Illustration by Mike Keefe
The big question here this week at the Littwin gov panel headquarters is when the gloves will finally come off. Time is running short. And nearly all the blows dealt in both campaigns so far have been self-inflicted.
Something has to give.
As close readers of the gov ranking know well, we have before us the most competitive set of primaries for governor in years, and yet races in both parties have been remarkably civil. On the Dem side, in fact, it has been so quiet you could hear a tattoo needle drop. For the Republicans, Cynthia Coffman unloaded on Walker Stapleton in an ill-conceived and ill-received speech at the state assembly — and we know how well that turned out.
So, here we are. The ads are up, money numbers are in, forums/debates are beginning in earnest (by earnest, I mean something like three a week).
We’re just weeks away from the ballots being mailed, and according to our panel and according to basically everyone else, Stapleton is the clear leader on the Republican side and Polis’ money seems to be overwhelming the Democratic field.
So, what to do?
The strategy is pretty obvious. As panelist Cinamon Watson advises the challengers, “Time is running out. Land your punches. You have to change the dynamic.”
We here at the Littwin gov panel, of course, applaud civil behavior in campaigns and abhor all dirty tactics and advocate for an open and honest discussion of the issues (remind me, what are the issues?), but come on. To this point, it seems the Republicans are running against sanctuary cities and Dems are running against Trump. I’m not saying we need anyone to go purely negative, but how about a few, you know, contrast ads.
In explaining the situation, panelist Ian Silverii goes all movie buff on us, bringing the great Stanley Kubrick into the discussion. “When we’re talking about each side starting to go after one another, I picture the opening scene of “2001: A Space Odyssey” where the primate finds bones on the floor, discovers he can bash the heads in of his fellow primates, and then, you know, war.
“It has to happen, it just hasn’t happened in an overt way on the Dem side yet, as far as I can tell. There are whispers and accusations starting in Facebook groups and the like from grassroots folks and staff … but for now, it seems as if the Democratic candidates are behaving themselves and respecting one another. That’s likely to change, though I haven’t seen any elbows thrown, or any skulls bashed in, despite the fact that there are plenty of bones on the floor.”
GOP strategist and panelist Josh Penry has been saying for weeks that Doug Robinson and Victor Mitchell will inevitably start throwing punches, or maybe bones, at Stapleton because it’s the only way they can possibly win. Robinson has landed a couple of jabs. Mitchell seems to believe that he can spend his way into voters’ and their pets’ hearts and minds.
Let’s just say the strategy is not working. “I don’t think Vic’s numbers have moved as much as they should have given what he’s spent,” Penry says. “Not too late for a guy with Victor’s ability and resources. But sure is getting close.”
That, I would say, is the optimistic take. Dem strategist and panelist Alan Salazar wonders what Republicans would use against Stapleton, other than the long-ago DUI: “The question is what represents a shortcoming in a GOP primary. Uh, moderation comes to mind. Maybe whatever Walker has done to look un-Trump or open minded.
“It’s the classic formula that has continued to hurt Republicans in this state. They beat on one another to demonstrate who hates immigrants more, who disbelieves climate science, who loves guns more, who is the most right-wing, which spoils the brand for a fall campaign when normal voters are paying attention.”
Democrats have a similar problem. Cary Kennedy has run a great campaign, and her team seems very confident in what they’ve been doing, which is basically running as a happy warrior but a warrior who is, however, very, very unhappy about a guy named Donald Trump. Someone could go after Kennedy because of her support from the teachers’ unions, but that seems like it will wait until the November campaign, if it gets that far.
Johnston is running as the charisma candidate who also doesn’t like Trump. But can he go after Polis for his deep pockets when Johnston has been raking in all that out-of-state ed-reform money, which opens the question of what do they expect in return for all that money? But if Johnston is in third place, who’s going to waste money punching down? What his Super PAC has been doing is sending out slick mailers putting Johnston firmly in the militant anti-NRA camp. This is before the Santa Fe, Texas gun massacre, which will now become a critical point in the governor’s race. Not incidentally, Republicans, meanwhile, have been lining up in opposition to the proposed red flag laws.
Penry thinks the race will be decided by who has the nerve to go after Polis, knowing that Polis has the resources to hit back a lot harder.
On the day these rankings came out, Johnston took a shot at Polis during a forum in Colorado Springs.
Sparks! Mike Johnston just popped Jared Polis for not supporting an assault weapons ban in Congress years ago. Polis says now he's the only one on the stage with his name on an assault weapons ban. Polis did it now that he's running for governor, Johnston says.
— The Colorado Independent (@COindependent) May 19, 2018
Silverii: “I’m not sure who needs to throw the punches, but if someone who is not Jared Polis wants to win this thing, they need to start drawing some blood pretty soon here. I honestly don’t know what the lines of attack will be, the Republicans seem pretty keen on going after the fact that Jared didn’t wrap a sandwich before putting it in a lunchbox for his kid in an ad.”
Salazar thinks it may not be as clear cut as that.
“If this were a two-person race on the Democratic side the contrast would be drawn by necessity. But because it is, at least for now, a four-person race, and because there is absolutely no reason for Jared to criticize any of his opponents, there is a temptation to stay back and let someone else throw the first punch. The real question is when a shadowy “independent” (ha) expenditure comes out of the darkness and does the dirty work the candidates themselves do not want to own.”
That would be not quite ironic, but as close as you get in politics, where on the Dem side, it could come down to Polis’ money vs. dark money.
But here’s where it gets confusing. Establishment Dems are worried about Polis as a general election candidate, worrying that he might be too easy to caricature as one of those darn Boulder liberals because, well, he is one of those darn Boulder liberals, or, as Polis likes to say, a bold and progressive Democrat. If Kennedy is holding her own, if Johnston is starting to get some momentum, If Lynne stays in the race, all of that helps Polis.
”There’s some chatter in Democratic circles that Jared will win the primary so long as he does not face Cary or Mike Johnston solo,” panelist Salazar says. “In other words, a two-person race is something he wants to avoid like the plague. I would guess there is some soul-searching going on in the other camps right now.”
It’s hard for me to see how Kennedy or Johnston could leave the race at this point. But getting in and getting out (Perlmutter, Brauchler, Joe Salazar, etc.) has been one of the main themes of the race. Why stop now?
Onto the rankings:
1. Walker Stapleton is helping the challengers by doing a job on himself. First there was the fraudulent signature screw-up. He rescued himself at the assembly, but only by selling his soul to Tancredo, and he then does an ad in which he claims to be the only GOP state treasurer in America who backed the Trump tax cut. This was so demonstrably false as to be funny. He didn’t stop there. He also claims to have “stopped” the Amendment 66 tax hike and “defeated” universal health care. He opposed both. He didn’t stop or defeat anything. In rating the claims false, 9News’ Brandon Rittiman says that “this ad is writing checks his record can’t cash.”
2. Doug Robinson. So far in this race, he’s still Mitt’s nephew and so long as he remains Mitt’s nephew, he’s not going anywhere. He has been doing well in the debates, and there will be many debates to come, some of them on TV, most of them available on livestream. Expect him to throw more elbows than bones, but we’ll see.
3. Victor Mitchell. I keep wanting to put him in second place, but his low-impact ads keep talking me out of it.
4. Greg Lopez. Will someone please tell me what I can say about Lopez? I’d love to say something.
1. Jared Polis. So, here’s a question. Does anyone think there’s a fairness issue here in Polis being able to, as Penry says, buy an election? There’s actually a more pressing question: Do Democratic primary voters think there’s a fairness issue here? Or will unaffiliated voters put Polis over the top?
2. Cary Kennedy. I desperately want to see some polls, want to see if she’s staying even or ahead of Polis among Democratic voters. She put a lot of her money into her big ad, which is a good ad, but Polis, and Johnston, have a lot more money to spend on that kind of thing.
3. Mike Johnston. The thinking among the strategists is that he’s starting to gain momentum. Johnston’s stance on guns isn’t much different from that of his rivals, but he made the early, smart decision to lay claim to the issue, which will now move back to front and center.
4. Donna Lynne. You know you’re in trouble when the main question you get is why are you still in the race. So, here we go: Why is she still in the race?
Panelists: Big-shot GOP strategist Josh Penry, principal at EIS; long-time Dem strategist and Hancock chief of staff Alan Salazar; ProgressNow progressive Ian Silverii; GOP strategist, and always good quote, Cinamon Watson, principal at Blueprint Strategies— and, of course, me.