COLORADO SPRINGS — If the Republicans who flooded a university campus on Saturday in this heavily conservative military county are any indication, the governor’s race is still up for grabs in the lead-up to the April 14 state assembly.
“I’m not even sure how many candidates there are,” said Bob Foote, a Republican from Northwest Colorado Springs who more or less summed up the reaction from an overwhelming majority of Republicans in more than two dozen interviews at the El Paso County GOP assembly here in one of the most Republican parts of the state.
This year, eight Republicans with various backgrounds and political experience are running for a chance to replace term-limited Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Colorado has elected only one Republican governor in the last 41 years, and the 2018 race for the open seat has sparked the most wide-open race in a generation where no front-runner— Democrat or Republican— has cleared the field.
In the packed hallways of Saturday’s assembly at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, a largely older crowd of men in cowboy hats and women in red-white-and-blue scarves and accessories greeted candidates for state and local office who showered them with glossy flyers and stickers from behind booths. Here, in the heart of Colorado’s Trump Country, a county GOP assembly has the look of a gun show without the guns.
“Today is the start of electing a Republican governor,” El Paso County Republican Party Chairman Joshua Hosler told the 936 delegates who will have a vote to cast in the gubernatorial primary at next month’s state assembly in Boulder.
Running for the top political post in Colorado on the Republican side are State Treasurer Walker Stapleton, Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, retired investment banker Doug Robinson, entrepreneur ex-lawmaker Victor Mitchell, Donald Trump’s Denver campaign co-chair Steve Barlock, former Parker mayor Greg Lopez, Larimer County Commissioner Lew Gaiter, and Colorado Springs businessman Barry Farah.
“I’m just surprised there are so many,” said Sharon McKiernan, a Republican and California transplant who attended the El Paso County assembly and could name just two of the candidates off the top of her head. She has heard of Coffman, who “tends to be the liberal” in the race, McKiernan said, based on what she’s read about her. “Walker Stapleton, at least that name I know.”
Talk with enough El Paso County Republicans and it quickly becomes clear what the top issue is on the minds of a GOP primary voter in this part of Colorado: sanctuary cities and immigration.
Sitting alone on a set of bleachers in a red “Make America Great Again” cap with a white mustache and glasses, Charles King lays it out.
“I want the wall built for our border. I want to get the criminal illegal aliens deported— get ’em out of here,” he said. “That’s a big thing.” Here, where he lives in El Paso County, King was not happy when he learned the recent news of a judge’s injunction on his sheriff, Bill Elder, that ordered him to stop holding inmates for ICE if they post bond.
While most Republicans who spoke to The Colorado Independent Saturday are still researching gubernatorial candidates before they commit, Stapleton had the support of seven out of 30 surveyed at the assembly.
“He’s got the statewide name recognition if somebody hasn’t been living in a cave or under a rock for a while,” said Sharon Brenner, a retired public accountant who plans to vote for him. What is it that separates Stapleton from the rest of this big pachyderm pack? Nothing on policy for Brenner who said she just feels like Walker can win and she wants a Republican in office because the next governor will oversee efforts to redraw congressional and legislative district lines.
On the convention floor, as campaign signs waved to the tune of classic rock music, Republican Celeste Wood said she likes Stapleton because he’s young and has already been elected to statewide office.
“I don’t trust Cynthia,” Wood said flatly. “I think she’s a Democrat.”
That’s something Coffman herself might have heard since she launched her campaign in November. On Saturday, during a speech to the assembly-goers, the candidate who attends LGBT pride parades and once said the GOP platform “looks backwards,” acknowledged a perception of her taking hold among Republicans out there in delegateland from the seats to the bleachers in the UCCS auditorium.
“There are people in this room— I know— who believe that I am not conservative enough, I’m not Republican enough to carry the mantle of this party,” Coffman said. But, she added, she has sued the federal government, the EPA and the Bureau of Land Management when she felt the feds violated the 10th Amendment, she opposes sanctuary cities, and argued for school choice and vouchers.
“Do those sound like liberal causes,” she asked a crowd to a muted reaction and scattered applause.
She pointed out how Republican candidates for governor in this battleground swing state have fallen flat over four decades and it might be time to try something new.
“Maybe it’s time that we start running a different type of candidate who will attract the unaffiliated voters that we have to have to win a purple state,” Coffman said. “I appeal to voters who don’t normally vote for Republicans— just like President Trump did.” (Trump lost Colorado in 2016 by about five points.)
Coffman said she knows she’s taking a risk going through the state assembly process in her quest to get on the June 26 GOP ballot instead of trying to gather enough signature petitions statewide as Stapleton, Robinson, and Mitchell have done. If she doesn’t get 30 percent of the vote among the state delegates on April 14, she’ll be out of the race.
If Coffman doesn’t connect with the 4,200 delegates in Boulder, some Republicans say they see a potential opening for one of the underfunded underdogs like Lopez or Barlock who might be able to pull a Darryl Glenn. That would mean giving a rousing speech that whips up delegates enough to give a candidate top-line status on the ballot, a repeat of the 2016 GOP state convention in the race for U.S. Senate when Glenn, a little-known commissioner from El Paso County, took 70 percent of the vote after a barnburner speech that knocked out six of his rivals and stunned the convention.
On Saturday, Lopez, who is focusing his bid on small businesses and ending regulations, and Barlock, who is trying to ride Trump’s coattails and focusing on water and the state’s retirement fund, both made their pitch to the El Paso County delegation.
Charlie Ehler, a swaggering mustachioed cowboy-hat wearing delegate from Colorado Springs who ran for U.S. Senate in 2016 himself, said he will vote for the candidate most like him when it’s time to cast his ballot next month at the state assembly. “Steve Barlock is most like me,” he said.
Another delegate in the crowd, Sandi Harris, said she likes Lopez because he’s a “constitutionalist.” She missed his speech, she said, but her church group once saw him speak in Lakewood and came back with a positive reaction. “I’m looking at him,” she said. Trying to name the others in the race, she said she knew there was one whose last name started with a B. “Blakely, Brock-something?” Barlock? “I think that’s him,” she said. “It’s between Greg and him.”
In a sign that this who’s-running-anyway primary is anyone’s to win, the race just this week saw the latest 11th-hour entry. It came in the form of Barry Farah, a 56-year-old Colorado Springs businessman, author, and speaker, who says he jumped in because he just didn’t see a conservative in the field with a chance of winning the general election. He, too, will try to snag 30 percent or more of the vote at next month’s assembly for a chance to get his name on the primary ballot.
For Dayna Ross, an assembly-goer hooked up to a portable oxygen tank on the convention floor, Farah’s entrance in the race now has her waffling between him and Robinson, another first-time candidate who is the only one she’s seen in person so far.
“I know that Robinson is a complete conservative,” she said. “I know that Farah is conservative, but I just don’t know much about him.”
In his first major public appearance since getting in the race, Farah gave his own speech to Saturday’s El Paso County assembly. He said he was going to run and govern on a platform of celebrating economic freedom, dignifying personal responsibility, and limited government.
“Limited government is a good thing, it’s an elegant thing, it’s what makes America America,” Farah said from a lectern. “That’s what gave us the American idea, it’s why there isn’t a Zimbabwe-ian idea.” He said he would fund transportation projects to fix roads without raising taxes by reallocating money in the budget. He said that as a charter school founder he would increase choice in education, which drew a sharp “woo-hoo!” from someone in the crowd.
A line that drew the loudest applause? That was when Farah said, “We certainly have to stop sanctuary cities.”