Fair and Unbalanced

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Mike Littwin

"The pump don't work 'cause the vandals took the handles."

We believe in honesty here at the Littwin gov panel headquarters. So, as we present our final pre-primary rankings, we readily concede that the panel’s closing lineup is not very different from its opening lineup on Week 1, which came three months ago. Which tells you a number of things.

  1. Nothing much has happened in either race.
  2. Losing Tom Tancredo and George Brauchler from the GOP primary brought the temperature way down, which, in part, explains No. 1.
  3. The decimation of The Denver Post and other newspapers meant much less on-the-ground coverage, meaning many fewer stories were broken, meaning I can’t think of one story that was even close to being race-altering.
  4. Even in the era of Donald Trump railroading the GOP and Bernie standing up to the Dem establishment, the divide between the two parties is far greater, and far more passionate, than any divide within them.
  5. Our panelists were pretty smart (or, if we’re wrong Tuesday, maybe not so smart at all).

I’ve identified five major issues in the race — money; who got in and, mostly, who got out; the unaffiliateds who can, for the first time, vote in primaries; signature snafus; oh yeah, and money.

Let’s start with money, money, money: the alpha and omega of this race and of most races. Panelist Cinamon Watson provides the accompanying music. This one is like no other in Colorado history. The candidates have spent a startling, record-shattering $25 million of their own money in a primary race. Nearly half of that comes from Jared Polis, who has limitless funds. He has provided cover for Republican Vic Mitchell, who has spent $5 million of his own, which, in this race, feels like low-stakes poker.

Panelist Alan Salazar asks the reasonable question: “Taking nothing away from Jared, one wonders if Mike Johnston, Cary Kennedy or Donna Lynne had spent $11 million on their races (from whatever source) whether we would have a different person as the front runner?”

It’s an unknowable, of course, but it’s not an unguessable, and it leaves Democrats, who like to say they are for campaign finance reform, with a problem. Panelist Ian Silverii, of ProgressNow, thinks that while it’s good Polis wouldn’t be beholden to donors, he worries about living in what he calls an oligarchy. He says it’s very confusing for him personally. “If Jared, who I agree with on basically everything, can essentially buy this seat, what’s to prevent 49 people with whom I completely disagree from buying the governor’s mansions in the other states?”

Meanwhile, Mike Johnston’s supporting PAC received three $1 million checks — two from Mike Bloomberg — and nearly $6 million in all, much of it out-of-state ed-reform money. I keep vainly waiting for the definitive story on what the ed reformers believe Johnston would do for them as governor.

GOP front-runner Walker Stapleton had to toss in half a million of his own money, presumably because he’s worried about Mitchell’s TV ad spending and not because he just had an extra half-million sitting around.

Kennedy and Johnston are the only candidates who haven’t spent any of their money. As Johnston likes to say on the trail:”I gave a speech once and somebody asked me if I was going to self-finance,” he said. “My wife was in the crowd and she laughed out loud.”

The other big story is the unaffiliateds and what impact they might have in this race. Panelist Josh Penry says that the first 100,000 or so are probably liberals and conservatives who prefer not to identify with a party. 

But, Penry says, “as these independent numbers swell past 100,000, now you’re definitely getting a different breed. You’re likely seeing more and more of these archetypical swing suburban Moms and Little League Dads voting in the primary, too. These people aren’t ideological; they vote the person … If (Polis) throws another million in before Saturday, you’ll know he agrees.”

So the question is whether the money will matter more in Tuesday’s primary or will it be the unaffiliated voters? “The answer,” Penry says, “appears to be, yes.”

With that, onto the rankings. Since they’re the final rankings, they’ll be a little expanded. Apparently, there’s still a lot to say.

DEMOCRATS

1. Jared PolisHis Democratic contenders never did much of a job in hitting Polis on his check-writing advantage. With Johnston’s big haul from ed-reform people, he wasn’t in position to do so. Cary Kennedy — her supporting PAC anyway — made one big stab at going negative on education, and the consensus is it didn’t work. Polis was clearly ready for the attack. Donna Lynne tried briefly in a debate, but took shots at everyone. So, Polis has spent ungodly amounts of his own money, and, if anyone objects, it will have to be the voters. Panelist Salazar makes an excellent point about the Kennedy PAC going negative, saying: “When the guy you go after has the financial throw weight to bury you with an avalanche of ads — including one quoting Hick no less — and there is no counterpunch with equal weight, you might think twice about the kind of attack you launch.” Panelist Watson had another take on Polis’ money. “After writing his campaign a whopper of a check, I was shocked to hear Polis call for publicly financed campaigns in the Channel 7 debate.”

2. Cary KennedyEveryone agrees she has run a very good campaign. She won the caucuses and the assembly and even briefly made it to the top of the Littwin rankings. She’s not a great speaker, but she has improved tremendously since her state treasurer campaigns. Her debate performances, though, were fairly flat while Johnston was clearly the best of the pack. Polis improved steadily over the campaign. If Kennedy can’t catch Polis, people will point to the fact that, in the end, she didn’t have the money to compete. But Hickenlooper’s news conference on negative ads didn’t help either. Silverii thinks that if Kennedy loses, she should run for U.S. Senate in 2020 against Cary Gardner. But I’d say that if you lose two straight statewide races, that’s a tough streak to overcome.

3.  Mike Johnston. Penry had him at No. 2 and gaining and agrees with Johnston that he’s the Democrat in the field that Republicans most fear. “I think if this election had 10 days and 2 more debates that Mike Johnston would catch Jared Polis,” Penry says. “As it is, he certainly seems to be closing fast. Those last several million dollars that Polis put into the race were, I would wager, as much about holding off Johnston as they were about Kennedy.” Johnston and his supporting PAC are all over the airwaves, but some Johnston supporters wonder if made a mistake in letting Polis and Kennedy dominate the news for so long.

4. Donna LynneNo one ever writes anything about Lynne without mentioning how smart and competent she is. But as Silverii points out, when she runs a Hick-like, I’m-not-a-politician campaign, it just shows she’s really not a politician. I think she would make somebody a great lieutenant governor. Oh, wait.

REPUBLICANS

1. Walker Stapleton. When Tom Tancredo dropped out of the race, he was leading in the polls. When George Brauchler dropped out of the race, it left Cynthia Coffman as the only non-Stapleton contender with name recognition. When Coffman imploded at the GOP assembly, it left Stapleton alone at the top. You can’t say he’s run a great campaign, which is why people are calling him Walker Stumbleton. You know the list of stumbles. Vic Mitchell has been spending money going negative on Stapleton and, as panelist Silverii points out, “the only question is will Vic Mitchell slightly, heavily or mortally wound Walker Stapleton for the general while trying to win this primary.” I’d vote vote slightly, but that’s a whole other race.

2. Victor Mitchell. Mitchell is the counter-argument to Polis. He’s spending lots of money (although only half of what Polis is spending), but it may not get him to the top. As panelist Salazar says, “Like Jared, it seems that spending a lot of money can get you name ID and create a race even when you start out with only two dogs listening to what you have to say.” I’ll remember Mitchell for hitting Stapleton as being anti-Trump because he’s related to the Bushes when, in fact, Mitchell was the one who didn’t vote for Trump. It is everything I love about politics in one ad.

3. Greg Lopez. On the Dem side, there is some thought that it might still be a three-way race with Johnston closing. On the Republican side, nobody thinks that way. Lopez gets the vote from those who like to hear a candidate insist that some cities in America are under Shariah law. Not that he can name one (because there isn’t one). But the candidate who goes there — particularly if he’s a nice guy who seems very much like he could get a gig on talk radio — always gets some votes on the Republican side.

4. Doug Robinson. It says a lot if you began the race as a legitimate contender and finish last. Panelist Salazar says maybe Robinson should have tried a tattoo. Robinson began the race as Mitt Romney’s nephew and ended it the same way. We predicted long ago that had to change for Robinson to contend. Maybe it’s not surprising that he’s in last place since he is the moderate in the field, who, Silverii notes, “stood with #MeToo surviviors by calling for Randy Baumgardner’s and Steve Lebsock’s ouster and said putting kids in cages is un-American.” Penry thinks Robinson will go far — as a hit on the Republican cocktail circuit. Penry calls him smart and credible and says he “could’ve won if he’d have spent $5 million of his money.”

So this is it — for now. I want to very much thank my great gov panel for so reliably doing this — gratis, I might add  — week in, week out and while being so reliably on the mark. The panel will return (or at least I will) for the general election, probably sometime in early September.

Panelists: Big-shot GOP strategist Josh Penry, principal at EIS; long-time Dem strategist and Hancock chief of staff Alan Salazar; ProgressNow progressive Ian Silverii; GOP strategist, and always good quote, Cinamon Watson, principal at Blueprint Strategies— and, of course, me.

 

Let’s be clear on this. The cruelty taking place on our borders is intentional and not an unfortunate byproduct of an ill-conceived law.

Yes, the cruelty is very much intentional. The inhumanity is intentional. The violation of every American norm is intentional. The reminder of the Japanese internment camps may not be intentional, given Trump’s problems with history, but it is clear and obvious to everyone who doesn’t go around taking  about the amazing things Frederick Douglass is doing.

The unforgivable grabbing of more than 2,300 children from their parents at the border — some of these parents here to seek asylum — and housing them in what amounts to cages is meant to force bleeding-heart Democrats to the table to give Trump his ridiculous $25 billion border wall.

The separated children — at least 100 of them under the age of 4 — are hostages, just as the DACA kids are being held hostage to an insane, unnecessary campaign promise that will solve absolutely nothing.

Trump might as well be putting a gun to little kids’ heads until we give him what he wants and then, and only then, he’ll reunite them with their parents, if he can find them. The New York Times has a story up about parents being deported while their children are left behind.

From Jeff Sessions, we hear that that the zero tolerance policy is a matter of deterrence. They might what as well call it what it really is, as I read in one tweet — state-sponsored trauma.

And there’s Trump’s other move, which is to lie repeatedly and, of course, brazenly about the situation. Blaming the Democrats for a law that doesn’t exist. Refusing to admit that his so-called “zero tolerance” policy really is a zero soul policy. Acting if he is personally horrified by the situation but is helpless to change it. Acting as if the policy has any relationship to child trafficking. Pretending as if the policy is not his own and that he couldn’t end it in three seconds with one phone call.

I don’t know if this is the worst lie of the literally thousands of lies Trump has told during his tenure as president, but it must be the most heartbreaking. It’s so bad, in fact, that the Trump administration is at a loss as to how to defend it. You can be sure that, even in Trump’s America, grabbing kids from their parents is an overwhelmingly unpopular move.

In a tweet, conservative Trump critic Bill Kristol named three conflicting explanations for the crisis coming from the White House.

Trump: The Democrats made us do it.

Stephen Miller: It’s our policy to do it.

Sec. Kirstjen Nielsen: We’re not doing it.

He should have added this fourth explanation heard from both Jeff Sessions and Sarah Sanders: The bible made us do it.

ProPublica has released audio it obtained of children being separated from their parents at the border last week. It is excruciating to listen to. I feel so bad … for Donald Trump?

The audio is of 10 separated children. The crying is desperate. As the ProPublica writer notes in explanation, “Many of them sound like they’re crying so hard, they can barely breathe. They scream “Mami” and “Papá” over and over again, as if those are the only words they know.”

You can hear the background music for Sessions’ bible lessons.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration released video from one of detention centers so people could actually see the cages. You don’t have to listen to the ProPublica audio to hear the public outrage.

The critics of this policy are everywhere, but let’s try on this Washington Post op-ed by Laura Bush, the rarely outspoken former first lady, who called the zero tolerance policy that removes desperate kids from desperate parents “cruel” and “immoral” before adding that “it breaks my heart.” She, too, compared the images of children in cages to the Japanese internment camps, which she called “one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history.” This would be another.

Melania Trump tweeted much the same thing. She didn’t blame her husband explicitly — she said both sides must come together to find a solution — but it was clear what she was saying. 

On one side, Sen. Dianne Feinstein has written a bill to stop the separations. Every Democrat has signed onto it. No Republicans have. Not one. I watched Susan Collins, the Republicans’ most moderate senator, rail against the separations but say that she couldn’t sign the Feinstein bill because it was “far too broad.” She didn’t say she had tried to reach a compromise with Feinstein. She said instead that she and Jeff Flake have written the president a letter. Meanwhile, it took our own Cory Gardner until Monday afternoon to finally condemn the separations with a tweet, saying Congress, where I believe he works, should do more.

I tweeted this in reply, since neither he nor his staff returns my phone calls: “Nice words from @SenCoryGardner. Except he didn’t mention Trump could fix the problem with one phone call. Or that he, like all GOPers, didn’t sign Feinstein bill. Or that it took until today, with polling running well against GOP, to say anything. Maybe there’s more he could do.”

Maybe he could talk to Feinstein about how to make her bill bipartisan. Maybe he could admit that any outrage should be directed toward the White House. Maybe he could call for Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen to resign. 

Or maybe he could tweet out this AP dispatch from one of the reporters who was given a very brief tour through the McAllen, Tex., facility in question. The story begins this way: “Inside an old warehouse in South Texas, hundreds of children wait in a series of cages created by metal fencing. One cage had 20 children inside. Scattered about are bottles of water, bags of chips and large foil sheets intended to serve as blankets.

“One teenager told an advocate who visited that she was helping care for a young child she didn’t know because the child’s aunt was somewhere else in the facility. She said she had to show others in her cell how to change the girl’s diaper.”

This is America in 2018. It’s too late to be shocked.

Photo by Jonathan McIntosh via Flickr creative commons

I know we’ve been calling it the home stretch for a couple of weeks here at the Littwin gov rankings home base. But now we mean it. This is it. The ballots are streaming in. Unaffiliated voters are participating at a better than expected rate. John Hickenlooper is still playing referee. And if you’re brave enough to keep watching commercial TV — personally, after the NBA playoffs, I opted out to binge-watch Killing Eve (it’s great, by the way) — the campaign ads are no doubt crushing your soul.

I’m already starting to feel a wee bit nostalgic for a race that isn’t even over (check out my opus on the state of the Dem race and how the civil war never made it to Colorado), but the panel is raring to go.

So let’s get to the negative-ad thing, which is probably the most overblown piece of the race.  The reason we keep talking about it is that so few issues have taken hold on either side. I mean we’re still wondering why Walker Stapleton wouldn’t apologize for saying in a campaign ad he was the “only” state treasurer to have supported the Trump tax plan when, presumably, nearly all of them did. Kyle Clark told Stapleton that the other state treasurers were laughing at him. Maybe that’s because Stapleton is still running the absurd ad.

But the latest is that Hickenlooper, who publicly chastised Kennedy’s supporting PAC for running a negative ad, is now chastising Polis for running an attack ad quoting him as chastising Kennedy. What did Hickenlooper think would happen — that Polis wouldn’t grab at the chance?

As all-star gov panelist and former top Hick aide Alan Salazar put it: “Now Johnston can use Hick being disappointed by Jared attacking Cary for disappointing Hick for attacking Jared and the world goes round and round….”

Panelist Josh Penry wishes Hick would quit it: “There aren’t many Republicans who like Hick more than me, but his little sanctimony routine is a massive Christmas present to Jared Polis… Hick’s finger wagging, which has effectively taken all of Jared Polis’ liabilities off the table in the primary, is a godsend for the Boulder congressman and a likely death knell for the others.”

And now, in the latest twist, Kennedy’s team is asking Polis to take down his negative ads, saying that the Teachers for Kennedy PAC ads are no longer on the air. And Polis’s team replied that the ads are still up and that they have the screen-shots to prove it. So there’s that.

The other big story is the unaffiliated voters, which are breaking so far, but it’s still early. I don’t know how much difference they’ll make in either primary, particularly if the polls showing Polis and Stapleton with healthy leads are right. But, as panelist Cinamon Watson says, the real importance may come in November.

“They will make a difference,” she said. “The work candidates have done in the primary to convince these voters and turn them out at the polls will have an impact in the general.”

I say the unaffiliateds were exceeding expectations, but that’s because some pundits were saying they wouldn’t hit 10 percent. Panelist Ian Silverii says to this point, they’re “not exactly” pulling their weight, given that they’re slightly more than a third of the voting population. But that’s a lot of weight if you are, by definition, unaffiliated.

“Odds are the unaffiliated percentage will tick up,” Silverii says, “and it’s too early to tell if they’re just confused as a bloc, or defy description because they are not a bloc, but the way this is going, I’m not counting on them to break even 25% of the final primary electorate.”

On the other hand, Penry says he is mildly stunned by the number of unaffiliated voters who have participated so far. “With 60,000 independent voters having cast ballots during the first week of the first year of the new law, it’s pretty clear that the change voters made last year is a lot more than mere symbolism,” he says. “Open primaries are going to play a significant role in shaping primaries in the future, and even in a significant and surprising way this first year.”

The easy and obvious guess, though, is that the races will be decided more by the undecideds than the unaffiliateds. The polling has Polis and Stapleton each up by 13 points, but the undecided vote is 39 percent among Democrats and 27 percent among Republicans..

Vic Mitchell is hitting Stapleton hard with his ads and seems to have been rewarded. He has separated himself from the pack. I ask the panelists which candidates might do better than the polls are suggesting. It was pretty unanimous that Lopez and Johnston were the mostly likely to improve on their numbers, coming from near the back of the pack. I agree in both cases.

Most surprising to me is that the trailing Dems haven’t tried to help themselves by hitting Polis for spending $10.5 million of his own money so far on the race, a number that is both astonishing and predictable and will continue to dramatically rise. Is it going negative to say that the amount of money distorts the race? My guess is that Democratic voters are put off by the idea of someone trying to buy the race, which is an easy charge to make (and one, by the way, that Polis is practiced at refuting).

Silverii thinks that the charge would backfire. “Johnston can’t talk about money because it brings up questions about where his is coming from (a lot of people who live in states that end in -fornia and -ork), and Cary can’t talk about money because then people will ask her how much she has and why isn’t it more. Same for Donna, quite frankly.”

But Salazar has a different take. His guess is that it doesn’t poll well, but that occasionally candidates have to ignore the polls.

“My best guess is that their polling shows this does not ‘pop’ as a fruitful line of attack. An example of conventional poll-driven tactics likely missing something voters could be persuaded to care about if it surfaced as a line of attack,” Salazar says, “Instead of looking for the issue to ‘pop’ – make it ‘pop.’”

Watson says she’s surprised, too. “But you can bet,” she says, assuming Polis wins the primary, “it will come up in the fall.”

And now onto the second-to-last rankings before the June 26 primary:

REPUBLICANS

1. Walker Stapleton. Many people (OK, mainly Dick Wadhams) are underwhelmed by Stapleton’s performance so far, which is why someone started calling him Stumbleton. He hasn’t shown well in the debates, or at least the ones he hasn’t skipped. But I don’t know of anyone, in Politico World at least, who doesn’t think he’s winning.

2. Victor Mitchell. The polls show he has separated himself from the pack, but still trailing Stapleton significantly. But if Lopez is, in fact, gaining, who’s he taking votes from — Stapleton or Mitchell?

3. Greg Lopez. OK, an up arrow.  He’s not getting a Darryl Glenn-style influx of money as the race closes, but we’re not talking about him winning. We’re talking about him beating Doug Robinson.

4. Doug Robinson. Penry says he knows a lot of “very smart, informed” people who have voted for Robinson. Maybe that’s the problem. Can you win only with smart and informed people? Magellan Strategies has him polling at 4 percent.

 

DEMOCRATS

1. Jared PolisAccording to the polls, he seems to have withstood the negative ads on vouchers, probably with inadvertent help from Hickenlooper. And if people aren’t just sick of seeing his face so often on TV, he has to be the clear favorite in the stretch run.

2. Cary KennedyShe’s still in the best spot to possibly catch Polis, but does she have the resources (read: money) to counter Polis’ overwhelming advantage on the air?

3.  Mike Johnston. I’m giving him the up arrow because I don’t believe he’s in single digits, and I know there are many undecided Democrats still have him in the mix with Polis and Kennedy.

4. Donna LynneSilverii says if Hick “wanted Donna Lynne to be governor, he should have never asked her to promise not to run and he should have endorsed her…”

 

Panelists: Big-shot GOP strategist Josh Penry, principal at EIS; long-time Dem strategist and Hancock chief of staff Alan Salazar; ProgressNow progressive Ian Silverii; GOP strategist, and always good quote, Cinamon Watson, principal at Blueprint Strategies— and, of course, me.

 

Toon of Mike Littwin by Mike Keefe

The strangest thing happened in the Democratic primary race a couple weeks ago. It finally got started.

I know, it has been a year since Jared Polis got into the race and big-moneyed Ed Perlmutter out, basically setting the primary field, although Donna Lynne was still in the I’ll-let-you-know-eventually mode at that point.

But now, so many months later, so many millions spent, so many signatures gathered, so many caucuses attended, so many meets, so many greets, so many candidates in, so many candidates out, the race has finally settled on an issue — one that’s so obvious you wonder how it took this long to emerge. I know the candidates signed a no-negativity pact, but how about some compare and contrast?

And yet, it wasn’t until Cary Kennedy went negative that everything changed. OK, officially it was the Teachers for Kennedy PAC that went negative, running a TV ad on education attacking Polis for a long-ago position on vouchers and Mike Johnston, who, we know, has been strongly supported by out-of-state ed-reform money. I was stunned. Not by the attack ad, which wasn’t all that hard-hitting, but that Kennedy — OK, or her PAC, most of which work, as Littwin’s Official Unofficial gov ranking’s panelist Alan Salazar said, with a “wink and a nod” from the candidate — was the one who went first.

It just didn’t seem to fit with the positive campaign she was running, one that had been pretty much flawless to that point, or at least since the driving-while-filming ad. And, in the first debate that followed, she looked flustered as she tried to defend it when she was ripped, particularly by Johnston, for going negative.

We had been warned that Gov. John Hickenlooper would come down hard on any negative ads, and he did so quickly and with surprisingly tough words from the shower-ad gov, who generally saves his confrontational mode for closed-door meetings. He said how “disappointed” he was in the Kennedy PAC ad.  He also said, though, that from the polls he had seen, Kennedy was leading the race and she had jeopardized that lead. Everyone has assumed all along that Polis was in the lead. If Kennedy was ahead — public polling suggests she isn’t — was this meant to be a knockout punch? Or was it her only and best chance to catch Polis?

As expected, Polis is fighting back. He launched an ad attacking Kennedy for attacking him. His PAC, Bold Colorado — and don’t even ask why a self-funding candidate needs a PAC — is also attacking Kennedy for attacking Polis. Look for more from Kennedy. Hickenlooper might have gone a little overboard in predicting a mud fest, but for a few weeks, it’ll be at least a little muddy anyway.

There are clear differences on the education front among the candidates — not that you’d know from reading their web sites. But it’s hard to even say exactly what education reform means these days by Democratic standards — other than more school choice, meaning more charter schools — and teacher evaluation tied to testing (suddenly, not so popular an idea).

But what it means to many Democrats is something related to the wildly unpopular Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. So, of course, this is an issue. Kennedy is supported by the teachers unions. Johnston is largely supported by ed-reform advocates. Polis has been a supporter of charter schools. Donna Lynne founded Colorado Succeeds, which Chalkbeat Colorado describes as a “bipartisan business-oriented education reform group.” In a Democratic primary, it’s easy to pick the winner in that fight.

This may be a turning point. It definitely marked the start of the home stretch in the race, in which the ballots have arrived in your mailboxes and voting ends June 26.

So, we’ll put this race in context, or as much as we can, in a campaign that is far from over. We’ll look at how we ended up with this field of four fairly mainstream liberals, why the supposed civil war between moderates and progressives within the Democratic Party never made it to Colorado and what the final stretch of this race is looking like.

How did we get here?

We begin with Ken Salazar, because it all began with Salazar. Democrats have employed a stunningly successful game plan for how to win top-of-the-ballot races in Colorado, and Salazar was front and center when the state morphed from red to purple and then to bluish-purple.

When the governor’s race began in earnest in 2017, it wasn’t just Salazar’s turn. It seemed like his destiny. And if it truly had been his destiny, the race would probably look nothing like the four-person contest today.

When Salazar, then Colorado’s attorney general, ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004, taking care to big-foot Mark Udall out of the race, Colorado was a deep-red state with a Republican governor, two Republican senators, Republican control of both houses of the state legislature. At that point, if you looked at the distant political horizon, all you could see was red.

And then Salazar won his race against Pete Coors, of those Coors. The Dems won control of the legislature thanks to the efforts of the Gang of Four (of which Jared Polis, not incidentally, was one), who stunned Republicans with their stealth strategy of investing millions in usually low-cost legislative races.

Everything changed that year in Colorado. Democrats have lost only one top-of-the-ballot race since — Cory Gardner beating incumbent Mark Udall by two points in a GOP wave election. Democrats have won by nominating moderates (Salazar, Bill Ritter, Michael Bennet, John Hickenlooper, the post-Boulder version of Udall) while Republicans veered right, sometimes way, way right and sometimes (see: Maes, Dan) way, way out. It was the era of the culture wars, and, in Colorado anyway, Republicans were on the losing side. Gardner successfully claimed the middle in 2014 — which may be a much tougher lift for him in a re-election bid in 2020 — but two years later, Bennet and Hillary Clinton both won in Colorado.

Salazar didn’t stay in the Senate long. After four years, he left to take his spot in Barack Obama’s cabinet and, more than occasionally, on Obama’s pick-up basketball team, but it seemed pretty obvious what would happen next. When Hickenlooper was term limited, Salazar would run for governor. It’s what he had always wanted. The Democratic nomination — Dems haven’t had a real primary fight for governor since 1998 — was probably his for the asking.

But he didn’t ask. He had family health issues. There was money to be made. He was many years away from the rigors of the campaign trail, and if he got back in, there was all that money to be raised in a state with low fundraising limits. He was a centrist Democrat when the mood in the party was clearly turning left. He had made some enemies among environmentalists in his time as Interior secretary. The truth is, he probably would have faced an uncomfortable primary battle, even presuming he would win.

The race was basically frozen until he made up his mind. Only Johnston jumped in, although former state treasurer Cary Kennedy was telling people she would run regardless. Congressman Ed Perlmutter had said he wouldn’t run if Salazar did. And there didn’t seem to be any other major contenders.

We know what happened. When Salazar wrote the March 22, 2017 op-ed in The Denver Post saying he wouldn’t run — although he didn’t really say why — Perlmutter entered the race, and it seemed as if the Democratic strategy would remain in place. While Perlmutter didn’t clear the field, he was the clear favorite, as a mainstream liberal with a moderate personality with strong ties to nearly every Democratic constituency in the state. He was a strong campaigner, known for knocking on doors and doing cartwheels when he won, which he usually did. And when the rumors started that Polis would get in the race, one very prominent Democrat, who knows both Polis and Perlmutter well, told me he didn’t believe it. “Come on, they’re friends,” he said. “Jared is not going to try to roll Ed.”

And yet, Polis got in. Perlmutter got rolled. In his shocking announcement that he was leaving the race, Perlmutter said he had lost the fire in his belly. My guess is he also felt a knife in his back. He must have wondered why Polis got in. He must have wondered why there were rumors about Hickenlooper pushing Lynne into the race instead of, say, supporting him. Mostly, he didn’t see how he could compete with Polis’ money.

When he dropped out, Perlmutter said all the right things about Polis, including that he had as much a right as anyone else to get into the race.

The thing is, the fire in the belly returned quickly enough for Perlmutter, who then got back in the race for his 7th CD seat, forcing out a couple of friends of his who were already running to replace him. If Polis did something wrong, then so did Perlmutter.

“Ed is a great friend, a great leader in the state,” Polis told me when I asked him whether he felt any reluctance about joining a race Perlmutter had already entered. “He’s a good personal friend. I’m also good friends with Cary. But when you have a bold progressive vision for the state, you want to give voters a chance to hear it.

“I’m excited to take that vision anywhere in the state. That’s why I decided to run. It’s never a decision based on whether you have friends in the race.”

And so Polis became the presumed frontrunner because of the limitless money he would spend on the race. But no one ever saw it as a sure thing. What many observers said instead was that Polis has a likability ceiling. We may find out if that’s true. Kennedy, the former state treasurer who wrote Amendment 23 and played a key role in the Ref C debate, won the caucuses by winning the base and soon became the co-frontrunner. Johnston keeps saying that he’s the candidate Republicans most fear, and he’s probably right, although he is still searching for a way to turn what is perceived to be a two-way race into a three-way. Meanwhile, Lynne had Hickenlooper urging her to get into the race, which she eventually did. And there’s your field.

I was talking to Republican strategist Dick Wadhams right after Polis had chased Perlmutter out of the race and he was stunned. “This race has had three front runners so far, including one (Ken Salazar) who never got in the race. I’ve never seen that. The Democrats have been great at clearing the field … and now there’s a real race.”

But a race that turned out to be all turtle and no hare — until June rolled in.

The Civil War That Wasn’t

Some questions: In a wide-open field, why isn’t there a Bernie Bro in the race? Why, after Salazar didn’t get in, isn’t there a Latino in the field? Isn’t this the era of identity politics in the Democratic Party? (To be fair, there are two women and one gay man, so there’s that.)

The lieutenant governor strongly considering getting into the race. No, not that lieutenant governor — the one before Donna Lynne. This was in 2017. Joe Garcia was torn. He had credentials (Harvard Law, president of CSU-Pueblo, executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education); he had skills, he had been tapped by the most popular Democrat in the state, he was being pushed by many in the Latino community. And so, he went to Hickenlooper and asked him what he thought. Garcia pauses as he’s telling me the story. I ask the obvious follow-up: Did Hick encourage you to run?

Garcia: “Not quite. He didn’t discourage me. But it was pretty much that if Ken got in, I’d be out.”

Garcia was ambivalent at best about running before he got this less than rousing endorsement from Hickenlooper. He didn’t like the idea of constant fundraising. He wasn’t sure his skill set was a good fit for being a politician. So, he didn’t get in. He resigned as lieutenant governor. And Hickenlooper appointed Donna Lynne to replace Garcia, saying at the time that she was presumably not interested in being governor. We know how that turned out.

Another Latino also weighed getting into the race — state representative Joe Salazar. It turned out the weight was too much.

Salazar is one of the few politicians in Colorado to have endorsed Sanders in 2016. And now Sanders has endorsed him — in Salazar’s primary race to be the Dem attorney general nominee. If you remember, Sanders won the Dem caucus in 2016 despite establishment Democratic support for Hillary Clinton.

It seemed as if this were the time for a Sanders-like candidate. There looked like a solid base for such a candidate. So why didn’t Salazar get in?

He laughs. You know the answer.

He says the Dem party leaders — he name-checks Hickenlooper, Ken Salazar and Bennet — don’t want a real progressive. And without that kind of support, he can’t raise the kind of money necessary to be competitive.

“It should be an exciting time to be a progressive, an energizing time, a time of change with millennials so involved,” he says. “But the truth is it sucks to be a progressive in Colorado.”

He explains: “My tia is giving me 50 bucks. How do you compete with Jared Polis and $350 million? The only way is to sell yourself out and lose your progressive credentials.”

Either that or have a whole lot of tias.

The civil war was supposed to pit Bernie progressives and remnants of the Clinton establishment forever fighting the last war. It has been an much-overhyped story from the start, even in an era when stories are routinely overhyped, but wherever it might be happening, and it didn’t show even in California in its primary, you have to look really hard to find a hint of it in Colorado.

There might have been a civil war nationally in the Democratic Party after the Sanders-Clinton primary were it not for Donald Trump. You can put it down to the ever-deepening partisan divide, where issues are overwhelmed by party loyalty. Donald Trump can change years of Republican doctrine with a single tweet — say, open markets or palling around with Kim Jong Un — and with little to no debate. Democrats are defined by their opposition to all things Trump.

I mean, when Trump’s lawyers are claiming that Trump doesn’t have to talk to Mueller’s lawyers because, as president, he can do pretty much whatever he wants to do with impunity, it’s hard for intraparty squabbling to break through.

So beating Trump is really the only thing that a great majority of Democrats care about. In the midterms, taking back the House and maybe even stealing the Senate is what drives Democrats. Here’s a stat from the Brookings Institution that tells it all about the non-civil war: Only eight Democratic House incumbents — one of them Colorado’s Diana DeGette — are facing a progressive challenger. On the Republican side, meanwhile, 60 incumbents are facing at least a nominal challenge.

In Colorado, moderates win as governor. That’s the rule. In this season, the Democratic definition of moderate has changed, moving left — this is Bernie Sanders’ influence writ large — and Democrats hope the state has moved with them. Colorado was one of the rare swing states that stayed Democratic in the presidential election, with Clinton beating Trump by five points.

In this field, Polis and Kennedy lean left, and they’re the apparent leaders. Polis was the wild card, the in-your-face self-funder who tends to line up against whatever establishment is available. And yet in this race, he has done his best not to offend anyone who wasn’t Donald Trump. Cary Kennedy was the Democratic star who lost her treasurer’s seat in 2010 to, yes, Republican frontrunner Walker Stapleton, but who seemed to be headed toward running for governor forever. Lynne was the Hickenlooper stand-in, for what that has been worth. Johnston was the ambitious ex-senator who came to prominence as a leader of the ed-reform movement in Colorado (similar to the type of ed reform, he likes to point out, that Barack Obama was into).

It was a race with promise — a lot of smart people who actually have thought through a lot of the issues facing us. But if Democrats were worried that a wide-open primary would lead to chaos, they may have to rethink things. This didn’t turn out to be Bennet-Romanoff, the 2010 U.S. Senate primary from which there are still hard feelings. It became the nuance primary, marked by friendly debates about slightly different solutions to many of the same problems.

In fact, we had a race in which you couldn’t find a defining issue if you employed an army of drones.

And so the Democratic messaging has been all about who really, really didn’t like Trump and then who had the best plan to reform TABOR and who had the best plan for affordable housing and who had the best plan for full-day kindergarten and who could take us closer to universal health care and who could do something about infrastructure and, sure, there were fundamental differences on education, but not so you’d notice if you read the issue papers on the candidates’ websites. There was also Jared Polis’ 2013 quote defending assault weapons, but I’m not sure how much traction that’s getting.

What I mean is, this was the most civil civil war I’ve ever covered.

So, Now What?

No one cleared the field, unaffiliated voters are eligible to vote in primaries and no one knows how that might turn out. And there isn’t a clear Democratic establishment pick. In fact, the establishment — whose membership is not easy to codify — is probably not rooting for the frontrunner. Polis scares many Democrats because the GOP would easily caricature him in November as a Boulder liberal because, well, he is an easily caricatured Boulder liberal. Of course that’s not a bad thing in the Dem primary. And Polis has run ads featuring his endorsement by liberal icon Pat Schroeder.

If you talk to Polis for very long, you’ll notice that he uses the phrase “bold progressive” at least twice in every sentence. This is what he wants you to take from any conversation or stump speech. He may not have endorsed Sanders — and I’m sure now he wished he had — but he will say this: “The candidates in this race might share most of the same basic values, but where I distinguish myself is by being willing to challenge the status quo, to take on the special interests, to not hide behind PACs or dark money. People know I will do this because I have done it … I might be taking on big pharma one day and oil and gas interests the next.”

Polis does have a PAC supporting him now, which is strange for a self-funder. And there are many in the environmental community still upset about his compromise with Hickenlooper in forming a panel on fracking. If you don’t remember, the compromise came in 2014 when Polis was funding two ballot measures for greater local control of fracking, and oil and gas was funding two in opposition. Hickenlooper persuaded both sides to withdraw their ballot measures and replaced them with a panel to bang out a compromise, which we’re still waiting to see. Don’t be surprised to see new fracking measures hit the ballot.

Polis is still a strong advocate for the environment and for anti-fracking laws, but this is just another piece of evidence showing he can have a problem not just with his enemies, but with his friends. Polis is bold and he’s progressive. And he has taken on the status quo, which is one reason why many in the Democratic establishment aren’t exactly fond of him.

Kennedy got the biggest endorsement available in Ken Salazar. You may have heard whispers that Salazar, who has represented big oil in Colorado, is supporting Kennedy as a way to stop Polis. It seems like a roundabout way to do it — couldn’t oil and gas, which strongly opposes Polis, find a more productive way to hurt Polis. But The Intercept has just run an article making the case, so it’s out there, although Salazar friends tell me that he’s supporting Kennedy because he thinks it’s time Colorado had a woman as governor. Kennedy also has support from Emily’s List and the teachers union. And as you may know, Colorado, which was the second state to grant women the vote, has never had a woman as governor or senator.  

Kennedy, who says she’s not running because she’s woman (obviously true) but is hoping that running as a woman might actually be a plus (also obviously true), tells a great story about state’s founding convention in 1876 when one of the big issues was whether to enter the union while giving the women the vote.

“They debated it for weeks,” she said. “They finally decided — and it’s so fun, because history repeats itself so often — as a compromise they would put it on the ballot, let the people decide. So it went on the ballot.

She pauses for effect.

“Of course, only men could vote.”

It failed 70-30 and lost in every county except one. If you can’t guess that county was Boulder, even then, you might need a Colorado history refresher course. A decade later, it went back to the voters and won.

One more note: In primaries so far this year, notes Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman, women have won 59 of 84 races in which there was at least one man, one woman and no incumbent. GOP women had a big night in the most recent set of primaries, winning 5 of 7 races which had at least one man, one woman and no incumbent.

Johnston is running as the version of an appealing centrist Democrat who, history says, is supposed to win these races, but who is still desperately trying to catch up. In the first negative campaign ad of the year, the PAC supporting Kennedy ripped Johnston’s education plan as “conservative.”  Meanwhile, Johnston told me that he sees Polis and Kennedy “running in the same lane,” which is presumably the left lane. Maybe the biggest question in the primary is whether it’s a two-person race or whether Johnston, is actually surging, as he puts it.

Part of his shtick is that Republicans are rooting for Polis and against him.

“I do a lot of conservative talk shows,” he says, “and at the end they always say, ‘Thanks for coming on, really great to have you , but we want you to know we’re really rooting hard for Jared Polis, because we would hate to see you in a general election.”

And another, uh, contrast: “I gave a speech once and somebody asked me I was going to self-finance,” he said. “My wife was in the crowd and she laughed out loud.”

Donna Lynne has a story to tell, too, but you have to wonder who’s listening. No one doubts her ability. In fact, Josh Penry, the GOP strategist, says she’s most qualified candidate since Bill Owens, notably the last Republican to win. Hickenlooper has said much the same. But most experts — and non-experts — doubt that someone who is best known as a former executive for an insurance company is going to win a Democratic primary, particularly in this season.

And to this point — and it’s getting late — she has yet to claim an issue as her own. She told The Colorado Independent’s Corey Hutchins that she wouldn’t reveal her tax returns, which might have become an issue against her if she were ever seen as a true contender.

But, if you do listen to her story, she will tell you that she worked her way through college as a waitress, that she was a single mother for 26 years, that for much of that time she lived in a one-bedroom apartment with two kids.

And while she says being the first woman governor is not what drives her, she does like to tell of this conversation she once had.

“What do you do?”

“I work for a health plan.”

“Oh, are you a nurse?”

“No, I’m in administration.”

“What does that mean”

“OK, I’ll just say it. I’m the president.”

“No, you’re kidding. You’re the president?”

“Well, yes I am.”

Now Lynne wants to say, I’m the governor. It doesn’t seem likely at this point, but the way we’ll know if she’s gaining is if someone bothers to make a negative ad about her.

CODA:

The end game is playing out just the way you’d expect. The race had to go negative if anyone was going to catch Polis, who has spent an astonishing $10.5 million so far in the campaign. Now that Polis is attacking Kennedy for attacking him and Hickenlooper is upset with Polis for using his words to attack Kennedy, don’t be surprised if Kennedy tries something different in the last days — say, hitting Polis for trying to buy the election. It’s hard for me to believe she hasn’t already done it.

A poll came in last week on the Democratic race from Magellan Strategies, a Republican pollster, that confirmed much of the punditry around the race. Let’s just say it didn’t confirm the Hickenlooper-cited poll which had Kennedy leading. In this poll, Polis is in front of Kennedy by 13 points. Johnston and Lynne, meanwhile, are in in single digits.

But maybe the most important number this late into the game is that 39 percent of those polled were undecided. It’s a huge number. It’s double what the pollsters said they expected to find.

There’s only one explanation for that, and it’s the one you can easily guess if you’ve read this far. There’s just so little space between the candidates on the issues. In any case, there is only one issue that really matters for Democrats, even in a governor’s race, and that is Donald Trump. And there is only one way to force that issue, which is to figure out by June 26 which Democrat can win in November.

Photos of Jared Polis, Cary Kennedy and Donna Lynne by Phil Cherner. Photo of Rep. Ed Perlmutter by Corey Hutchins. Photo of state Rep. Joe Salazar by John Herrick. Photo of Ken Salazar by Rob Shenk via American Battlefield Trust and Flickr:Creative Commons

The word of the day from pundit-world seems to be “snookered,” which is being used to describe Donald Trump’s, uh, accomplishments in Singapore, where, to put it nicely, nothing really happened.

But I’d say snookered is the wrong word.

Trump didn’t care what kind of agreement or faux-agreement he got with his “very talented” friend, Kim Jung Un, with whom he now has an “excellent relationship.” Trump just wanted to show that he could pull off something that Obama didn’t while basking in the glow of nonstop TV news coverage.

And whatever Trump didn’t say about human rights or didn’t say about verifying denuclearization or didn’t say about what denuclearization even means, it was all overwhelmed by a handshake, by pomp, by circumstance, by the world’s first-ever denuclearization condo video and, not least, by a Trump fat joke.

Meanwhile, showing some diplomatic skills missing from the G-7 meeting, neither Trump nor any of his advisers suggested that Kim deserved a special place in hell, which is apparently reserved for desperately-in-need-of-warmth Canadians. Trump also didn’t call Kim a “low-IQ individual,” a description he saved for Robert De Niro.

Democrats and pundits predictably jumped on Trump for allowing the despotic Kim to take the world stage as an equal with the president of the United States and for signing a faux agreement that makes a joke of Trump having rejected the Iran agreement, which actually does set back the Iranian nuclear program.

But I’ll let Cory Gardner speak here, via Colorado Public Radio. Gardner, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee and chair of the subcommittee on East Asia, often tells us of the advice he offers Trump in this area. 

Gardner calls it a “very thin agreement” and says that some Trump statements, especially about the war-game training exercises with South Korea, “need to be clarified.” Gardner adds that the human rights component must be addressed, noting, “There’s still 200,000 men and women in political gulags in North Korea. This should be a part of these conversations. North Korea will never be be welcomed, nor should they ever be welcomed into the (global community) as long as they fail to treat their people with the dignity and respect that international law requires.”

Later, Gardner said he had his clarification, tweeting that Pence told GOP senators that the “training exchanges will continue.” Except that a Pence spokesperson said that such reports are “false.” NBC later got a clarification saying that there will be routine training, but that there’s a “huge difference” between that and war games, leading Gardner to — you guessed it —  bravely switch to backpedal mode. It seems Pence did say, in fact, there wouldn’t be any more war games with South Korea, leaving Gardner at a loss for more tweets.

Sure, Trump might have given something away for nothing in order to get a worthless piece of paper,  but I have different take on the summit.

I’m glad Trump went. I figured Trump would praise Kim as he regularly praises autocrats, even, in this case, among the most vicious of them. I knew he would claim success regardless of what happened and that it was in Kim’s interest to do exactly the same. I wasn’t surprised that he had failed to inform South Korea about the war games. It’s what he does.

But I’d much rather Trump absurdly praised Kim in a face-to-face meeting than go back to his Little Rocket Man tweet-taunt days. I’m glad this means that Trump probably won’t attack North Korea in the coming days, weeks, maybe even months. I’d much rather have Trump and Kim saying they’ve moved toward agreement — whether they are or not — because,  in the short term anyway, that suggests we’re safer now than we were before the meeting. If Trump is trapped by his own desire for success, I’m all for him laying all the traps he can.

And in case you have any misunderstanding of what happened in Singapore, Trump made it clear enough in his post-meeting news conference. And this once, you can believe him.

Asked what he’d do if it turns out that Kim has snookered him, Trump said, “I may stand before you in six months and say, ‘Hey, I was wrong.’ I don’t know that I’ll ever admit that, but I’ll find some kind of an excuse.”

Oh, he will. Let’s just hope that it’s not attached to a missile.

 

Photo of US show of force in response to a 2017 North Korea missile launch by Robert Sullivan, via Flickr: Creative Commons