Businessman outsider— and Romney nephew— joins Colorado’s GOP governor’s race

Businessman outsider— and Romney nephew—  joins Colorado’s GOP governor’s race

As a sprawling field of Republicans lays the groundwork— and begins to file official paperwork— for a potential run for governor in 2018, a man with a big-name family connection just made his own bid official.

No, it isn’t George H.W. Bush cousin Walker Stapleton, it’s Mitt Romney nephew Doug Robinson.

The Michigan-born retired businessman who helped start the leading Denver corporate finance firm St. Charles Capital joins Arapahoe-area District Attorney George Brauchler, former lawmaker Victor Mitchell, and a handful of others in a field that is certain grow even larger.

Robinson, who is 55, moved to Colorado two decades ago and considered running in the Great Elephant Stampede of the U.S. Senate primary last year but ultimately decided against it. He has never held elected office before but sees public service as a calling, he said, after watching his grandfather George Romney, who rose from poverty to become a three term governor of Michigan.

“That has informed that kind of feeling that I have,” Robinson told The Colorado Independent. “You make a success of yourself in the world, your kids are old enough that they’re not influenced by the craziness of politics, and if you have an opportunity you try and give back. So that’s where my motivation comes from.”

In a field that is already sprouting a crop of current and former officeholders, Robinson pitches himself as the non-politician businessman.

“I am an outsider,” he says. “I’ve been involved in the party but I have not held elected office. I’m a businessman who cares about kids and cares about our future and I’ve seen problems and I’ve stepped up to solve them.”

Expect themes in his campaign to revolve around economic prosperity, solving Colorado’s infrastructure woes without raising taxes, and improving education. “I’m a believer in charter schools and innovative models,” he says, promising to offer a plan to better to recruit, train, and compensate teachers.

Because of his background in raising money for technology companies he believes there’s more the state can do to “be a leader in the tech sector.”

He also believes Colorado has a drug problem. Heroin and opioids for sure, but also marijuana. While Robinson applauds Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper’s approach to implementing legal weed he would like to see more tax revenue collected from the industry. He said he would “take a hard look” at high-potency pot and the “range of products” that are on the market.

Robinson voted for Donald Trump for president in the general election and he says he has been impressed with his ability to get a Coloradan elected to the U.S. Supreme Court, and by Trump’s cabinet picks. “I think it showed a businessman, an outsider, can come in and be effective in government.”

Mitt Romney is supporting him, he says, and he expects the 2012 GOP presidential nominee would be willing to campaign with him in Colorado. “I’m not running as Mitt Romney’s nephew,” he says. “I’m running as my own person.”

Robinson retired three weeks ago so he could run for governor full time. He is married and has five children. He said he raised close to $100,000 with days of announcing his candidacy, and is heading out to meet voters.

“I’m trying to get around the state and meet as many people as I can and hear their ideas,” he said.

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.

As the rest of the field shakes out it is likely to draw from a pool of establishment Republican stalwarts, statewide officeholders, law enforcement circles, and rebel insurgents. A Great Elephant Stampede Redux, if you will. 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 former state Republican Party Chairman Steve House, who ran for governor in 2014, considered running again this time, but ultimately decided against it.

Who else is running?

The first prominent Republican to announce was 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.” George Brauchler became the second big name in the ring when he announced last month.

Larimer County Commissioner Lew Gaiter also announced his intent to run. His campaign will “center around bridging the gap between the urban and rural counties of the state, part of his three-prong approach under his campaign slogan to ‘Move Colorado Forward.’”

In conversations with several Republican consultants and activists in Colorado, plenty of other names emerge.

Another top name is State Treasurer Walker Stapleton, a cousin to George W. Bush and a candidate who could likely raise plenty of money from the Bush world. Also in the mix 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. Colorado Springs entrepreneur Barry Farah has also talked about possibly running, according to GOP Chairman House.

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. Representatives for Thiry say he has been 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. Jim Rundberg, who also filed paperwork to run, did not return a phone message.

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.

On the flipside, “If Trump is riding high by 2018 he will probably have some candidates for governor he likes more than others and would certainly be able to influence the election,” says Daniel Cole, a Republican consultant in El Paso County.

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. 

Photo provided

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About the Author

Corey Hutchins

is a journalist in Colorado, and Columbia Journalism Review's Rocky Mountain correspondent for the United States Project. Follow him on Twitter @CoreyHutchins and email him at CoreyHutchins [at] gmail [dot] com.

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