An early look at the 2018 Republican race for Colorado governor
NOTE: This story, originally posted on Nov. 17, has been updated to reflect the changing field.
In Colorado it’s never too early to start thinking about the next big race. Here in a state that went for Hillary Clinton in November, Republicans are looking at 2018, when Colorado will elect a new governor.
Colorado has only elected one Republican governor since John Arthur Love left office for the Nixon administration in 1973, and that was Bill Owens, who served from 1999 to 2007. (When Love left, his Republican lieutenant governor filled out the last two years of his term, leaving office in January 1975. So another way of putting it is that Colorado has only had one Republican governor in the last 41 years.)
With Gov. John Hickenlooper term-limited, 2018 will be the first time in eight years when Republicans will have an open seat over which to battle.
Conversations with Republicans over the past few months illuminated some key players and issues at stake, hinting at how the field might shake out in Colorado on the road to 2018, and how a new primary system might affect the race.
Seriously? A 2018 race already?
But Republicans are already floating names, potential candidates are talking about running, and trial balloons are in the air. Already three people have confirmed to The Colorado Independent that they are contemplating a run. The potential field is likely to draw from a pool of establishment Republican stalwarts, statewide officeholders, law enforcement circles, and rebel insurgents. Of course, in the Trump era, there could be an opening for a non-politician businessman or businesswoman who could break through.
“I expect a big field,” says Colorado Republican Party Chairman Steve House, who ran for governor in 2014, considered running again this time, but ultimately decided against it.
All right, let’s get to the names
The first prominent Republican to announce is former lawmaker Victor Mitchell, who said he would shell out $3 million of his own money for the race and did not vote for Donald Trump for president. He has said he will focus on college tuition and healthcare, and sees himself as a “longshot, outsider candidate.”
In conversations with several Republican consultants and activists in Colorado, plenty of other names emerged.
They are Denver-area District Attorney George Brauchler, who prosecuted the Aurora theater shooter and has become the state’s most visible proponent for the death penalty. Another top name is State Treasurer Walker Stapleton, a cousin to George Bush and a candidate who could likely raise plenty of money from the Bush world. Secretary of State Wayne Williams is in the mix. So are Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, Western Slope Sen. Ray Scott, and Kent Thiry, the maverick CEO of the Denver-based multinational kidney dialysis company DaVita. Brian Watson, the founder of Northstar Commercial Partners, is also a name in circulation.
Some wonder if former U.S. Attorney and Attorney General John Suthers, now the mayor of Colorado Springs, might want to run. When The Independent asked him at this year’s legislative barbecue on the State Fairgrounds in August if he thought a race between him and Ken Salazar might settle the question of whether Colorado is a swing state, Suthers laughed and said “No.”
Williams, who has spent the past year crisscrossing the state speaking to county clerks and other groups, repeatedly gets asked to run for governor while on the road, says his spokeswoman Lynn Bartels. A Democratic county clerk even asked him to throw his name in the hat.
“I have sat at lunches when people have begged him to explore the idea,” Bartels says, but adds that while Williams is flattered by the requests, he has filed to run for Secretary of State again.
Asked by The Colorado Independent on Feb. 9 about a potential run for governor, Stapleton demurred, saying he was focused on the legislative session and doing his job as treasurer. Asked if he could make just as much impact on the state’s economic policy issues as governor as he could as treasurer, he said “absolutely,” and that’s why it’s important to stay focused on being treasurer. “It’s hard enough to get people to agree on fiscal policy issues,” he said. “As soon as you’re an announced candidate for something, you know, you suddenly have terrible body odor and nobody wants to be around you.”
Coffman told The Colorado Independent on Feb. 9 she was asking questions regarding a potential run.
An assistant for Thiry said he was traveling and busy, but told The Independent to “stay in touch.” Watson did not return phone messages.
Retired banker Joanne Silva of Loveland says she filed for governor as a Republican because she would like to see a more conservative Colorado.
Three potential stump speeches?
While none of these three have said they are running for governor, Stapleton, Coffman and Brauchler all gave brief policy speeches during a Feb. 9 news conference for the group Americans for Prosperity at the state Capitol. So if they do run, what might a taste of their potential stump speeches sound like?
Stapleton ripped the state legislature for not addressing Colorado’s fiscal policy issues from funding infrastructure to paying for Medicaid expansion. He gave himself a pat on the back for his role in derailing a universal healthcare ballot initiative, tore into Colorado’s state health exchange as an “unmitigated disaster,” and warned of a ballooning state pension liability that could bankrupt cities across the state.
Coffman touted her office’s defense of a lawsuit against the state’s revenue-limiting Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights amendment and pledged to take it all the way to the Supreme Court if she got an unfavorable ruling from a federal judge. She attacked President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan initiative and talked about how she fought it. She said she enjoyed being an attorney general who could fight for individual rights and state sovereignty.
Brauchler said “Colorado conservatives” are different and special.
“We are more liberty minded than others and that’s what drove us up hill one mile to live in an arid place where the sun beats on you harder than it beats on you anywhere else, where you have to breath deeper just to sustain life, and where we get the vigorous part of all four seasons— sometimes over lunch,” he said. “Colorado is special. You recognize that. These great people around me recognize that. Stay focused on that. Don’t subscribe to what takes place down hill. Let’s raise it up and make them match what we do here.”
So is anyone openly talking about it?
A few are, yes.
One of them is George Brauchler. Never shy with media, the photogenic president of the Colorado District Attorneys Council has been talking with friends, family, and political advisors and doing the due diligence involved in scoping out a potential bid for governor in 2018.
“I am seriously thinking about running for it,” he told The Colorado Independent in an interview.
Voters in Colorado, he said, are no longer looking for career politicians. Brauchler hopes for a diverse field of candidates who represent all aspects of the Republican Party, arguing that robust primaries make general election candidates stronger.
“I want them to be able to hear from different folks, whether that’s three folks, nine folks, or whatever,” he said of voters.
Brauchler said he’ll shy away from political labels. He sees himself as a district attorney who is a Republican rather than a Republican DA. “I’m a George Brauchler Republican,” he said.
Similarly, House said shortly after the November election that he might take another shot at it. But by late January he made up his mind. He said in a statement he would not run for governor, nor would he run for re-election as state Republican Party chair. Instead he said he would help the GOP nominee for governor in 2018 raise money.
“2018 is going to be a turning point for our state, and I want to ensure that as a party we do the fundraising necessary so that our general election candidate will win,” House said.
Another who says he’s contemplating a run is state Sen. Ray Scott of Grand Junction. He told The Independent he thinks it’s time for a chief executive from the Western Slope, someone who understands the needs of rural Coloradans.
Joanne Silva says she’ll focus on state infrastructure and be a champion for raising the gas tax. She moved from California to Colorado in 2003 and got active in GOP politics in Colorado fairly recently. “Donald Trump inspired me,” she told The Colorado Independent. “I really sort of got caught up in Donald Trump’s campaign.” She belongs to a Boulder Women’s Republican Party group and is an associate member of the Larimer County GOP. Most of her campaign so far is being conducted via Facebook, she said. She has never run for public office before but thinks this is the year to do it because people are fed up with politicians. “My heart’s really in this,” she says.
The 2018 gubernatorial primary could be the first in which unaffiliated voters can participate given the passage of Proposition 108 on Nov. 8. (Thiry was one of the big backers of this measure.) But the measure faces a potential lawsuit from the state parties asserting their status as private organizations not obligated to open up their nominating system to non-party members.
House said as long as he’s chairman he has no intention of filing a lawsuit that would “straight up thwart” Prop 108 because the voters have spoken. But, he said, he intends to let the state know he plans to legally challenge its authority to set the times and dates of party caucuses. That’s something that should be up the parties, which are private organizations, he said, and he wants the new system to reflect that.
What might the Republican primary look like in two years?
How the power dynamics shape up will have a lot to do with what a Trump administration looks like by 2018. Midterm elections are typically bad for the party in the White House, and Trump has made big promises to a new coalition of voters who swept him into office. How will they feel if he doesn’t deliver?
Colorado was also a hotbed of the NeverTrump movement and a state that gave all its available delegates to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. But enough Republicans here rallied around Trump after he snagged the nomination to keep him within 5 percentage points of Clinton on Election Day.
One of the lead organizers of the movement to stop Trump’s rise was Colorado GOP activist Kendal Unruh. The movement didn’t last, Unruh said.
“There’s not an organized NeverTrump movement here,” she said. “And I think we saw that certainly after the convention.” Unruh said she personally knew about 20 hardcore NeverTrumpers in Colorado, All but three, she said, have since fallen in line with Trump.
So as of now the NeverTrump movement looks as though it could be a non-factor in the 2018 race. But if by then it turns out Trump is a disaster, a movement could re-emerge to back its own candidate for governor.
Another question is what kind of candidate can connect with the unaffiliated— and maybe even Democratic— voters who swung Trump’s way in places like Pueblo, a traditional Democratic stronghold.
Tom Lucero, who ran Latino outreach for the Trump campaign in Colorado, said there’s no way Trump won in Pueblo without Hispanic support. Throughout the campaign in Colorado, “cracking down and getting tough on immigration” was a message that Lucero said he found resonated with Latinos in places like Pueblo as much as it did with white working class voters. “They know it impacts their ability to find a job,” he said.
A campaign focused on getting people back to work and sidelining special interests would likely play well, Lucero said, adding, “One way a prospective governor would approach that would be through some public works projects, especially for those of us in northern Colorado who have to drive I-25 every day.”
While he wouldn’t name a name, Lucero said he would like to see someone run who has done well in a life lived outside politics and who is willing to rock the boat.
“I would think, this early, running anti-establishment is a pretty good place to launch a campaign from,” he said.
Dustin Olson, a Denver-based political consultant who managed the campaign for Colorado’s previous GOP gubernatorial nominee Bob Beauprez, sketched out his own hope for the next candidate, whoever it is.
“What I’d like to see is a strong leader, somebody who can work with both parties that has core beliefs that can actually move the state forward and continue to build on the strengths of Colorado and continue to make it an economic powerhouse,” he said. “[Someone] who can work on affordable housing, educational choice, and the regulatory environment.”
How will the new primary system we just passed affect the 2018 governor’s race?
No one knows yet. But if an open primary system is in place by 2018, it will have a big effect. And perhaps that’s why the idea of bipartisanship and working across the aisle came up multiple times in conversations about the next governor’s race.
If Prop. 108 does what voters intended, it will mean that in the 2018 governor’s race, ballots will be mailed to unaffiliated voters with the names of Democratic and Republican primary candidates. Voters can choose one party or the other to participate in. One aim of Prop. 108 was to moderate the voting power of the activist base in each party by broadening the electorate. Proponents of the measure saw it as a way to reduce the chance of Colorado nominating extreme candidates on either side.
Republicans will still caucus for their candidates at their neighborhood precincts around the state — and unaffiliated voters cannot participate in those — but once candidates land on the primary ballot, either by coming out of caucuses or petitioning on, unaffiliated voters could be allowed to vote.
The caveat here is that legislative work remains to enable the new law, and then there’s that potential lawsuit. Another caveat: Prop. 108 allows the parties to forgo the primary process and nominate candidates through the caucus-assembly. The Republican Party will have the option in October 2017 to hold a vote by its leadership to see if it wants to go this route. Three-fourths of the party’s central committee must agree.*
Republicans might wonder if the proposition had been in effect before El Paso County Commissioner Darryl Glenn won the U.S. Senate primary whether the outcome might have been different. Glenn was the most conservative of the group of five Republicans who made the primary ballot and he ran an underfunded ground-game campaign aimed at grassroots activists. One of his rivals, Jack Graham, a moderate, pro-choice Republican and former CSU athletic director, spent a million dollars to air TV ads, likely seen by plenty of unaffiliated voters who couldn’t participate in the primary. Will the new system cater to a less conservative choice in 2018?
One of the backers of Prop. 108 thinks so.
“This is not your grandfather’s Democratic or Republican primary,” said Curtis Hubbard, a partner at OnSite Public Affairs and the lead consultant to the Let Colorado Vote Campaign who helped pass the initiative. “And candidates are going to have to realize that it will be open to a million-plus unaffiliated voters and they’ll have to figure out ways to communicate and engage that group.”
Marianne Goodland contributed to this report.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated what committee would take up Prop 8.
Photo by Benh LIEU SONG for Creative Commons on Flickr.
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