Colorado’s Democratic primary for governor is a battle of the clean campaigns

When Republican Tom Tancredo jumped in the race for governor last week, he predicted it would be a bloodbath. “Rancorous, ugly, name-calling, death by a thousand cuts,” he said. “I certainly can’t tell you that I look forward to it.”

On Friday, at a local GOP breakfast in Denver, State Treasurer Walker Stapleton, also running for governor, said, “Republicans have been incredibly adept at the circular firing squad. And that has ensured, if nothing else, that our nominee is bruised and battered enough to have absolutely no chance of winning a general election.”

On the Democratic side, top-tier candidates for governor have taken a different approach. Within a week of each other, four signed the state Democratic Party’s first-time-ever Clean Campaign Pledge. Among other things, it commits candidates to running campaigns “based on facts and issues,” and says they will not “engage in personal attacks or smears against the other Democrats” while urging their supporters to do the same.

Democrats running for governor in Colorado “are focused on policies that will help families in Colorado get ahead, like improving infrastructure and investing in schools,” says party spokesman Eric Walker.

Colorado Republican Party spokesman Daniel Cole called it “kabuki kumbaya.”

Businessman Noel Ginsburg, a civic leader and moderate Democrat who is the CEO of Intertech Plastics, became the first to sign the Democratic Party’s Clean Campaign Pledge on Oct. 28.  Also signing are Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, former state treasurer Cary Kennedy, former state Sen. Mike Johnston and Democratic Congressman Jared Polis. Kennedy went one step further, asking her rivals to promise not to spend more than $3 million in the race. 

“We aren’t looking to handicap ourselves or be outspent 2 or 3 to 1,” a Kennedy spokeswoman said. “We think $3 million is more than enough to qualify for the ballot and communicate with primary voters and believe it would help Democrats be united and strong for the general election. We would love to hear a compelling reason why more money should be spent in the primary.”

The move is likely aimed at Polis, who is one of the wealthiest members of Congress and who has voluntarily capped contributions to his campaign at $100, signifying he plans to spend his own money. Polis’s campaign declined to comment on the $3 million challenge.

In signing the pledge Friday, Lynne called on other candidates in the primary to join her in “following example set by Gov. Hickenlooper.” In his 2010 race for governor, Hickenlooper aired a TV ad in which he took a shower with his clothes on and said negative ads made him feel the need to rinse off. 

“The governor’s commitment to positive campaigns is one of the many traits that led me to leave the private sector and join his administration as the state’s first-ever Lt. Governor and Chief Operating Officer,” Lynne said in a statement. She is running with Hickenlooper’s blessing, and has said she can’t think of a policy issue on which the two do not agree.

In 2014, even though Hickenlooper pledged to only run positive ads, a group called Making Colorado Great, which was linked to the Democratic Governors Association, spent millions attacking his Republican opponent on his behalf. Because campaigns and Super PACs aren’t allowed to coordinate, Hickenlooper said he couldn’t tell the outside group what to do, despite Republican howls of hypocrisy.

A day after Lynne signed the Clean Campaign Pledge, Kennedy sent an email to media, saying, “I challenge my Democratic primary election opponents to join me” in pledging to run clean primary campaigns.

Kennedy then doubled down on the party’s pledge, adding her own provisions that called for candidates to reject and return donations from political action committees (PACs) or corporate lobbyists. Kennedy is already returning one donation herself from a lobbyist who represents a corporate client, a spokeswoman says. Part of Kennedy’s pledge also includes sending a message to the outside groups who might support individual campaigns, which are likely play in the primary.

A Super PAC called Frontier Fairness that has the stated goal of supporting or opposing gubernatorial candidates in the Democratic primary has raised more than $300,000, likely to support Johnston whose campaign theme is “Frontier Fairness.” EMILY’s List, a national group that supports female candidates, is backing Kennedy in the race.

Candidates for governor in Colorado can raise a total of $1,150 per donor for their primary and a general election— a cap that is significantly lower than the national median for state campaign contribution limits.

Related: Jared Polis, Walker Stapleton, and Colorado’s low campaign cash limits

Johnston, who announced his gubernatorial bid in January, said at the time that he would not accept any money from PACs.

“We have said from day one we are running a positive campaign focusing on the best plan to move Colorado forward, so I will happily sign the Democratic Party clean campaign pledge,” Johnston said. “But rather than draft arbitrary limits, let’s all pledge to refuse any and all PAC money and run a positive race, just as I outlined in my announcement speech and have practiced from the beginning.”

As the Democratic candidates have crisscrossed Colorado over the past few months they have for the most part stuck to their own issues when speaking at public forums or on the campaign trail. The one candidate who stands out is Ginsburg who at recent rallies and public events has said he does not think some of the proposals offered by his Democratic rivals are realistic. He has even likened the candidates to Donald Trump who promised during his presidential campaign that he would build a wall and that Mexico would pay for it.

On a recent Sunday, speaking to a crowd of about a 100 from the steps of the state Capitol in Denver, Ginsburg threw some shade at proposals by Johnston, Polis and Kennedy. Johnston, for instance, has a plan, “The Lifetime Opportunity Promise,” to subsidize education for workers pushed out of jobs by automation and globalization that has hints of a free-college-tuition Bernie Sanders idea and the Civilian Conservation Corps from FDR’s New Deal. Polis has a proposal for free, universal high-quality, full-day kindergarten. Kennedy is pushing for a public option for health insurance in the state’s Medicaid plan.

“Some of my opponents in this race are saying they are going to make things free,” Ginsburg said. “I will tell you nothing is free, nothing is ever free.” 

Photo by M Pincus for Creative Commons on Flickr. 


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