UPDATE: On Feb. 13, Republican Attorney General Cynthia Coffman said she would change course and go through the assembly process.
Want to see how a Trumpist candidate drops out of a governor’s race in the battleground state of Colorado as the political fortunes of his former “boss at Breitbart” Steve Bannon smolder 1,700 miles away and President Donald Trump battles negative headlines and poor approval ratings?
Hey Sniwflakes. You can come out if your safe spaces!
— Tom Tancredo (@RealTomTancredo) January 30, 2018
Tom Tancredo, the former Congressman and immigration lightning rod, once again shook up the big race for Colorado governor when he announced Tuesday he is done campaigning because he couldn’t raise enough money. Why not? “It may be the brand,” he told reporter Joe St. George of KDVR in Denver.
The exit of the controversial far-right conservative who is popular with the Bannonite base— and who was a perceived front-runner in the multi-candidate GOP primary— will be a Trump-sized Xanax bar to the Republican establishment.
Tancredo said that while he felt he could win the primary he did not think he could win a general election, so he martyred himself for the party.
His move now drastically shifts the ground under the upcoming April state GOP assembly at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
In Colorado, candidates for governor have multiple paths to the ballot, each with its own potential pitfalls. A candidate can petition directly on to the June primary ballot by gathering enough signatures from voters across the state— a very expensive undertaking— or go through the risky gauntlet of the state assembly where only those who win 30 percent or more of the vote from the 4,000 or so GOP assembly-goers can emerge.
Republicans who attend the state assembly are among the hardest core of the grassroots Republican base, seriously dedicated party activists who might be irked by a candidate who eschews the assembly process by leapfrogging it with petitions. The assembly also gives a boost to whoever wins by making sure that candidate’s name is higher than others on the June primary ballot. But going through the assembly caries a potentially fatal risk. If a candidate does not get 30 percent of the vote, they’re done. And if they get less than 10 percent of the vote, they can’t even get on the ballot— even if they gathered enough petitions.
Until Tuesday, Tancredo was the only Republican candidate for governor who is well known throughout the state who planned to go through the assembly. Whether one of the several better-known candidates who are on record saying they plan to petition on will end up changing those plans will be an open question in the upcoming weeks.
Other than Tancredo, those who have said they will go through the assembly are Larimer County Commissioner Lew Gaiter, former Parker mayor Greg Lopez, and Trump’s Denver co-chair Steve Barlock. Gaiter has been running a low-key, low-fundraising campaign. Lopez recently released a video acknowledging a charge for domestic violence in the 1990s. Barlock, little known as a political force outside Trump’s Denver campaign, has raised little money and hasn’t held prior office.
Together, contrasted with candidates who plan to gather petitions instead of going through the assembly— State Treasurer Walker Stapleton and Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, among others who have raised considerable cash— the current assembly roster is a kind of junior varsity GOP bench.
But the beauty of Colorado’s ballot-access process means even an underfunded underdog can win a slot on top of the ballot just by giving one good assembly speech.
Tancredo’s exit from the race already has already stirred discussion of a potential strategic shift in at least one Republican campaign.
Victor Mitchell, the entrepreneur and former lawmaker who is putting $3 million of his own money into his bid, is now “looking at the impact of gaining ballot access through the state assembly,” says campaign spokesman Ian Lindemann. “However, at this juncture,” he told The Colorado Independent, “we’re pretty far along with the process of meeting Republicans and gathering petition signatures from around the state.”
Mitchell has been campaigning nonstop around Colorado for about a year, and at this point is likely better known among Republican primary voters than the Assembly Three. His gambit is one of high-risk and high-reward: Risk losing access to the ballot— and all the personal money he spent on his campaign— for the possibility of knocking the other assembly-goers out and getting his name atop the June ballot.
Tancredo’s Tuesday bombshell, dropped on the day of Trump’s State of the Union speech, hasn’t rattled the world of Walker Stapleton, the current state treasurer and fundraising juggernaut who is also running for governor.
“We have no plans to go through the assembly,” his campaign manager Michael Fortney told The Independent.
Similarly, Republican Attorney General Cynthia Coffman remains committed to petitioning, according to her campaign spokeswoman Keeley Hanlon, who repeated that statement when asked if those plans could change. Coffman said the reason she chose to try and petition onto the ballot is because it will allow her to balance her time between campaigning and doing her job as AG.
Retired investment banker Doug Robinson is also “committed” to petitioning onto the ballot, says his campaign spokeswoman Brett Maney.
All those commitments, of course, could change, but lessons from the most recent assembly show just how unpredictable and risky state assemblies can be.
In 2016, a little-known county commissioner named Darryl Glenn stunned political observers by winning 70 percent of the vote at the assembly, knocking out six of his rivals in a sprawling GOP primary for U.S. Senate. Candidates at the assembly each get a few minutes to deliver a stump speech to the thousands of delegates who vote. Glenn blew the roof off with a barnburner that swept him to a dominating victory and top-line status on the ballot.
It’s that potential ballot position that leaves Barlock skeptical of Stapleton’s plans not to attend the assembly. “He doesn’t want me to have top billing,” Barlock, who is already courting Tancredo supporters, says.
It’s also possible a candidate who is not campaigning for governor could show up to the assembly and get nominated to give a speech from the floor.
Colorado Republican Party spokesman Daniel Cole says it’s too early to say what might happen between now and April with no super well-known candidate planning to attend the party’s largest political event of the year.
But Cole knows one thing. “Power abhors a vacuum,” he says.