Two Bad Years: Owens’ Political Legacy

Being the main figure of an entire political party is a lot like being the quarterback of a football team: When you win, the quarterback gets too much of the credit, and when you lose, the quarterback gets too much of the blame.

As Gov. Bill Owens plays out his final days as Colorado’s CEO, the media has been doing a good job of running retrospectives on his eight years in office. Historians, both amateur and professional, will debate what kind of governor Owens has been for years to come, but for Republicans, the man who has held elected office for 24 years may forever be known for what happened in his final 24 months. Four years ago it looked as though Owens would be transitioning from governor to Presidential candidate when his term ended in January 2007. The National Review called him “America’s Best Governor” in 2002, just two months before he would easily win re-election by defeating Democrat Rollie Heath. Owens was popular, he was beloved by Republicans both in Colorado and throughout the country, and he directed a state where both chambers of the legislature, both U.S. Senators and five out of seven congressional seats belonged to the GOP.

Four years later, Owens is not even considered when the subject of Presidential contenders is discussed, and a decimated Republican Party in Colorado has lost the legislature, holds only three congressional seats and is in real danger of losing its one remaining U.S. Senate seat in 2008. As Owens departs from the governor’s mansion next month, he says he plans on going into business in the private sector, which is a far cry from what many observers thought he’d be doing when his second term ran out. The Republican Party he was once poised to lead nationwide is no longer particularly thrilled with him even in his own state. So what happened?

The First Signs of Trouble

The first major blow for Owens occurred in mid-2003, when rumors of trouble between he and his wife, Frances, culminated in the announcement that the couple were separating after 28 years of marriage (they got back together in spring 2005). Rumors of infidelity preceded their split, and although none were ever verified, the political damage was significant for a Republican who was now damaged goods in the eyes of many social conservatives and the “religious right.”

The following year, Owens decided not to run for the U.S. Senate when Republican Sen. Ben “Nighthorse” Campbell abruptly announced his retirement. Instead, Owens threw his support behind former congressman Bob Schaffer…only to later withdraw his support in favor of beer magnate Pete Coors. Schaffer went on to trounce Coors at the Republican State Convention in June 2004, winning 61 percent of the vote as party diehards sent a clear message that Owens backed the wrong horse. Coors went on to win the August primary but lost in the general election to Democrat Ken Salazar, and many conservative Republicans lamented that Schaffer would have been a more inspired candidate than the lackluster Coors proved to be. Schaffer’s conservative credentials have made him a popular figure among that wing of the GOP, and Owens’ flip-flop of an endorsement forever angered those who were loyal to Schaffer. All

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