The race to be Colorado’s next governor began when Bob Beauprez won the Republican primary in June. The former congressman was considered the moderate alternative to another former congressman, anti-immigration reform warrior Tom Tancredo, and the party’s only chance of taking out incumbent Gov. John Hickenlooper.
The fact that Beauprez, who lost his last bid for governor in 2006 by 17 points, has run neck-and-neck with Hickenlooper for much of the election perhaps says more about Hickenlooper than Beauprez.
When Beauprez entered the race, Hickenlooper was at the center of a political hurricane. Anti-fracking initiatives backed by Boulder Democratic Congressman Jared Polis were making a beeline for the ballot, with corresponding “pro-fracking” initiatives in the works as well. The political goodwill Hickenlooper had carefully built with Republicans for years had been thoroughly discharged the previous year, largely over the passage of gun-control legislation. The state was gearing up for a major money battle over who fracks where, and by mid-summer Hickenlooper was on thin, melting ice.
In July, Hickenlooper announced his official opposition to the anti-fracking initiatives, which Beauprez had already panned, and promised to work with industry-sponsored groups to keep the measures from passing. Hickenlooper’s alignment with the industry infuriated the left to such a degree that while Citizens United produced an entire film critiquing Hickenlooper from the right, folks concerned about fracking produced their own documentary critiquing the governor from the left.
By the time the man in the middle forged a compromise in early August that got all the fracking initiatives pulled from the ballots, he was running within a point of Beauprez. The race has more or less polled as a dead heat ever since. Then, Hickenlooper was caught on tape giving a clumsy, expletive-ridden apology to the sheriffs who are suing the state over the 2013 gun-control laws he signed, and it seemed the winningest politician in Colorado had lost his mojo.
When Hickenlooper selected the state’s new poet laureate last summer, he said he picked the writer, Joseph Hutchison, for traits he valued in politics and life — inclusiveness and optimism. Hickenlooper held fast to his maxim that negative ads don’t contribute to campaigns, but leaving the attacks up to outsiders meant that much of Beauprez’s highly conservative record went undiscussed. The fact that Beauprez once postulated that citizens would line up like sheep to get microchips implanted in their brains, that President Barack Obama should be impeached, that maybe the secession of northern Colorado was a good idea or that Sharia law is creeping into the state and the nation never became major features of the campaign.
Indeed, the Beauprez campaign even appeared to weather gaffes better than Hickenlooper’s. In July, The Denver Post released a 2010 clip of Beauprez lamenting that “47 percent of all Americans pay no federal income tax. … What that tells me is that we’ve got almost half the population perfectly happy that somebody else is paying the bill.” The Post and just about everyone else in Colorado media blinked at the clip, noting its similarities to disastrous comments by Mitt Romney during his 2012 presidential bid.
Despite the bad headlines, Beauprez’s numbers held strong, though he became noticeably less available to the media. Beauprez held fast to his message, which focused on partisan federal issues that could link Hickenlooper to Obama and the economy and hit Hickenlooper on public safety.
In debate, Beauprez strove not just to cement the term “Obamalooper” but also to connect the early campaign’s focus on Hickenlooper’s lack of leadership on public safety. In particular, Beauprez critiqued Hickenlooper’s decision to grant quadruple murderer Nathan Dunlap an indefinite reprieve instead of setting an execution date or granting Dunlap clemency. Beauprez argued that if elected, he would make the decision Hickenlooper had forgone and set an execution date.
In August, Hickenlooper officially came out in opposition to the death penalty, arguing that it was costly and an ineffective deterrent to crime. He later told CNN that he would consider granting clemency to Dunlap if Beauprez won.
The Republican Governors Association, whose chairman Chris Christie of New Jersey has campaigned hard for Beauprez, jumped on Hickenlooper’s clemency suggestion, accusing him of holding justice hostage and being a coward. By the last few weeks of September, Hickenlooper was underwater in the polls.
Outside ads weren’t always as helpful to Beauprez. As October began, the College Republican National Committee launched a Beauprez ad that likened women voters, a key demographic in all Colorado races, to wedding-dress shoppers on a reality-TV show. The spot featured a young woman associating Hickenlooper and Beauprez with wedding dresses and mispronouncing her chosen candidate/dress’ name as the “Boo-pray.”
In debate and in his own ads, Beauprez kept the tone serious, even dark, determined to look like the grownup and paint Hickenlooper’s optimism as frivolity.
Beauprez doubled down on the public-safety issue, insinuating that Hickenlooper was soft on crime and at fault for the murder of Director of Corrections Tom Clements by a parolee released directly from solitary confinement onto the streets. But when the Beauprez campaign released an ad on the topic called “Neighborhood,” Clements’ widow, Lisa Clements, sent an open letter to Beauprez asking him to stop exploiting “our family’s tragic loss for your personal and political gain.”
The Post called the ad “disgraceful” and an example of gutter politics. Hickenlooper noted that Clements was a close personal friend and called Beauprez’s campaign references to his death reprehensible.
Then the RGA leapt back into the fray with a rehash of the Dunlap attack in an ad that claimed Hickenlooper would set Dunlap free if not re-elected. The media and the Hickenlooper campaign called out the ad as inaccurate, saying that full clemency would result in Dunlap’s spending the rest of his life in prison.
But worse for the Beauprez campaign, another family member — in this case a victim’s cousin — wrote a second open letter also asking the campaign not to use their loss in an attack and adding that “to perpetuate this lie that he (Dunlap) will be set free is outrageous.”