The road ahead has ample intrigue. No one in Colorado can guess the effect of a new law that allows independents, for the first time, to vote in either the Democratic or Republican primaries. Some Democratic and Republican candidates for governor could wind up being culled by a complicated ballot-qualification process.
And a few prominent Colorado Democrats whisper – or maybe fantasize – about a possible late-hour entry into the governor’s race by Ken Salazar, 62, a party heavyweight who represented the state in the Senate and then served as the interior secretary under President Obama. He’d instantly become the favorite to win it all.
The current governor, Hickenlooper, told me that he’s curious to see whether the presence of Democratic candidates with significant policy chops shapes the debate in unusually substantive ways. “Mike Johnston is a national expert on education,” he noted. “Donna Lynne is a national expert on health care. There are now 10 states emulating what Noel Ginsburg started with apprenticeships here.”
Did I mention that Hickenlooper, 65, is eyeing a presidential bid in 2020? In 2016, he was on Clinton’s final short list of vice-presidential possibilities. He comes from outside Washington and between the coasts. He was an enormously successful entrepreneur – in the business of brewpubs, no less – before entering politics at a late age. He has a record of forging compromises and bringing warring factions together, reflected in a recent collaboration with Gov. John Kasich, an Ohio Republican, on how to improve Obamacare.
But is that what a Democratic Party in which so many other politicians are sprinting to the left and hollering for impeachment wants? Keep an eye on Colorado. It holds some of the answers.