As a sprawling field of Republicans laid the groundwork and filed official paperwork for a potential run for governor in 2018, a man with a big-name family connection made his own bid official.
No, it wasn’t George Bush cousin Walker Stapleton— he came later— but Mitt Romney’s nephew, Doug Robinson. In a field that sports a crop of current and former officeholders, Robinson pitches himself as the non-politician businessman.
“I am an outsider,” he says. “I’ve been involved in the party but I have not held elected office. I’m a businessman who cares about kids and cares about our future and I’ve seen problems and I’ve stepped up to solve them.”
Because of his background in raising money for technology companies as an investment banker and starting nonprofits, he believes there’s more the state can do to “be a leader in the tech sector.”
Mitt Romney is supporting him, he says, and he expects the 2012 GOP presidential nominee would be willing to campaign with him in Colorado. “I’m not running as Mitt Romney’s nephew,” he says. “I’m running as my own person.”
Colorado has only elected one Republican governor since John Arthur Love left office for the Nixon administration in 1973, and that was Bill Owens, who served from 1999 to 2007. (When Love left, his Republican lieutenant governor filled out the last two years of his term, leaving office in January 1975. So another way of putting it is that Colorado has only had one Republican governor in the last 41 years.)
In the Trump era, Robinson is seeing whether there can be an opening for a non-politician businessman who could break through.
What’s his background?
A Michigan-born retired businessman who helped start a Denver corporate finance firm called St. Charles Capital, Robinson, who is 55, moved to Colorado from New York two decades ago. Last year, he said he considered running in the Great Elephant Stampede of the U.S. Senate primary last year but ultimately decided against it.
He has never held elected office before but sees public service as a calling, he says, after watching his grandfather George Romney, who rose from poverty to become a three-term governor of Michigan.
“That has informed that kind of feeling that I have,” Robinson told The Colorado Independent. “You make a success of yourself in the world, your kids are old enough that they’re not influenced by the craziness of politics, and if you have an opportunity you try and give back. So that’s where my motivation comes from.” If he wanted to make a career out of politics, he says, he would run for a more local office. “I am interested in getting in and solving problems and making a difference,” he says. “And governor is the position in Colorado where you can make the biggest difference in Colorado in terms of the direction of our state.”
Robinson retired in 2017 so he could run for governor full time. He is married and has five children.
Then there’s the Romney thing.
Because of his first-timer political status, Robinson often has to introduce himself to the state’s Republican faithful. But he understands if they might already know one thing about him.
“Most of you simply know me — because this is the way the media has covered me — as Mitt Romney’s nephew,” he told a Fort Lupton Republican crowd in mid-November to knowing chuckles. But Robinson used the opportunity to set himself apart from the former Republican presidential nominee in a personal way. “I love and respect my uncle a great deal. I lived a different life than him,” he said. “You see, when I was a teenager my father left our family. My mother, either out of embarrassment or shame, didn’t share the extent of our circumstances with others. So I went to work and I worked my way through college — often put groceries on the table — made a success of myself through my own hard work and my life, and that gave me a profound respect for the underdog, an ability to innovate, to take risks, to take chances.”
Two months after he announced, Robinson had a joke about the relationship. He said he noticed in press reports his qualifier had changed from “Mitt Romney’s nephew, comma, Doug Robinson, to Doug Robinson, comma, Mitt Romney’s nephew. So that’s a little bit of progress.”
What are some of his campaign themes?
Along the campaign trail, Robinson often talks about economic prosperity, solving Colorado’s infrastructure woes without raising taxes, and improving education. If he gets through the primary, he says he looks forward to a conversation about the role of government in American society. “Do we want a bigger government?” he asks. “Do we want Colorado to look more like California? If I’m the nominee that will be a lot of the conversation.”
Robinson pitches himself as a businessman who led the largest focus area of his investment firm, which involved technology companies, and he says his background in the area positions him to better help shape the state’s future. He believes the United States is somewhere near the halfway point of a new industrial revolution, and Colorado needs a “business plan” for it. “My unique skill and perspective,” he says, “is around, ‘How do we get ready for these jobs of the future— the artificial intelligence, the robotics, the autonomous vehicles, bioscience, virtual reality that is going to change fundamentally the way all of our industries function?”
To get there he says he would create a cohesive plan between government, industry, and education. On education, he is a strong supporter of charter schools and diverting public money to private schools. He would consider changing licensing requirements for teachers, he says, noting that he has taught at the University of Denver but wouldn’t be able to teach in a public K-12 school.
Robinson also believes Colorado has a drug problem. Heroin and opioids for sure— but also marijuana.
He helped form SMART Colorado, which calls itself “the only non-profit organization focused on protecting the health, safety, and well-being of Colorado youth as marijuana becomes increasingly available and commercialized,” said as governor he would require a medical marijuana card recipient to obtain one only through his or her existing doctor rather than a “pot doctor.” And while Robinson applauds Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper’s approach to implementing legal weed, he would like to see more tax revenue collected from the industry. He said he would “take a hard look” at high-potency pot and the “range of products” that are on the market. He takes credit for SMART lobbying the state legislature to allocate more money to law enforcement to go after black-market drug dealing and urging Hickenlooper to sign a bill reducing the individual pot plant county from 99 to 12.
Robinson also does not believe the “vast majority” of Coloradans with medical marijuana cards actually need them, but rather are just using them to pay fewer taxes on medicinal pot to get high. Instead of raising the taxes on medical marijuana, he would scrutinize how patience get so-called red cards in Colorado.
On healthcare, Robinson is a fan of health savings accounts and incentives for healthy living. He would want to see about raising Medicaid copays for able-bodied adults without kids and perhaps charging them a monthly premium.
“Give it to Colorado, give it to the other states, and we’ll figure it out if the federal government can’t,” he says of his health care philosophy.
Where does Robinson fit along the Republican Party spectrum in Colorado?
As a first-time candidate for public office, Robinson does not have a voting record on which to gauge where he might fit along the spectrum of Republican politics. He pitches himself as less ideological and more pragmatic.
“I’m a conservative, but I’m a practical, independent thinker,” he said in an interview. He’s pro-life, he says, but says he would not try to change anything on the abortion front in Colorado as governor because it’s more of a federal issue. “I’m socially conservative, but my focus is on the opportunities and challenges [in] economic growth and education [and] transportation.”
An area that might offer another clue when in July he told The Colorado Independent if he was governor he would have signed a compromise bill to reclassify a nearly billion-dollar hospital program to stave off crushing blows to rural hospitals by taking it out from under the limits set by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights 1992 Constitutional amendment, which requires voters to agree to raise taxes, and limits state spending. Conservative TABOR hardliners in Colorado have savaged Republicans who supported the move.
Robinson can tap into the Romney donor and political network as well as Colorado’s conservative Mormon community. He raised close to $100,000 with days of announcing his candidacy, and he posted the largest fundraising haul in the Republican field that had settled by July.
Robinson voted for President Donald Trump in the general election— he says Trump wasn’t his first choice in the primary— and said he believes the press beats up on Trump too much. Robinson says he has been impressed with Trump’s ability to get a Coloradan elected to the U.S. Supreme Court, and by those Trump picked to lead his cabinet. “I think it showed a businessman, an outsider, can come in and be effective in government,” Robinson says.
A Super PAC called Build Colorado’s Future is backing Robinson, which can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money.
Where is he drawing his financial support?
Grant Whiteside, a former managing director at Lehman Brothers and the CEO of Littleton’s Aurora Loan Services, who is also a Republican donor in Colorado after moving here from New York in 2006, formed a Super PAC-style group to support Robinson called Build Colorado’s Future. One of the largest donors to the committee is Robinson’s uncle, Mitt Romney who gave $25,000.
As of January 2018, about three-quarters of all campaign contributions to Robinson came from people inside Colorado.
The largest amount donated by people employed by the same company was $9,200 from employees of Nexgen Resources and their spouses. The top employer in terms of the number of donors was Robinson’s most recent employer, KPMG. Thirteen donors from KPMG gave a total of $4,200. The third highest employer in both measures was Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell LLP, a large civil-litigation law firm based in Denver. Five employees and two of their spouses gave a combined $4,800 to Robinson’s campaign.
Mitt Romney, Romney’s wife, four of their five sons, two daughters-in-law and Mitt Romney’s former sister-in-law donated a combined $9,700 to Robinson’s campaign committee, or 2.69 percent of the total as of January.
How might the new primary system voters just passed affect a Robinson candidacy?
No one knows yet, but it could benefit a candidate who does not come from the far right wing of the party more than one who does.
Because voters approved ballot measure Prop 108 on Nov. 8, Colorado’s next governor’s race will be the first year unaffiliated voters will be allowed to have a say in whom the Republican Party nominates for governor. Republicans will still caucus for their candidates at precincts around the state — and unaffiliated voters cannot participate in those — but once candidates land on the primary ballot, either by coming out of caucuses or petitioning on, unaffiliated voters could be allowed to vote, unless a lawsuit derails the law. If the law stands, it would mean that in the 2018 governor’s race, mailed ballots will be sent to unaffiliated voters with the names of Democratic and Republican primary candidates.
Voters can choose one party or the other to participate in. One aim of Prop 108 was to water down the voting power of the activist base in each party by broadening the electorate. Proponents of the measure saw it as a way to reduce the chances of Colorado nominating extreme candidates on either side.
Crystal Eilerman contributed campaign finance research for this story.