Top campaign story of the year? Ken Buck’s implosion

Politics took on surreal tones in Colorado this year, with relative unknowns elected to major offices while other candidates rose from the ranks of the unknown only to fall back to near anonymity.

Earlier this week, we published part one of our top campaign stories. Today, we roll out out top two, the order of which could easily be switched.

2) The Curious Case of the Governor’s Race

Where to begin? Long before anyone had even heard of eventual Republican nominee Dan Maes, GOP golden boy State Senator Josh Penry announced he would not seek the nomination. Basically, he said he couldn’t afford to campaign full-time for two years without a real job to pay his bills. (That was, of course, long before the aforementioned Maes taught bootstrapping Colorado pols a lesson on how to make campaigning your job–but more about that later.)

Some thought Penry was pushed from the race, told to stand down and wait his turn so that former Congressman Scott McInnis could run without a pesky primary. Only a few people know for sure, and they aren’t talking.

That brings us to January, when Governor Bill Ritter announced he would not run for a second term. Ritter said he wanted to spend more time with his family, which was probably true. What was definitely true was that a lot of insiders on both sides of the aisle thought Ritter’s odds of keeping the statehouse were 50-50 at best. Democrats were rubbing their hands together at the thought of John Hickenlooper getting in to the race, while Republicans, of course, said it didn’t matter what Democrat ran because the race was going to be about jobs, the economy, the state budget and oil and gas regulations.

That’s what they had to say, of course.

The truth was it mattered a lot. Hickenlooper, while a seasoned politician, was also a fresh face. A successful mayor and a successful businessman, he may have won the race even had his opponents not lined up one by one to fall on their swords. Fall, they did, though.

Most spectacular fall has to go to McInnis. When the Hasan Family Foundation hired him to write a series of water papers and make a few talks on the subject, it probably had no idea McInnis would bring the foundation this much fame.

The Colorado Independent was the first to report that McInnis accepted $300,000 to write the water papers. That was a good enough story all by itself. It’s a great story on so many levels, but… wait, there’s more. As it turns out, McInnis only kind of sort of wrote the water papers. He borrowed heavily from papers already written by now-Colorado Supreme Court Justice Gregory Hobbs.

McInnis may have survived that, but when he blamed his plagiarism on an elderly researcher with many influential friends in the state, voters had had enough and did the only thing they could do–they handed the Republican gubernatorial nomination to Evergreen newcomer Dan Maes.

Maes, of course, had his own problems, as The Independent was the first to report on discrepancies in his resume. That wasn’t the end of it, of course. Maes seemed somewhat challenged by the state’s campaign finance laws. While paying himself and family members tens of thousands of dollars in expense reimbursements and paying his daughter a salary to work on the campaign may have not been strictly illegal, it certainly raised eyebrows.

Even more curious was how the campaign claimed (in official campaign filings) to have refunded longtime Republican activist Freda Poundstone $300 (which she told The Independent she never received) while never reporting that money as having been received in the first place. Maes, “The Evergreen Businessman” did not do a very good job of managing the business of the campaign.

Still, he will always have “Republican nominee for governor” on his resume going forward. He came from literally nowhere to win the nomination, and he did it the old fashioned way–by driving from one side of the state to the other over and over again and speaking virtually anyplace he could land a gig. If you want to talk about guerrilla marketing or shoe-leather politics, he’s your guy.

And, to think, we haven’t even mentioned Tom Tancredo yet. To make a long story a little shorter, Tancredo licked his finger and stuck it in the air, and came to the conclusion that neither Maes nor McInnis had a chance at beating Hickenlooper, so he told them to get out of the race or else.

Or else came to pass and Tancredo dropped his longtime affiliation with the Republican Party faster than Sarah Palin can point to Russia and joined the American Constitution Party, convinced the man the ACP had already nominated for governor to drop out and became the ACP nominee.

He quickly raised more money than Maes had raised in years of trying, quickly passed Maes in the polls and put himself in position where some polls were calling the race a dead heat. Those polls were wrong and Tancredo lost badly. It’s possible he also cost Ken Buck the election by demonizing Hispanics, who turned out en masse to make sure Tancredo would not be Colorado’s next governor.

1) The Rise and Fall of Ken Buck

What began as a quixotic quest for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate by a little-known Weld County district attorney against heavily favored establishment-favorite Jane Norton ended with Buck snatching defeat from the jaws of victory with one misstep after another.

While he had certainly put his foot in his mouth before, the beginning of the end came when The Colorado Independent reported on the rape case that would not go away.

That story was picked up by hundreds of media outlets around the world and had the effect of shining a bright light on a campaign that practically self-destructed on cue. In short order, Buck opined that homosexuality was a choice that might well be compared with alcoholism. He then attended a fundraiser with one of the world’s leading climate change deniers. Then footage of an earlier event started making the rounds–showing Buck saying he didn’t believe in separation of church and state and claiming falsely that President Obama was referring to the White House Christmas tree as a holiday tree.

As if the Senate race hadn’t already been flooded with outside money, liberal groups saw a faltering front-runner and began pouring even more money into the race.

When it was over, it still wasn’t over. Votes were misreported by local TV stations, showing Buck winning in places where that just wasn’t possible. Finally, in the middle of the night, Senator Michael Bennet’s spokesperson told a few weary reporters that Bennet was going to win it. It took until the next afternoon for Buck to concede.

When it was all over, Buck and his friends blamed a liberal smear campaign but people who actually think about such things for a living pointed out that had Buck done just a little better among either woman or Hispanics he would have won.

Scot Kersgaard has been managing editor of a political newspaper, editor and co-owner of a ski town newspaper, executive editor of eight high-tech magazines (where he worked with current Apple CEO Tim Cook), deputy press secretary to a U.S. Senator, and an outdoors columnist at the Rocky Mountain News. He has an English degree from the University of Washington. He was awarded a fellowship to study internet journalism at the University of Maryland's Knight Center for Specialized Journalism. He was student body president in college. He spends his free time hiking and skiing.

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