Tom Tancredo, the conservative firebrand former congressman who was a Trumpist before there was Trumpism, chose Halloween to say he’s running for governor of Colorado.
The entrance of a pro-Trump, anti-immigration hardliner in the era of The Donald and Steve Bannon completely upended an already large field of eight other Republicans running to replace a term-limited Gov. John Hickenlooper next fall.
At the time Tancredo got in, no clear frontrunner had yet broken loose, according to fundraising reports released by candidates and interviews with top state Republicans. His decision also factored into the reason high-profile Arapahoe-area District Attorney George Brauchler decided to get out of the governor’s race and run for attorney general instead. Tancredo “competes for some of the same votes that I’d compete for,” Brauchler, who was running a conservative campaign aimed at the grassroots and had racked up a string of straw poll wins at Tea Party events, told The Colorado Independent.
And while not everyone in Colorado knows the names of State Treasurer Walker Stapleton, Denver investment banker Doug Robinson, entrepreneur and one-time lawmaker Victor Mitchell, Larimer County Commissioner Lew Gaiter, former Parker mayor Greg Lopez, or Donald Trump’s Denver co-chair Steve Barlock, plenty have heard of Tancredo.
“The one thing that Tom has probably better than anybody is name ID. He’s also got a reputation for being disruptive,” says Steve House, former chairman of the Colorado Republican Party. “The question is, does he fit what the electorate is going to want this cycle?”
Tancredo clearly thinks he does, though he said he believed he would take fire from those in his own party throughout his campaign as he has in the past.
“I know it will be tough, but dammit, even if they beat me I’ve got to tell you, buddy, somebody has to say the things I’m going to say,” he told The Colorado Independent on the day he announced. “It’s not my first rodeo. So I can take it. And we’ll see what happens.”
What’s Tancredo’s background?
A polarizing former five-term congressman from Golden, Tancredo is a contributor to Breitbart.com, the organ of the alt-right movement, chaired by Bannon, the former White House senior advisor.
Tancredo is also a bomb thrower of the first order who once wrote a law that would put a moratorium on legal immigration. He briefly ran for president in 2008 on a strident anti-immigration platform. He has said he does not believe in evolution, and that President Barack Obama posed a greater threat than al-Qaeda. The Washington Post once dubbed Tancredo Colorado’s “Lord of the Gadflies.”
He has been a state lawmaker, taught junior high, served in the U.S. Department of Education under Republican administrations, and led a libertarian-leaning think tank in Denver.
In 2010, he ran for governor as a member of the American Constitution Party, earning 37 percent of the vote— more than the Republican candidate that year. He was a vocal supporter of Amendment 64 to legalize recreational marijuana. In 2014 he ran for governor again, this time as a Republican; he lost to former congressman Bob Beauprez who, despite a near-decade of fringey rhetoric, was pitched as a more mainstream and moderate Republican.
— Ben Markus (@CPRMarkus) October 31, 2017
Tancredo blamed the Republican Party for undermining his bid that year, and so he bolted the GOP. In 2016 he teamed up with Republican Attorney General Cynthia Coffman in a public war against then-Republican Party chairman Steve House, urging him to resign amid affair allegations. For a time, the inter-party turmoil made the state GOP look like a raging dumpster fire.
But Tancredo is now back in the Republican fold. He registered as a Republican earlier this year and said he thanks Trump for his re-conversion.
What are some of his campaign themes?
“Buckle up,” Tancredo said in a pair of brief phone calls between TV interviews he was doing Halloween morning, the day he announced.
He said he would be running an anti-establishment campaign because he is an anti-establishment candidate, which wouldn’t be new, and he expects a bruiser of a race where Republicans will dog pile on him just as much as Democrats. “Rancorous, ugly, name-calling, death by a thousand cuts,” he said. “I certainly can’t tell you that I look forward to it, but I can tell you that at least we are going to be prepared this time.”
Voters are likely to expect to hear plenty about immigration from him on the stump.
“You won’t hear anybody, I think, from our side that’s going to be quite as definitive about the way they feel about sanctuary cities or about Denver threatening their own employees with fines and being fired if [they] talk to an ICE agent,” he said. “Those kinds of things I’m positive there are few if any Republicans that will take it on.”
Tancredo was coy about what other policy proposals he might put forward because he says he doesn’t want to give his rivals an early heads up. But he opened the kimono a bit on one front.
“Oh, well, what the hell,” he said, before saying he would want to examine how Colorado’s public universities are funded based on the ideological makeup of the social sciences faculty. “At the present time you’ve got maybe 1 percent of the faculty in those areas who are Republican. I doubt there’s 1 percent that are actually conservative. The fact is you don’t get a good education under those conditions, you don’t get a well-rounded education, you get indoctrination under the circumstances that exist today. It is nothing but liberal indoctrination.”
During his first campaign stop at an office park gun club in Colorado Springs the day after he announced, Tancredo said he would try to repeal the laws Colorado Democrats passed in 2013 that limited to 15 the number of bullets a gun magazine can hold. He held up a black T-shirt bearing the words “All Rifles Matter.”
“Here’s one thing that I would push for as governor,” he told the crowd of about 30, including staff and reporters. “Every child graduating from a public school in Colorado should have to be able to pass a citizenship test. I’d give them the same test that we give immigrants.”
Tancredo also touted the use of cars.
He’s all for alternative forms of transportation, he said, but, “You’re not going to get people out of their cars— I’m not going to get out of mine. That’s what I want to do, that’s ho I want to transport myself and no matter how much the state or these cities tell me I shouldn’t and make it more difficult for me to do, I still want to do it. And I resent the hell out of a city like Denver or Colorado Springs abandoning their responsibility, shirking their responsibilities of the construction of roads in order to get to get to do to other things.”
The government, he argued, wants “control over your life,” and so government doesn’t like cars. “It’s not politically correct to be getting into your vehicle and going where you want to go when you want to go there, so they’re going to try to stop you.”
Where does he fit along the Republican Party spectrum in Colorado?
Maybe in a place all his own.
Loyal Republican Party foot soldiers might holler that Tancredo left the party and ask what kind of real Republican would do that. Hardcore conservatives of a certain stripe, Trumpists and Tea Party types might instead see a party that left Tancredo. His support for legal pot puts him more in line more with libertarians than the social conservative crowd.
Tancredo might also benefit from a larger national movement spearheaded by Bannon and Breitbart. When Bannon was in Colorado for a speech at The Broadmoor in late September he met with Tancredo, and Tancredo has said the governor’s race came up in the conversation. The day after his announcement, Tancredo said he had not spoken to Bannon since their meeting in September.
“Even before, we only talked about it,” Tancredo said of his Bannon chat. “It was like ‘What’s it like down here, what’s the lay of the land, who’s going to run?’ I said, ‘Maybe me, what do you think?’ He said, ‘Hm, OK, I’ll think about it.’ That was it. There was never any commitment of any kind. Believe me, I wish there had been, and I hope I can get it.”
Bannon has been looking for anti-establishment candidates to back in races across the country following his help electing a conservative former judge to the U.S. Senate in Alabama in open defiance of Donald Trump and the GOP establishment.
If Bannon gets involved in Colorado and ends up backing Tancredo it will nationalize the election and likely attract big money.
“All things considered today I don’t think he’s the frontrunner, but I do think if Bannon gets involved I wouldn’t be surprised by anything,” House says.
Since late summer Tancredo has been crisscrossing Colorado, giving speeches to Tea Party groups, and testing the water. “They were all incredibly supportive,” he says.
With Trump as the Republican Party’s de facto head, it has turned to its more radical strains. In August, Tancredo blistered Republicans and the party for not raising hell when a hotel in Colorado Springs cancelled a white nationalist event sponsored by a group called VDARE where Tancredo was scheduled to speak. But after the state Republican Party’s official Twitter account ripped the Southern Poverty Law Center for days on end, and party chairman Jeff Hays didn’t apologize, Tancredo says he praised the chairman for the move.
“But I don’t know it goes much deeper than that,” Tancredo says about whether the party has shifted any more toward his views.
In an interview with 9News, Tancredo said, “I know who I am. And I am not a white supremacist. I am not a KKK supporter. I have no animus— zero— against any human being on this planet because of their skin color or ethnicity.” He said he expects his opponents will likely “try to connect that into this campaign.”
Steve Barlock, who is running for governor by tying himself closer to Trump than anyone else, says he is not daunted by Tancredo’s bid. His candidacy only means more attention to the Republican side, he argues.
The two have already spoken about strategy, Barlock says, adding “He said ‘I’m going to take all incoming. I’m like, ‘Yeah, we’ve already discussed you being a bulletproof vest and I’ll just throw grenades over you.’”
The Republican National Committee, the political arm of the national Republican Party, views the Colorado governor’s race as “critical,” according to RNC chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel who was in Colorado earlier this month.
Asked what the RNC thought of a Tancredo candidacy, she said the organization would stay neutral. “We’re focused on winning it for whichever Republican the voters choose,” she said.
Dick Wadhams, a longtime consultant and former state GOP chair is one Colorado Republican who doesn’t like Tancredo’s brand of politics and wouldn’t vote for him. But he acknowledges his entrance into the race is a game changer, saying, “I just think he kind of turns this Republican field upside down now.”
Wadhams also said he believed Tancredo’s influence was likely to would move the Republican primary field to the right.
During a GOP candidates forum in Fort Lupton in mid-November, Tancredo said voting for Trump was “a thousand times easier” than voting for John McCain.
What are those on the left in Colorado thinking about all this?
Because of how controversial Tancredo is, in another era Democrats, progressives, and those on the left side of the ledger might cheer a Tancredo candidacy thinking if he won the GOP primary he could never win statewide in a general election.
But this is post-Trump politics.
“It would have been a fun exercise a few years ago,” says Ian Silverii, the director of ProgressNow, Colorado’s largest progressive organization. But not now. After Democrats and progressives at the national level licked their chops to run against Trump in a general election only to see him become president, Silverii says, “We’re playing with live ammo here.”
How might the new primary system voters just passed affect a Tancredo 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 will be allowed to vote.
The new law means 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.