Now that Jared Polis, the well-known political disrupter, has officially shaken up the Democratic race for governor, at least one thing is clear: No one has any idea how it will turn out.
It’s just that kind of year. Believe me.
It’s as if the Colorado Democratic Party had decided to throw nearly its entire bench into one race. And if you haven’t heard, the rumor is that the bench may go deeper and wider still. It should be the wildest Democratic primary race in memory, if not in history. And the Republican race may turn out to be nearly as crazed.
It’s definitely that kind of year. If there’s one lesson to be drawn from the Trump election — I mean other than you-don’t-want-Melissa-McCarthy-playing-you-in-the-SNL-skit lesson — it’s that there are no longer any certainties.
The Dems are now at four legitimate high-powered candidates, two of them congresspeople. And I’m hearing that John Hickenlooper is pushing Donna Lynne, his lieutenant governor, whose lack of political ambition was supposed to be her most significant credential, to consider entering the race to succeed him as if he couldn’t find anyone else to support.
There are obvious reasons for the deep field, starting with the expectation of an anti-Trump wave. But what I’m guessing is mostly at work here is the principle that the political world, like the natural world, abhors a vacuum. And Ken Salazar’s decison not to run for governor in the same year in which Hickenlooper is term-limited left a gigantic void to fill. And you see the results.
Still, I would never have predicted that Polis, who you may have heard is a Boulder liberal, had any chance to win a top-of-the-ballot statewide race in Colorado. That, of course, was before the political world turned upside down. In a normal year, Democrats might be shocked that Polis would enter a race against his friend and colleague Perlmutter. It breaks about a dozen unwritten rules. But if there’s any year set for a candidate willing to roil the established order, it is 2018, the first post-Trump, post-Bernie election cycle.
And as you may have heard, Polis is not only a liberal with an activist background, but he also brings his own money to the table. He has spent deeply and widely in his political career —hell, he once spent $1 million to win a seat on the not-exactly-prestigious state Board of Education — and it’s fair to guess he’ll throw a small fortune at this race.
And so Democrats have Ed Perlmutter and Jared Polis, Cary Kennedy and Mike Johnston. Maybe Lynne. Definitely businessman Noel Ginsburg, who may have picked the wrong year to run as a Democratic moderate. There’s much overlap on the issues among the candidates — say, Polis and Johnston on education reform — and most of the differences will be at the margins. But this is a race someone could win with, say, 28 percent of the vote, which means the unlikely becomes ever more likely.
But what Polis does guarantee is that fracking, and all oil and gas issues, will be front and center in the race. What’s not guaranteed is how that plays in a gubernatorial race.
In Colorado Democratic politics, moderates generally rule. Think Hickenlooper, Bennet, Salazar, latter-day Udall for starters. But these days, Democrats everywhere are being pushed to the populist left. That’s the ground Polis wants to claim, but it’s not as if he has a clear path to the Bernie vote.
Even the fracking issue is problematic for him. In 2014, he was the driving force and bankroll behind two major anti-fracking initiatives, but Hickenlooper and Mark Udall, who were both running that year, convinced him the initiatives were too dangerous for them in an election season. And Polis, who had spent years convincing Democrats he was a team player, dropped his support for the initiatives in a late-term compromise. In return, he got a couple oil-and-gas-sponsored counter-initiatives dropped and the promise of a Hickenlooper fracking task force that, if we’re honest, wasn’t at all forceful and clearly not up to the task. There are many who haven’t forgiven Polis for caving in, even though he continues to work on limiting fracking.
And then there was Polis’ unexpected fast-track vote supporting Barack Obama’s ability to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which labor strongly opposed and which the unlikely trio of Trump, Clinton and Sanders made certain would be dropped. There are a list of other Polis votes that have gone against the liberal grain — I’m sure you’ll be hearing more about them — which Polis will argue shows his independence. The degree to which he’s successful there may be the key to how well he performs in the race.
If there were a betting line on the race, I’d guess that Perlmutter, with strong ties to all Democratic voting blocs, would still be a slight favorite. A primary brings out older, more moderate voters than the caucus system that went so strongly for Bernie Sanders in 2016. And Colorado’s new open-ish primary system might make the electorate more moderate still.
But that doesn’t mean you want “establishment pick” on your resume. Kennedy has Emily’s List on her team. Johnston had a stunning opening-quarter fundraising total to his credit. But Polis, you figure, is the game changer.
He can, and will, contribute millions to his own campaign, meaning Perlmutter’s fundraising advantage will be diminished. Despite Polis’ fracking fracas, he’ll still challenge whatever advantage Kennedy has built with enviros. And while Polis, like Perlmutter, was a Clinton super-delegate, he’ll challenge Johnston, who has his own issues in reaching the Bernie vote, on the left. For the record, Johnston and Kennedy also supported Clinton. You may remember a time when that seemed like the smart play.
Polis began his campaign naming three key issues — going 100 percent renewables by 2040, free full-day preschool and kindergarten for ages 3 and up, a plan to encourage companies to provide profit-sharing plans for their employees — but I don’t see those issues (Johnston was already out there on renewables) separating him from the field. At least two of them will never get beyond campaign promises. But it’s early. At this point, there’s no way to know what issues will drive this race — only that the race itself is certain to be very, very crowded.
Photo by Corey Hutchins