[dropcap]T[/dropcap]HE Colorado Republican party’s nightmare is coming true. Tom Tancredo, unfazed by the three so far ineffectual candidates running against him, is speeding toward victory in the GOP primary race for governor.
Tancredo is a controversial national figure known mostly for his fiery, unswerving position on illegal immigration — which he sees as a plague that officeholders on every level of government must address as a top priority. Tancredo is an avuncular character with a hard edge. He is in the moment on the stump and in intreviews, quick with a joke, ready to spin out stories and asides that genuinely entertain his audiences. He routinely mocks political correctness. And he also continues to deeply offend members of the booming Latino demographic Republicans have acknowledged they must try to win over in Colorado and around the nation if they are to turn around their flagging political fortunes.
“I really like to keep a low profile,” he joked in a nearly hour-long March interview with Jimmy Sengenberger, a host on Denver’s conservative Velocity Radio. “I feel like this race, there’s an aura about it. We all have to get on our yoga mats and think good thoughts about the campaign.”
It was a typical Tancredo performance. He talked easily about Obamacare (the only way left to attack it is through the courts) and education reform (more charter schools and tax-funded school vouchers in a system remade to emphasize American exceptionalism and the U.S. Constitution).
But he was most animated when discussing immigration.
“I would immediately act to adopt mandatory E-Verify,” he said, referring to the electronic background-check system employers can use to verify employees citizenship and right-to-work status, a system critics say is unreliable and easy to game.
“Of course, Democrats oppose that because, as we know, they see these illegal aliens as potential voters, but Republicans too will oppose it because you’ve got so many monied interests who want to maintain a workforce of people who are here illegally and who are exploitable as a result. I would pursue that as vigorously as possible.”
At one point, Sengenberger wanted to ask another question.
Tancredo wasn’t done. He wanted to speak a little more about two high-profile cases in Colorado over the last decade where undocumented intoxicated drivers killed pedestrians on the roadways.
“Let me just… let me add this one thing, Jimmy: If you don’t do everything that you can do, if you don’t even follow the laws that are on the books, let alone the addition of something like an E-Verify mandate, if you don’t report someone to [Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials] who you have arrested and [who appears to be undocumented] and then ICE doesn’t do its job – then when something like this happens you public official, you who made the decisions not to enforce the law, you are culpable. You are partially responsible for the deaths — of this gentlemen and this little boy – and for the rapes, the robberies, the mayhem conducted by other people who are here illegally.”
It was a speech he might have given ten years ago. It was almost identical to speeches he gave in backyards in towns like Loveland and Castle Rock when he ran for governor in 2010. It’s the speech that fills his conservative-politics supporters with passion and his Republican Party detractors with dread.
In 2004, the Latino voter population in Colorado was 4 percent. In 2008, it had climbed to 13 percent. In 2014, it hit 14 percent.
Tancredo is running in an historic four-man Republican primary, against former Congressman Bob Beauprez, Secretary of State Scott Gessler and former state Senator Mike Kopp. According to recent polls, Tancredo is solidly out front. He told the Colorado Statesman this month that internal campaign polling has him ahead of his closest rival by 15 points, a figure the Gessler campaign conceded matched its polling.
“This field benefits Tancredo,” former Colorado Republican Party Chairman Dick Wadhams told reporter Sandra Fish. “The odds are that he wins a four-way primary… and if Tancredo is the nominee, [Republicans] up and down the ticket will go down in November. There’s much at stake here.”
Tancredo is his own political brand. In an era when political parties do less perhaps than ever before for candidates — where issue committees and super PACs control most of the spending and much of the messaging — Tancredo has no fear of the party machinery. He flouted the state Republican Party in 2010 and ran for governor as the American Constitution Party candidate. He lost to Democrat John Hickenlooper, but outpaced the Republican nominee, Tea Party political newcomer Dan Maes, by 25 points. Tancredo also won a five-way primary in 1998 to land his first term in Congress. And since 2004, Tancredo has been raising money for two political action committees — Team America PAC and the American Legacy Alliance. He has raised more than $715,000, $250,000 more than any of his primary opponents. He knows who to call for cash down the stretch.
The former Congressman has also adopted an old-school front-runner campaign strategy that seems to be paying off in spades. Citing the so-called Reagan Rule, he has championed a no-attack primary, arguing that battling among Republicans only provides Democrats with fodder. The primary is June 24. Mail-in voting begins in a week. Yet, Tancredo hasn’t attended a single debate and so far his opponents have failed to hit him with anything stronger than a feather.
Indeed, Colorado State University Professor of political science Kyle Saunders said the race at this stage is characterized by its lack of clarity.
“What are their [policy] positions? There’s got to be some nuance in there somewhere, but so far they haven’t distinguished themselves one from another very much.” Saunders suggested the challenge to Tancredo will come if one of his rivals can pull well ahead of the other two candidates and make it a two-person race.
Right now, Saunders said, Beauprez and Tancredo are running largely on name recognition. He thinks that strategy will change “once we get closer to primary election day and the muck starts flying and they all start playing ‘harder hardball.’”
But Colorado College emeritus political science professor Bob Loevy sees little chance a real fight will develop. He says there’s a reason why Tancredo’s “Reagan Rule” strategy seems to be working so well.
“This is a primary that doesn’t matter,” he said. “None of these candidates can seriously challenge Hickenlooper, a fairly popular incumbent. So Tancredo is taking a page out of an old strategy book. Why show up with his rivals for debates? Why would he lend his popularity, his ability to turn out a crowd to candidates who can’t turn out a crowd? He won’t do that. And they won’t level any serious attacks against him because what’s the end game? It’s a hopeless case. None of them can win.”
Loevy said the answer to why the race still seems muddy and tepid might best be answered by asking a different question.
“Turn it around,” he said. “It’s not ‘Why aren’t these men trying to win?’ It’s ‘Why are people who know they don’t have the qualifications to win a general election running?’ These are men in politics, so they’re all looking to build their reputations in order to win future nominations. What’s the advantage to being the attack candidate in this primary? It’s the opposite of an advantage. If they had any chance of actually winning the general election, you’d see all kinds of attacks on Tancredo flying around already. He’s obviously got a long and colorful history to dig into.”
Zero in Broomfield
In 2010, Wadhams as Republican party chair tried desperately to broker a deal between Maes and Tancredo. Tancredo said he would step down if the party nominated someone with experience that could win against Hickenlooper. Maes would have none of it, even as his candidacy started to unwind in amateur gaffes and revelations of resume exaggerations. It was clear the vote on the right was going to split and that “Lucky John” Hickenlooper was going to walk away with an office he would have had to try very hard to lose. The “backroom” negotiations turned off grassroots voters and Republicans endured a humiliating loss.
Tancredo told the Denver Post that he has been asked by party establishment figures to step back from the race. He said he plans to do no such thing. There are also no signs so far that the other three candidates will make a deal, where two of them drop out and one of them is left to rally the Republican Party faithful. The conservative Colorado Springs Gazette published an editorial Monday encouraging such an arrangement. But the time for that has passed. The voter ballots for the race are printed and already about to launch to overseas voters.
Still, the reasoning behind the proposal is valid. On the right, it’s among Republican Party activists that Tancredo seems weakest.
In the party’s unofficial March caucus straw polls, Tancredo came in a distant third in the governor’s race. Gessler topped lists with 31 percent of the vote, Beauprez notched 23 percent and Tancredo won 16 percent.
In key Denver-exurban swing-county Broomfield, Tancredo received no votes at all. Caucus attendees booed when his candidacy was introduced. No one got up to speak for him. They voters in Broomfield reflected a feeling shared across the state that Tancredo, with his history of inflammatory rhetoric, will not be able to win over crucial unaffiliated voters — the suburban moms that traditionally decide Colorado elections.
Anything can happen
But in recent campaign appearances, true to form, Tancredo hasn’t shied away from explosive immigration talk. “One thing I’m radical about is the idea that if you come this country as an immigrant, by God, become an American,” he told the Royal Gorge Tea Party two weeks ago. “And if you want to keep your own language, stay where you are. If you come here, I want to you to speak English.”
That Tancredo is as hellbent and indelicate on immigration as he has ever been will come as no surprise to anyone who has been following his campaign this year.
“I’m not going to back down on immigration issues in order to not scare off Latino voters,” he told Sengenberger. “I know what motivates me and I can’t turn a blind eye to things because it’s not politically correct. It’s never been my modus operandi and I’m never going to change.”
Tancredo added that he’s unafraid of general election attacks. He said he expects the worst, pointing out that Democrats and progressive outside groups are already launching intense, well-funded attacks against Republicans in the state.
“Any one of us are going to have a tough time,” he said. “Look at what they’re doing to [GOP U.S. Senate candidate] Cory Gardner. He’s never been as controversial as I have been, but it’s just the beginning of what they’re going to do to him. That will be what any of us will face.
“Now, which of us can withstand it?” he added. “Do you think that when people call me a one-issue candidate or all the other things that indeed they have called me over the years, that this will be new to me?”
Tancredo said that at one point during the anti-gun control recall elections last summer, which energized Republicans across the state, he saw polling that had him running about equal in popularity with Hickenlooper. Pueblo is a heavily Democratic city.
“Look at what happened in Pueblo,” he said. “A Democratic state senator was recalled and a Republican elected in her place. No one thought that could happen. And I was tied in polling with Hickenlooper. Tied with Hickenlooper in Pueblo. That’s like being tied with Obama in Chicago.
“So why not? Anything can happen.”