In early October, Republican State Treasurer Walker Stapleton officially waded into the large field for governor with a low-key weekend announcement on social media and the launch of a campaign website.
The only real news for close watchers of Colorado politics at the time was that the second-term office-holder, who is a cousin of George H.W. Bush, finally made his bid official. His entrance added an established current Republican statewide officeholder with access to big money into a large race where some candidates are jockeying for the “outsider” mantle in the era of Donald Trump.
For months, a Super PAC-like group called Better Colorado Now had been raising money, ostensibly to support Stapleton’s gubernatorial bid, a controversial arrangement since Stapleton had associated himself with the group prior to announcing his run. Campaign finance laws forbid candidates from coordinating with PACs, but since he hadn’t yet made his candidacy official, he could get as close to the PAC as he wanted, even helping it raise money. Stapleton also got a boost from another group, which gave him free statewide publicity in an ad campaign supporting term limits.
After serving nearly eight years as treasurer, Stapleton comes armed in a crowded GOP primary with this stat and talking point: “I’m Colorado’s longest-serving statewide elected Republican.”
The GOP field for governor includes Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, retired Denver investment banker Doug Robinson, entrepreneur and one-time lawmaker Victor Mitchell, Larimer County Commissioner Lew Gaiter, Donald Trump’s Denver co-chair Steve Barlock, and former Parker mayor Greg Lopez, and others.
Stapleton’s immediate entrance into the race wasn’t splashy and didn’t come with a news conference or the bells and whistles of a major announcement. Instead, he released a video online and gave a brief interview with a state politics website that published on a Saturday. Then he took off, attending fundraisers with GOP bigwigs at the home of former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan and hitting up the Republican breakfast circuit.
What’s Stapleton’s background?
Stapleton moved to Colorado from Connecticut in 2003 and ran for public office for the first time in 2010 when he was in his mid-30s. He got through a GOP primary and unseated then-State Treasurer Cary Kennedy, who is now running for governor in an equally sprawling Democratic field.
An Ivy Leaguer with a wife and three young children, Stapleton has a Harvard MBA and degrees from Williams College and the London School of Economics. He has a background in investment banking and real estate. He was CEO of the California-based Sonoma West Holdings and did consulting work for the company as treasurer. George W. Bush appointed Walker’s father, Craig Roberts Stapleton, as U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic in 2001. Companies Walker Stapleton and his family have owned also exist in the Czech Republic.
What are some of his campaign themes?
His full-throated support for the state’s oil-and-gas industry is the big one.
“This is a critically important election,” he told a group of Republicans at a Greek restaurant in Denver one morning in early November. “The reason this is a critically important election above all else is that the leading candidate on the Democratic side literally is running to end the energy industry in Colorado, and I will not allow that to happen.”
He believes counties that choose to ban fracking in Colorado should not get severance tax revenue.
On the stump, Stapleton also attributes his run for governor to his three young children. “I am deeply concerned that the Colorado that they will inherit is not the Colorado that I want them to inherit,” he told a crowd of Republicans in a historic fort in Weld County in mid-November.
“We need a governor who is supportive of energy projects like Jordan Cove pipeline,” he has said. He said he would be a governor who would be an advocate for business and fewer regulations. He has said he would want random drug-testing for Coloradoan on public assistance, saying, “If you are on the government dole, absolutely you should subscribe to random drug testing,” said Stapleton.
“There is something a governor could and should do and that is not to allow our two largest cities in Colorado to become sanctuary cities,” Stapleton said during one GOP breakfast in Denver. “And I believe it’s a governor’s responsibility to pursue every legal avenue possible to make sure that that is not the case. Because fundamentally, for an illegal alien to be treated with legal rights that are better or more accommodating than a United States citizen is wrong. And it encourages people that are going to cause problems in our cities and potential for violence and unrest, and it doesn’t make any sense.”
Stapleton is campaigning on ending Colorado’s Obamacare exchange, which puts him on par with other Republicans running for governor. An effort to repeal that state exchange failed in the last legislative session where Democrats control the House and Republicans control the Senate.
He is also acting like he’s already in the general election, focusing his energy on Boulder Congressman Jared Polis who is running for governor as a Democrat, instead of on his Republican rivals. Asked at one public event what he thought about the entrance of the far-right former Congressman Tom Tancredo getting in the governor’s race (before he dropped out), Stapleton pivoted to Polis, calling Polis the “threat that matters.”
“I am the only person in this race that has actually won a statewide race— not once but twice, and I’m two for two,” the sitting state treasurer told a small crowd of Denver Republicans over breakfast at a GOP breakfast in November.
Where does Stapleton fit along the Republican Party spectrum in Colorado?
In a slickly produced video, he calls himself a “common sense Colorado conservative” who believes in limited, accountable government and he uses the phrase out on the campaign trail when talking to voters. He told a crowd of Republicans in Fort Lupton that he voted for President Donald Trump, and supports him. “It makes no sense to me why people are so intent on beating up the leader of our country,” he said.
For good or ill, one issue he faces in the Republican primary and a potential general election is his connection to Bush World. On the day he announced, his then-rival Republican George Brauchler, an Arapahoe-area district attorney, took a swipe at his relationship with the Bushes. (Brauchler later dropped out of the race in November to run for attorney general instead.)
— George Brauchler (@GeorgeBrauchler) September 24, 2017
Asked by a local TV reporter if Stapleton would describe himself as a “George Bush Republican,” Stapleton said, “I would describe myself as a Walker Stapleton Republican.”
Last year, Stapleton showed up to an event for the Koch-brothers-backed Americans For Prosperity at the state Capitol in which he gave a brief speech ripping the state legislature for not addressing Colorado’s fiscal policy issues from funding infrastructure to paying for Medicaid expansion.
Stapleton positions himself as a Republican who can win a general election. He points out that he was elected twice statewide as a Republican for treasurer. “I’m the only guy that’s actually run a statewide race on our side … I’m the only guy that’s been to all 64 counties … that is going to be what it’s going to take to win a campaign for governor.”
Where is he drawing his support?
Stapleton is having no trouble raising money because of his family ties and his sitting with the country club GOP high order as a statewide Republican office holder in a battleground state with a purple hue.
By March had racked up the support of 50 county commissioners across half the state’s 64 counties, including four out of five of the county commissioners in the Weld County oil-and-gas patch.
The conservative editorial board of The Gazette, the state’s second-largest newspaper, owned by Phil Anschutz, a Stapleton financial donor, wrote in mid-January that everyone in the Republican field should just drop out and coalesce around Stapleton.
He has also raised the most money as any non-self-funding Republican candidate. But the money associated with helping him has drawn scrutiny.
Stapleton employed a novel strategy similar to one Jeb Bush used in his 2016 run for president in which Bush helped raise money for a Super PAC called Right to Rise before officially announcing he was a candidate. Since candidates or campaigns cannot coordinate with Super PACs, delaying an official candidacy is an end-run around that limitation. At the state level, the Jeb Bush strategy has since been deployed by a U.S. Senate candidate in Florida, but in Colorado, no one has yet to try it— until now.
While around a half dozen other Republican candidates filed paperwork to become official candidates— and expressed their intentions to run in public and in the press— Stapleton waited. Last February, he told The Colorado Independent, “As soon as you’re an announced candidate for something … suddenly have terrible body odor and nobody wants to be around you.”
But not announcing also allowed Stapleton to help raise money for an independent spending group called Better Colorado Now. Those who have given money to the group include people in the construction and engineering business in Montana, the financial sector in Los Angeles, New York and Florida, and the real estate business in Aspen. A public document from April stated the group’s purpose was “To oppose Ed Perlmutter for governor.” Perlmutter dropped out of the governor’s race on July 11. Less than a week later the Better Colorado Now group changed its purpose to opposing “Democrat candidates for governor,” according to paperwork filed with the secretary of state.
Stapleton was able to urge people to donate to this Super PAC-type group so long as he was not a candidate for governor, says Luis Toro of Ethics Watch. Now that he’s a candidate he will not be able to associate himself with Better Colorado Now. The group, however, could still raise and spend money on his behalf in the governor’s race. Or, it could just work to tear down Democratic candidates.
In mid-September, the Democratic Governor’s Association sent a letter to Stapleton, warning him that the DGA, which seeks to get more Democrats elected governor across the country, would file a campaign finance complaint against him unless Better Colorado Now stuck to strict limits on its spending. In Colorado, though, which uses a unique system of private-party enforcement of campaign finance complaints, the DGA would have to prosecute its case in court if takes it to that level. If it does, regardless of the outcome, it is likely to generate negative press attention for Stapleton.
It is not surprising candidates would want the help of independent groups that could raise and spend unlimited money on their behalf. In Colorado, candidates for governor can raise a total of $1,150 per person— a limit that is significantly lower than the national median for state campaign contribution limits.
The editorial board of Colorado’s largest newspaper, The Denver Post, wagged a finger at Stapleton, saying “we wish the treasurer had set a better example and not led us down this path — for others surely will follow.” So far Stapleton hasn’t commented on his fundraising strategy in the press.
As far as big-name support, could the Stapleton campaign see a former president Bush fly in to help the campaign? “Who knows?” Stapleton said around the time he announced. By February, Stapleton had already attended a Texas fundraiser with George W. Bush in Dallas Texas.
The support sets up a compelling establishment Republican shootout in the Rockies. Already, Republican rival Doug Robinson, a retired investment banker who is running for governor, earned a maxed-out campaign contribution from his uncle Mitt Romney and said he hopes the 2012 GOP nominee for president campaigns with him in Colorado.
How might the new primary system voters just passed affect a Stapleton 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.
Any potential buzz saws for him?
His Bush family connections are likely to saddle him with an “establishment” label at a time when the Republican establishment is being challenged by both Trump and his former senior advisor, Steve Bannon, who runs the far-right Breitbart website and is looking to back conservative Republicans across the country.
A 1999 DUI came up during Stapleton’s 2010 campaign and questions emerged about a lucrative consulting contract moonlighting for his former company while being a full-time state treasurer. But his fundraising practices have drawn the most scrutiny thus far in a race that could be a bruiser.
Photo by Jeffrey Beall for Creative Commons on Flickr.