Littwin: Ed Perlmutter, the might-have-been governor the Democrats let get away

In the bizarre political world in which we now live, one should be quite cautious before labeling anything either strange or unexpected because the weirdness bar is set just that high.

But when Ed Perlmutter dropped out of the governor’s race in mid-stream,  I was prepared to take the risk. This move was more than strange and totally unexpected.

In a news conference, Perlmutter, famed for both knocking on doors in campaigns and for doing cartwheels after he wins them, says he quit the race because he no longer has the fire in his belly. If that’s true, it says nothing good about our political system because Perlmutter is a lifer who now seems to be wondering whether the life is worthwhile.

For what it is worth, I believe Perlmutter about the fire. Think about spending months on the phone begging people for money and imagine how your belly would feel. But I also think there must be something more.

If Perlmutter was the Democrats’ strongest candidate — and I’d say he was, particularly in a general election, but also in a five-way primary in which someone might win with 30 percent — how did the Democrats manage to lose Perlmutter, his voice trembling when making the announcement, his family crying, the decision clearly shaking up not only Colorado Democrats but Perlmutter himself?

It’s easy to see why Perlmutter might be shaken. He doesn’t have the kind of statewide name recognition to clear a field. And, for that matter, Democrats should welcome — particularly in the Bernie era — as strong and as varied a primary field as they can assemble. It’s a wide-open race because, in both parties, it’s an entirely unsettled time. But Perlmutter has strong, and long-held, ties to nearly every part of the Democratic coalition. When Ken Salazar said he wouldn’t run, Perlmutter was the presumed front-runner.

But things do change. We can start with fellow congressman, and also good friend, Jared Polis entering the race, bringing his gigantic checkbook with him. The fairly strict campaign-finance rules in Colorado are heavily weighted to favor self-funders like Polis, who, everyone remembers, once spent a million bucks to win a seat on the Colorado State Board of Education. No one will outspend him in the governor’s race.

Perlmutter told reporters that when he heard Polis was thinking of getting into the race, he had told him — maybe half-jokingly — “Jared, don’t get in, man.” But as Perlmutter dropped out, he also made Polis’ case — that he’s smart, that they’re political allies, that you can’t blame Polis for getting rich. And as every politician knows, Perlmutter added this reminder: “Everybody’s entitled to their own ambitions. That’s the bottom line.”

Polis has ambitions. He isn’t the type to wait in line. He saw his chance to bring some anti-establishment cred to a year in which anti-establishment seems like the place to be. And if he didn’t quite big-foot Perlmutter out of the race — this wasn’t like Ken Salazar forcing out Mark Udall back in the day — his big money did more than nudge him.

And then there’s the strange case of Donna Lynne, John Hickenlooper’s hand-picked lieutenant governor, who was nominated, in large part, because she was seen as apolitical and Hickenlooper would not be seen as giving anyone a leg up in the race to succeed him.

Well, you can forget all that. The rumor has been out there for a while that Hickenlooper had been pushing Lynne to get into the race. And Lynne now freely admits that she’s looking strongly at the race, which almost certainly means she’s getting in.

So she would join not just Polis, but also Michael Johnston and Cary Kennedy. Johnston is a rising star in the party. Kennedy was the rising star in the party until she lost her seat as state treasurer, but this is her chance to win back that role. There’s also Noel Ginsburg, a businessman who’s never held office. Not sure where, or if, he fits in.

The Republican field is still getting settled, but among the leading announced candidates are DA George Brauchler, Romney nephew Doug Robinson, former state legislator Victor Mitchell. State Treasurer Walker Stapleton is all but certain to get in. DaVita CEO Kent Thiry, who would be another self-funder, says he’s considering it. There could well be others.

The race was wild before Perlmutter dropped out. Now it becomes even more wide open. And now Republicans are already preparing to target Polis as a Democratic lefty. It’s not that Polis’ politics are much different from Perlmutter’s — they’re not — but that Polis is easy to caricature as, you know, one of those Boulder elites. Of course, history shows that isn’t always a winning strategy for Republicans, who have won only one top-of-the-ballot race in Colorado since 2004.

If you know Perlmutter at all, you know he had plotted his decision to run carefully. Hickenlooper was term-limited, so it was an open race in both parties. Perlmutter waited for Ken Salazar, for years the face of Democratic Party in Colorado, to weigh his options. It was only when Salazar said he wouldn’t run that Perlmutter got in.

The timing seemed right, until it wasn’t. And until Perlmutter discovered that the fire in his belly was turning into a bad case of heartburn.

Photo by Corey Hutchins. 


  1. Please. PLEASE don’t put Johnston in ANY common categories with Perlmutter. Perlmutter is a true champion for public school kids and teachers (and hasn’t owned or operated a charter school network). Johnston is a DFER, among other DINO attributes, that is, he will accommodate ALL efforts to privatize Colorado’s public schools like any DFER who acts as holster for ALEC, AFP, and Koch. Probably having a cocktail with DeVos as we speak on some yacht somewhere on the MAGA River.

    “No” on Johnston.

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