In the Colorado governor’s race, Republican Cynthia Coffman collapses. Walker Stapleton and Greg Lopez make the ballot.

In the Colorado governor’s race, Republican Cynthia Coffman collapses. Walker Stapleton and Greg Lopez make the ballot.

BOULDER — The rough-and-tumble Republican primary for governor narrowed down considerably in Colorado on Saturday with a tag team of stunners.

Greg Lopez, the former Mayor of Parker who was running an underfunded underdog bid, joined front-runner and state Treasurer Walker Stapleton to push five other candidates off the ballot, while the campaign of Attorney General Cynthia Coffman burned to the ground in spectacular fashion.

Coffman, the sitting statewide public official whose mixed-message campaign had tried to thread a needle of appealing to unaffiliated voters and to the conservative activist base smoldered on Saturday when the party’s delegates gave her only 6 percent of support.

Instead, the roughly 3,000 party activists who filled an auditorium at the University of Colorado in Boulder— many of whom said they showed up undecided in the governor’s race— rallied around Stapleton, giving him top-line status on the June primary ballot with 43 percent of support.

That might have been expected. Stapleton has beaucoup establishment backing and a hefty campaign war chest, despite a stunning turn of events that forced him through today’s assembly when he hadn’t planned on it. Only four days ago, the Bush-family relative with a background in banking and real estate had petitioned directly onto the ballot, but his campaign and the firm he hired to gather signatures was engulfed in a fraud scandal prompting Stapleton to ask the Secretary of State to ditch his petitions altogether.

In Colorado, candidates can make a primary ballot for governor by gathering those signatures or going through the state assembly where they need 30 percent of the vote to stay alive. With seven candidates running through the assembly, only three could have emerged in the most balanced but also most unlikely scenario.

Trying to navigate today’s grassroots gauntlet were also former Trump campaign official Steve Barlock, businessman Barry Farah, Larimer County Commissioner Lew Gaiter and Westcliff resident Teri Kear.

As the campaigns made the case to delegates on the floor they battled anonymous flyers that fluttered around the convention hall attacking them. In one flyer, Coffman was called “delusional.” Another directed delegates to a website that acts as a clearinghouse for negative stories about Stapleton.

During a critical point for candidates at the assembly, each gave a 10-minute speech where they put it all on the line. In interviews with roughly 30 delegates, a majority said they came to the convention undecided. Many said their vote would come down to who gave the best barnburner. Delegates voted on individual hand-held digital clickers after the last speech.

In the end, here was the vote count (some percentages are about a point off):

When the vote tally went up on a big screen in the assembly hall, Lopez was bum-rushed by supporters as he tried to walk down the convention staircase toward the stage.

During his speech, it was clear he was connecting better than those before or after him. “Like President Trump, I support legal immigration, not illegal immigration,” the son of migrant field workers said. Lopez said he would work with the president on ending so-called sanctuary cities. He pitched himself as a “different” Republican candidate in a state that has only elected one Republican governor in the past 43 years. “Are we going to stand and let our great state become the ugly twin sister of California?” he bellowed. “Noooo!”

He said he was pro-life and pro-Second Amendment, and would “die on the sword” to protect the state’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. He spoke of his humble beginnings, which he said would appeal to unaffiliated voters. “The values of the Hispanic community are conservative. I know how to communicate, engage with, and win the Hispanic vote. I am one of them. Unaffiliated voters, they want a strong leader.”

He got the crowd to shout with him “United we win, divided we lose,” twice.

As Lopez made his way through the crowd following the vote, a woman came up to him with a flyer in her hand, something that was circulating through the crowd of delegates. 

Earlier in his campaign, Lopez had released a video with his wife about the incident, which took place in the 1990s. He told the woman, Brenda Fisher of Arvada, that he wasn’t running from it. “I made a mistake and I’ve learned from it,” he told her.

Fisher said she voted for him because she saw him come through her area for a meet-and-greet. “I already kind of knew, but when I heard him and I heard all the other candidates …. When he was up there I just got the chills.”  

Others, too, mobbed Lopez to laud him for the stemwinder.

“Goddam helluva speech,” one man told him, gripping his hand. “I did not know who you were until I walked into this room,” said another who came from Carbondale and sported a Rocky Mountain Gun Owners ball cap and pin. “You did great up there,” another told Lopez. “You did fantastic up there. Anyway, God bless.”

Lopez repeated his campaign slogan to them as he shook hands. “It’s not about me, it’s about all of us,” he said.

Lopez, who as of March had raised only around $23,000, with about $13,000 of it coming out of his own pocket, now faces a candidate who had raised nearly a million dollars by then and is also benefitting from a big bucks Super-PAC style group with money loaded in from the likes of Pete Coors and John Elway.

In a brief interview, Lopez said his grassroots, press-the-flesh campaign style— he traveled all over the state meeting groups since last fall— won’t change. “We stay on track, we keep delivering our same message, we keep doing the same hard work that we are doing and I am very confident that people will stand behind me,” he said.

Lopez said he doesn’t have any big policy differences with Stapleton.

Across the convention floor, Stapleton said based on the week he had he would have been happy with 30.1 percent of the vote, just enough to squeak by. “Tomorrow is my birthday, I’m going to spend the majority of the day in pajamas, and then we’ll get up on Monday and we’ll get ready to go.”

Stapleton had been nominated at the convention by Tom Tancredo, the former congressman, far-right folk hero, and immigration firebrand who was briefly a candidate for governor here this year himself. Tancredo talked of the “left-wing loonies” and “nutjobs” who would be fleeing for “safe spaces” if Republicans took the governor’s mansion.

Earlier in the day, when Coffman was given a few minutes to speak from the stage to delegates in her role as attorney general, she used part of her time to tear into Stapleton for a DUI he got in the 1990s and for his petition-fraud scandal. When she heard some boos, she told the crowd to look into it. “Because you should think about what we are saying as Republicans if we nominate them to the state’s highest office,” she said. 

Stapleton said he does not worry the scandal will follow him to the June 26 ballot that could also include retired investment banker Doug Robinson, whose campaign unearthed his petition problems, and Victor Mitchell, a former lawmaker and businessman who is prone to smack-talk.

As for Coffman, who wasn’t available in the hour after the votes came in, she “thanks the many Coloradans who she met these many months” and “takes their stories with her and thanks them for their support,” said a spokesman.

Lopez hoto by Corey Hutchins. Insert photo: Cynthia Coffman speaks at 2018 GOP state party assembly on April 14, 2018. Photo by Amanda Clark.

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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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